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Fundamentals for Couples: What Is My Relationship Attachment Style?

June 24, 2022

Are you familiar with attachment styles? This psychological concept describes how people relate in their closest relationships. Sometimes folks of certain attachment styles are drawn to each other – which can make for an easier or more challenging time.

Understanding your attachment style and your partner’s attachment style can help break negative cycles in your relationship. And, in time, it can help you move toward a more compassionate connection in which you both can flourish.

Attachment Theory and Your Relationship

What does “attachment” mean? This is usually based on how you formed your earliest bonds in life – usually with your parents or other significant caregivers. Attachment refers to how you react when a person who is important to you is present – and when they’re absent.

The theory emerged from a study conducted with toddlers and their parents. Researchers noticed that, from a young age, children showed different reactions when their mother left the room.

Some cried for a bit, eventually calmed down, then got excited when their mother showed up again. Some cried and remained upset, even after she returned. Others seemed indifferent to their mother’s presence and absence. And some exhibited a confused mixture of reactions.

These observations formed the basic attachment styles. We’ll go through them below, although most people don’t fit neatly into just one.

Secure

In this attachment style, said to be exhibited by about 50% of the population, people are able to easily form bonds with others. They miss loved ones when apart but don’t feel extreme anxiety or fear about the relationship.

The next three attachment styles are typically categorized as “insecure.”

Anxious

People with an anxious attachment style worry when their partner is away – but they also find it difficult to be present and receive love when they’re around. This style parallels the inconsolable child in the study.

Avoidant

Those with an avoidant attachment style may have trouble feeling their emotions and even, sometimes, their bodies. They learned to disavow their needs, because they learned that they couldn’t depend on loved ones.

I once heard another therapist describe avoidant attachment style as “covert anxious.” They crave connection just as much as their anxious counterparts, but they don’t make it known and, thus, find themselves reliving their original disappointment.

In fact, anxious and avoidant partners are often attracted to each other, since they confirm each other’s negative biases about relationships. The anxious partner doesn’t get affirmation from the avoidant partner, and the avoidant partner sees their pulling away as the abandonment and rejection they expected. This is commonly known as the anxious-avoidant “negative cycle.”

Disorganized

Very chaotic and/or abusive upbringings often breed a disorganized attachment style, although any sort of inconsistent parenting mixed with a particular child’s temperament could result in it.

A disorganized attachment style is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of confusing reactions. People with this style both want and fear connection. Partners will get numerous mixed messages, ranging from angry pushing away to desperate clinging. This style especially needs professional help to reach security.

Which brings up the question: can you develop a secure attachment if you’re not already there?

Help! Can I Change My Attachment Style?

The short answer: yes. You can move from an insecure attachment style to a more secure attachment style.

The longer answer: this is generally quite difficult to do alone. Since the original wounds happened in a relationship, they must heal in a relationship, too. Many people with insecure attachment will struggle on their own for years, as being overly self-reliant is a common defense.

However, for most people, once they decide to seek help, they can experience change by working with a trusted therapist. It takes patience and persistence to gradually open your heart again – but the reward of healthy, fulfilling connections is worth it.

At Delaware Relationship Center, you can get the help you need to overcome insecure attachment.

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How to Bring the Therapy Safe Space Into Your Normal Life

March 4, 2022

One of the most helpful and sacred things about going to your counselor’s office is the therapy safe space they have created. Ideally, it is a warm and inviting place where you feel comfortable and free to open up.

Teletherapy takes you out of that space, and that’s one of the reasons that some people are a bit nervous about it. But in actuality, it gives you a unique opportunity to integrate the practice of therapy into your everyday life.

If you have been doing online therapy for a while, you may have already adjusted your physical surroundings to create a therapy safe space at home: rearranging your room, making a comfortable place to sit for sessions – perhaps even using special lighting, colors, aromatherapy, or music.

Are there other effective ways to bring the therapy safe space in to your life? And what does this safe emotional territory entail?

What Is a Therapy “Safe Space”?

