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Changing attachment: cognitive wrestling, Johari’s window and a tale of two cups

Quality Assurance consultant, Terence Simmons considers attachment in the context of parenting assessments and especially what needs to be taken into account when making a recommendation for therapy.

The vast majority of the parenting assessment reports I read as a Quality Assurance consultant contain a recommendation for therapy for parents of three to six month’s duration on the basis that this might be sufficient to change what has, in some cases, been a history of dysfunctional behaviour in the context of trans-generational abuse and insecure attachments.

Notwithstanding the power of approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I’m left wondering about what happens after the three to six months and whether the power of the past can truly be changed by such a short intervention or whether, when the parent is left to their own devices (and the homeostatic forces around them) they will be prey to the old counselling adages that fast change is not to be trusted and at times of stress people revert to the familiar.

When making a treatment recommendation it has to be remembered that the attachment system develops in infancy through long-forgotten, repeated experience and which now directs attention and responses through largely unconscious processes.

Therefore, something that is a lifetime in the making may need a bit more than 26 weeks’ of intervention, often reluctantly embarked upon to satisfy the court rather than to achieve the goal of changing fundamental beliefs. Therefore, the practitioner needs to ask themselves where the drive for effective personal growth might come from.

My answer is that the impetus for change is mostly a function of insight and the maintenance of change largely a function of vigilance.  That is, after realising the need for change and deciding on a direction for change, having the will and ability to monitor one’s behaviour and be vigilant for signs of slipping back to the familiar. The task in a parenting assessment is to determine whether the parent being assessed has that capacity and can engage meaningfully in the process of change.

To put the situation into context, imagine a couple such as I might see in counselling or be the subject of assessment. One partner is in the secure range of attachment and the other in the dismissive range. Their story begins early one morning when the ‘fixed-points’ of behaviour that confer a sense of reliability in a romantic attachment relationship are starting to be established.

In this case, the fixed point is the making of early morning tea; a ritual often carried out in turns between partners and which often occurs around a set time (especially in the years of work and child-rearing) and is a relationship-affirming daily experience. A simple act of care-giving and getting the day under way.

However, one thing life teaches us is that the same event can be both simple and complicated at the same time. In this case, the simple ritual eventually becomes a complex, unspoken tension between attachment styles represented, on one side, by the secure partner’s lifelong preoccupation with colour-balance and ambience and the dismissive partner’s attachment style that focusses more on utility, form and function than aesthetics. This attachment difference found its expression in the meaning of two cups.

The cognitive wrestling begins with the securely attached partner (who has greater access to their feeling state and what they need to do to maintain that state at an equable balance) being faced every morning with a cup that, though delivered with love and coloured an otherwise fine shade of blue, is not in keeping with the overall décor. Living with it for a while is unproblematic; the tea is very good and the affection welcome. However, the experience is slightly tainted by the colour clash and the situation needs to be addressed. For them, raising such an issue is not difficult as it is part of their learned experience that exposing a vulnerability is a healthy part of relationships and more akin to gently asking a favour than making a demand.  Further, it is asked in the spirit of wanting to resolve a cognitive dissonance caused by the colour clash.

However, for the insecurely attached person, whose lived early-experience was to justify, obfuscate and survive this request has other connotations more closely related to being perceived as lacking in empathy in particular, being found out generally and fearing the imminent end of the relationship because of a lack of sensitivity. For this partner, it is not so much cognitive wrestling at this stage as a rush to justification related to what difference does it make what colour the cup is; it’s only a cup and all you do is drink tea out of it and if the colour is all wrong then why buy cups in that colour in the first place?  While we’re about it, why not segregate the cups into morning, afternoon, breakfast, lunch, front room and garden and so on. For this person it’s fly, fight or freeze and certainly to make sure that any vulnerability is well-defended and painful affect avoided.

