Why You Do What You Do...

Let's talk a little bit about relationships. Have you ever gotten into an argument with your partner or even your teen and then afterward thought to yourself, "that escalated so fast"? Or maybe you and your partner or you and your teen get caught up in the cycle of yelling and pulling away from each other. That would be the work of your working models and your attachment behavioral system.

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Through interactions with parents, close friends and intimate partners, our brain stores patterns of interaction. These mental representations are used by our brain to automatically help keep us safe. These sets of expectations are called working models.

There are two aspects of these working models.  First, these mental representations help predict the outcomes of interactions. For example, if your father came home from work angry, you probably learned that was not the best time to ask for something.

Second, "working model" implies that the set of exceptions are changeable. So if your father came home from work angry, but then saw your face which communicated you needed help and he softened, your working model would change to "I can rely on Dad".

There are two types of working models.  First, a working model of other is a mental representation of your attachment figure's response. Will your parent, close friend or intimate partner quickly change the subject when you begin to talk about your emotions? Or will he or she show up and provide comfort?

Second, a working model of self is a mental representation of one's own worth and value. Going with the example of the angry father, you may feel and believe you are not good enough or lovable when your father comes home angry.

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I am constantly amazed by the processes that the brain has developed over time to keep us alive and safe. Behavioral systems are one of those processes that have transformed over time. Let's talk more about the attachment behavioral system.

First, there is a biological aspect to the attachment behavioral system......to keep us alive! This is wired in even before birth. No one teaches an infant to cry when hungry. You rocking what I'm rolling?

Second, the attachment behavioral system is activated when a threat to survival is perceived in the environment. These threats can include separation from attachment figures (i.e. parent, partner, friend, etc), lack of access to the attachment figure, in addition to other perceived threats.

Third, the primary strategy of obtaining safety in the attachment behavioral system is proximity seeking. When a person needs protection, the brain is wired to want to be close to our loved ones and others who can protect us.

Fourth, the goal of the system is to establish a sense of protection or security. This is also called a "felt security". When protection is obtained, the system turns off.

Fifth, the attachment contains a cognitive layer. Based upon past experiences, the brain has created a prediction process of how any particular interaction will occur. These are organized into working models (there they are again!).  

Lastly, the attachment behavioral system impacts with other behavioral systems. Only when a sense of felt security has been established can we utilize other behavioral systems. When we feels safe, then we can engage in exploration and other activities.

So, , there you have it! This is all automatic. We do not make the choice to respond in these ways.  You might be wondering, am I stuck with these reactions.  No, the key is to be aware of the strategies we use to keep proximity with our loved one. When we learn and understand ourselves, we can improve the interaction in our relationships.

Hope you found this helpful!  See you next time!

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Jessica Schroeder is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and Registered Play Therapist in private practice in historic downtown Leavenworth, Kansas.  Jessica specializes in Couples Therapy and Trauma with adults and children.