Generally speaking, this is a designated place/time in which you feel able to freely express yourself. Safe spaces lack judgment, “fixing,” or wanton interruption. A skilled therapist strives to create a space in which you feel:

  • Acceptance
  • Privacy
  • Understanding
  • Listening
  • Unconditional positive regard

These can sound pretty abstract, but there are concrete things you can do. Let’s take a look at how to cultivate each one.

Acceptance

You can’t force every person in your life to accept you for who you are. But you can work on self-acceptance. When you think about it, that’s where many problems originate, isn’t it?

Some folks use personal affirmations. If you often find yourself thinking “I can’t do anything right,” try gently introducing a different train of thought. “But what if I can do some things right?” Or even, “Maybe I’m great at some stuff!”

Additionally, you can choose friends who tend to view you with non-judgment. If you constantly feel like you’re striving for a friend’s approval, ask yourself: Can I tone down this need from within? Or are they encouraging it? If so, do I need to put a little more distance between us? 

Privacy

Therapy offers a unique space of personal confidentiality, mirrored in few other areas of our life. But the safety of a kept secret can help you examine your own attitudes toward privacy. Because people have diverse takes on privacy!

For example, you might feel on edge about disclosing relationship news to your mother — because you know she’ll blab it to the rest of the family before you’re ready! Ask your therapist to help you formulate a tactful request. If you hold firm, you may find that the secret-spillers in your life start to contain themselves a bit more – freeing you to open up and build a little confidence between you.

Understanding & Listening

I’ll group these together, because they really go hand in hand. You can foster more understanding within yourself and with loved ones by becoming a skilled listener. 

The next time someone in your life talks about how their day went, pause before offering your opinion or alternate story. Instead, imagine how they must feel. And voice that.

“Wow, a three-hour commute sounds hard. You must feel exhausted…”

Give them a platform to tell their narrative from their perspective. You’ll notice that folks often soften when met with understanding rather than resistance. Once they feel heard, they might be restored enough to turn around and ask, “How are you?”

Unconditional Positive Regard

This is the real gold of therapy. And it can feel quite rare in “real life.” Therapists are in a unique position to step away after each session – they don’t have to deal with your unwashed dishes or slow errand-running like friends or family might!

That also shows you the key. Stepping back may be just what you need to reframe the people in your life (and their quirks). It will also help you be less frustrated and more loving toward yourself.

A friend once told me to view the world through “200-year-old glasses.” What will matter to you after such a long time? And what can you let go – and embrace more?

Talk to Your Counselor for More Tips

Of course, if you already attend teletherapy sessions, your counselor is a great resource, too. The Delaware Relationship Center is ready to help you learn more ways to build safe space into your life.

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How to Navigate Family Holiday Traditions with a New Partner

December 16, 2021

Your first holiday season together! A time to reflect on the past year, eat delicious food, surprise loved ones with gifts… And spend four hours driving back and forth across town?

Logistics are the least fun part of the holidays, and yours just snowballed (pun intended) with the combination of two – or more – family celebrations. The first year especially is a testing ground for how this “new way” looks. The subjects: you, your spouse, and your family. The end goal? Happiness. Hopefully.

Like in a laboratory, not all tests will work. You’ll have to try one plan this year and likely make changes the next. Despite that, you can still approach your first holiday season together with a little wisdom gleaned from couples and marriage counselors who have been here before. 

Accept Change

For the last 20 years, you’ve gone to your aunt’s house during Hanukkah and eaten her homemade latkes. But this year, your partner’s sister just had a baby, and that week is the first opportunity you’ll get to meet the little niblet. You might have to miss the latkes this year. Or have your brother take some to-go for you.

Can you accept it? Can you go with the flow? Once you’re open to the idea, it’s time to hone your priorities.

Figure Out Your Priorities

Not all holidays are created equal to different families. Which can actually be a real saving grace.

Make some time to sit down and talk this out with your partner. You might discover that your wife’s family pulls out all the stops at Thanksgiving in exchange for a chill Christmas – whereas your family doesn’t care as much about Thanksgiving, but your mom would cry if you didn’t help her make eggnog on Christmas Eve.

Once you’ve come up with a game plan together, it’s time to let everyone else know.

Be Honest With Your Families About What You Need

You may want to start the “holiday sharing” conversation months ahead of time in order to minimize stress. If there’s going to be family drama, holiday pressures will only make it worse.