As a Relate counsellor I have witnessed similar struggles over an endless list of symbols including jam, paperclips and the television remote and for resolution to occur it requires each to wrestle with their cognitions about what the cups mean to them and what they may mean to the other.

For the securely attached partner this again is a relatively simple task; they are less afraid of emotional talk, more aware of their feelings and more likely to explore and hypothesise about the feeling states of others. Also, they have more access to a cycle of learning that builds on past experience by being able to see how present experience means old beliefs and behaviours have to be modified in the light of that new experience. Of course, they have their difficulties and blind spots, but they are more likely to be aware that something is wrong and more likely to openly acknowledge the existence of a problem. The insecurely attached partner searches for, and attends to, evidence that they are right to feel as they do.

So, what might happen next?

In our case, the secure partner can abandon their quest for the right balance of cup to surroundings and try to understand that, for their partner, continuing to give the wrong cup is a metaphor for not being wrong. However, this may be the first of what will be a long line of compromises and abandoning their own wants and needs to avoid fracturing their partner’s fragile attachment strategies.

The insecure partner can obstinately continue their wrong-cup strategy by pursuing what family therapists call ‘more of the same’ and hope they wear away their partner’s frankly idiotic insistence on décor-resembling cups in favour of the more rational and logical acceptance that a cup is a cup is a cup. However, they may also experience that growing feeling that things are not quite right and may never be again unless they can take their courage in both hands and try to address their situation.

To do that, it is helpful to have a model of change and I will use Johari’s window[1], conceptualised here as a portal to a series of rooms through which the individual must travel to achieve effective change.

The first room is the most difficult to access because it relates to unconscious incompetence; that is not knowing something is wrong, not knowing how what is wrong affects behaviour, not recognising the effect of one’s behaviour on others and living constantly on the edge of vague fears that can be sparked by seemingly innocuous situations such as being told that the cup they chose is not the right one. In this room the problem is wholly to do with other’s reaction to the cup and if the parent you are assessing can’t see beyond the cup, therapy will be ineffective.

However, if your parent can entertain the idea that the problem might not be the cup then they have one foot in room two and have achieved conscious incompetence by recognising there is a larger problem. They don’t yet have the knowledge or tools to do anything about their situation and it should not be underestimated what a scary place this room is because if it’s not about the cup, then what is it about? Room two is a place requiring a commitment to abandoning automatic responses in favour of exploration, risk-taking, acknowledging the fear of change and the determination to wrestle with the cognitions that occur between stimulus and response.

Room three is the province of conscious competence and the ability to say over and again, the colour of the cup is important to someone else and being prepared to wonder why denying that significance is so pervasive and finding out what would happen if a cup was provided that was more in keeping with the ambience of the room.  The basic issue is still unresolved and, accordingly, the old voice in the head will still keep insisting you don’t need to change because it’s only a cup and that weakening must eventually and inevitably lead to everything going horribly wrong. Continually challenging that voice with the assertion that there is nothing to be afraid of because, after all, it is only a cup, is a tiring experience.

However, one morning the tea is made in the ‘right’ colour cup without thought and, looking back from this place of unconscious competence, it is difficult to see what the problem was; the cup has become just a cup unconnected to old, learned ways of behaving and has become associated with a more positive experience.

The message of this article is that a recommendation for therapy should only ever be based on an appraisal that a parent has the will, insight and dogged determination to be vigilant with themselves and be brave enough to share feelings and test new behaviours.

There is another hurdle though. The couple have sorted out the cups and that’s fine; the mornings are now totally harmonious and they’ve long since forgotten it was ever an issue but meaning and metaphor is everywhere. Therefore, in order for the therapy you recommend to be optimally effective there needs to be someone in the system who can help the parent generalise the learning from cup to wider world. That is someone, such as the secure partner in my case example, who is available to help the insecure parent address the question, ‘How does this cup thing manifest itself in other areas of my life?’

You need to be sure that in the families you assess such a supportive environment exists.

[1] A combination of the first names of the psychologists who derived it, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham.

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