For relatives who love last-minute plans, you might need to “train” them. Remind them that now you’re splitting holidays with your partner’s family. 

If they spring a spontaneous invitation, don’t bend over backwards to accommodate. “We already planned to spend New Year’s with Mara’s family. We’ll miss you! We love you!”

Speaking of bending over backwards – some newly married folks will spend 80% of their first Thanksgiving or Christmas on the road, trying to see all the families in one day. 

Perhaps if you only want a short amount of time with certain parts of the family, it’s a winning strategy. However, if driving across town several times in a day leaves you feeling ragged, you don’t have to do it.

Instead, you can lead with requests that will make your life easier. Are families willing to carry out the same traditions on different dates? If it makes no difference, and both your folks get to see you, you just struck a win-win situation! Don’t be shy. It’s worth checking.

Create New Traditions

Save some time and energy for what you want to do, too. Forming new traditions is part of the beauty, privilege, and fun of a new marriage or long-term partnership.

Talk to your partner about what’s meaningful to each of you. Cooking together? An ornament to commemorate a big moment of each family member’s year? You can use the holidays each year to remind yourselves.

This becomes even more relevant if you have children. What do you want your new family’s Christmas morning tradition to be? Employ and enjoy your clean slate!

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How to Weather Big Life Transitions With Your Partner

November 30, 2021

Major life transitions are like a powerful gust of wind. They can throw off even the strongest of relationships. 

While you might retreat from friends during messy or chaotic times, a partner often witnesses it all. And, especially if you live together, you can’t totally stop making requests for time, attention, and energy. After all, somebody has to take out the garbage on Thursday nights.

Fortunately, you just gained a valuable tool to weather life transitions with your spouse or long-term partner: awareness.

What Do “Life Transitions” Look Like?

Couples hit the stickiest rut when they work backwards from the midst of a transition. In other words, you find yourself snapping at each other. You’re grumpy. Low energy. Perhaps even wondering if your relationship has run its course.

And suddenly you realize. “Ohhh! This is because we just….”

  • Changed jobs
  • Watched the last kid move out
  • Retired
  • Lost a loved one
  • Moved to a new city
  • Started house renovations
  • Had a significant income adjustment
  • Embraced a gender/orientation change
  • And so on.

You can see how specific these can become. As many transitions exist as there are walks of life.

Without awareness that you’re undergoing one, you might get stuck in a feedback loop of stressed reactivity, pulling away from more and more prickly versions of each other. 

Instead, if you’re proactive, you can give each other extra space and tenderness to soften the ride. And you’ll be more capable of using the kind relationship tactics below.

Ready to hear them? Let’s go!

Make Time to Communicate

You may assume you’re already communicating. After all, you talk to your partner every day. But asking if they remembered to tell the contractor about the slate tile doesn’t count. 

Take a stand for the health of your relationship by taking time to sit down and check in with each other. Try your best to keep these uninterrupted, even if they only last for 15-30 minutes.

During the check-in, approach your partner with curiosity. Our brain likes to get into grooves for efficiency’s sake -- especially in tense times. Instead, make an effort to see your partner for who they are in this moment.

Use the powerful communication tool of open-ended questions/statements:

  • What emotions are coming up for you since this change started?
  • Tell me about what feels challenging right now.
  • What would make things easier for you?
  • What do you need from me the most?

If you can manage it, add something to sweeten the deal. Split a piece of pie. Share a glass of wine. Cuddle up under a family quilt. A little warm fuzziness goes a long way to repair relationship strain.

Practice Grace

Speaking of ruts, a grudge is one of the deepest out there. You and your partner might make some missteps while you figure out a new way of living.

For small ones -- a sharp tone, jumping to conclusions -- make a habit of apologizing quickly. And forgive even faster to oil the wheels to peace. Nobody’s perfect. 

For larger mistakes, give each other compassionate space to cool off. Tell your partner that you will talk it out at a set time, and follow through on that discussion for each other’s sake. This will help you both feel secure, because you remain on the same team even during confrontation.

Look for Opportunities to Love More Throughout Life Transitions

Beyond damage control, cultivate extra signs of affection that help you and your partner feel close. Small gestures work especially well in this context. 

Anticipate needs. For example, wake up 10 minutes early to have coffee ready for your partner. Replace their pair of everyday shoes that have worn down. Bring a snack in the car when you pick them up from the airport.

Express words of love. Maybe you can’t solve your partner’s discomfort in their new career field. But you can tell them how great that shirt looks on their way out.

Connect through simple fun. Start a game of online Scrabble that you two can play throughout the day. Ping each other with silly animal videos. Play hide ‘n’ seek at the garden center.

Together, with caring and appreciation, you can get through these times together.

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The Surprising Benefits of Teletherapy

June 1, 2021

Would you have tried teletherapy before 2020? The answer, for most, would probably be “No.”

2020 forced us to adapt and give it a try, though. 

What did we gain from this year-plus-long experiment? A bunch of data showing that teletherapy actually works!

We’ve even discovered that teletherapy offers certain advantages that in-person meetings can’t. If you’re still on the fence, read on to discover the unexpected but welcome benefits of teletherapy.

Therapy in Action

Normally, in-person sessions happen in the “bubble” of the psychologist’s office. 

You sit in a clean, uncluttered room on a rattan sofa, surrounded by peaceful music and perhaps a little bubbling fountain. In that almost-heavenly space, you try to describe your chaotic life in words.

Teletherapy happens in the environment where you likely encounter the chaos. And while that might sound difficult or annoying — it certainly can be — it’s also an amazing opportunity to confront these challenges head-on.

Good-bye, Commute

Do you sometimes dilly-dally before a session and arrive late? Have you ever taken on extra work at the end of the day, knowing it means you’ll have to skip an appointment?

Sometimes we make honest miscalculations and miss therapy because of them. But other times… we run these interferences as a defense mechanism. 

Maybe the truth is that you were tired that week, and you didn’t really want to expend emotional energy in session. That’s understandable. Any forthright counselor will tell you that therapy is hard work — but it also comes with great rewards. 

For teletherapy, all that you need is a private enough space, a computer/tablet/phone, and wifi. It eliminates the commute, helping to alleviate both physical and mood obstacles.

Unexpected traffic won’t stop you from attending. And if an emotional block tries to convince you, well, you just lost an excuse. Instead of sitting in a car or public transit, you could take some extra self-care time to restore your energy.

Freedom from Childcare

This benefit goes out to harried parents and caregivers. You might really need therapy, especially since relationships often shift dramatically after children are born. But it can be difficult to secure childcare for an hour or two on weekday afternoons or evenings.

There’s no need to hire a sitter for teletherapy sessions. You can find ways to occupy children for an hour while still giving yourself the privacy you need for a session. 

And even if they do interrupt the session, it’s another one of those golden, real-life practice opportunities. A resourceful therapist will embrace the distraction as a learning experience. 


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A Note on the Lack of Commute

It’s totally normal to feel a little spacey, quiet, or tired right after therapy. Your brain is likely undergoing “passive processing,” digesting all the stirred-up emotions, thoughts, and wisdom from the conversation.

Commutes used to be the perfect time to let this process happen. Without that buffer, we recommend you build in purposeful pre-appointment and post-appointment downtime.

Schedule 20-30 minutes to go for a walk, make a meal, or just sit. It will optimize gains from your session, and it will help you avoid possible negative consequences from neglecting this need. If you have children around, it’s the perfect nap time or a chance to sit and cuddle with them.

Without a pre-session commute to mentally prepare, it’s okay to take 5-10 minutes at home to do that. Do things that help you feel centered. That could mean writing down a few goals for that session, stretching your body, or simply doing nothing. 

Some clients benefit from breathing exercises, too. Set a timer for a few minutes, then bring a gentle focus to the physical sensation of your inhale and exhale. 

If you need to calm down from a hectic day, count four seconds for your inhale and six seconds for your exhale. Try to keep extending the length. Just don’t get light-headed! 

Keep the exercise mellow, so you’ll be energized for the work ahead.

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Walt Ciecko, Ph. D., BCB
605 Wynyard Rd
Wilmington, DE 19803
302-429-0195