Dalila Jusic-LaBerge, LMFT



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February Membership Meeting Write-Up — Madeline Taylor, LMFT

Women With Anxious-Attachment Style in Romantic Relationships

Presented by Dalila Jusic-LaBerge, LMFT

Therapists and clients have much in common. Before we became capable adults all of us were once helpless infants, shaped by the families and circumstances into which we were born. Whatever our unique temperament, attachment theory demonstrates that the relational patterns which develop between a specific infant and her earliest caregivers indelibly shape her ongoing experience of self-with-other over a lifetime. This is not to say that newer, more satisfying patterns of interaction can’t develop later in life, only that that is difficult to accomplish. Psychotherapist Dalila Jusic-LaBerge asks the question, can we help women in the grip of relational insecurity? She says we can, and here’s where psychotherapy from an attachment perspective comes in.

In February, Ms. Jusic-LaBerge offered us a valuable workshop in understanding anxious attachment patterns, how they develop in infant relationships, and how they are affecting some women in romantic relationships now, as adults. Many of us are such women, and many of us, both male and female therapists, see women in our practices who suffer from historical insecurity which is being revived in a present-day romantic relationship. Men suffer from historical insecurity and from relational anxiety as well, but this presentation was specifically geared to discussing anxious attachment in women. In adult men, this kind of relationship insecurity can manifest very differently.

A brief review: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, through extensive clinical research and observation in the 1950s and ’60s concluded that mother-infant pairs exhibited varying degrees of what they called, “attachment security.” If a toddler could endure a brief separation from mother then be comforted by mother’s ministrations when she returned, the relationship was designated, “secure.” If the child became anxious when mother left the room but could not be comforted by mother upon her return, the relationship was labeled anxious-ambivalent; the baby wanted comfort but couldn’t be comforted by this mother’s attempts. If the child acted like he didn’t care that mother had left the room, and acted as if he had no need for comfort upon mother’s return, the relationship was labeled, “anxious-avoidant.” This child had come to believe that with this particular caregiver, it was emotionally safest to go it alone. Both ambivalent and avoidant behaviors were thought to occur in toddlers who were insecure and anxious in their relationship with the main caregiver.

Dalila’s presentation was on women who would have appeared “anxiously-ambivalent” in relation to their earliest caregiver. This can be deduced because Mary Main’s research in the 1980s on adult attachment patterns demonstrated that early attachment categories tended to be repeated throughout life. If we felt anxious then, we are prone to feeling anxious now.

In an adult, anxious-ambivalent attachment manifests as: 1) Pre-occupation with how the relationship is going; 2) Hyper-vigilance for evidence that the partner is discontent; 3) Assumptions that they, themselves, are at fault; and 4) Efforts to move closer to the partner to ward off the dread of rejection or abandonment.

Men who, as young children, adopted a pattern of protectively avoiding reliance on the attachment figure, are often attracted to anxiously-ambivalent partners later in life. Avoidant partners are also anxious, but they are attracted to partners whose insecurity is more overt and who will work harder to maintain the connection. Avoidant partners are often warding off a feeling of engulfment so they appear less concerned with emotional distance than the partner who more openly fears abandonment. To make matters worse, anxious women are often attracted to avoidant men, because they are unconsciously familiar with these relational patterns. She’s used to having to work hard to get what she needs from someone, and he’s used to having to avoid someone whose attention feels intrusive or mis-attuned to his needs.

Dalila went on to explain that when not in a primary relationship, many anxiously attached women manage their work and their personal lives with competence and confidence. However, after a month or two in a romantic relationship, old anxieties can arise as the longings for a sense of security with a partner begin to re-emerge. This is a crucial point in the life of the relationship. How much of her anxiety is based on an accurate perception that this partner isn’t sufficiently capable of responding to her “normal” needs, and how much of her anxiety is the revival of an old dread? It’s usually a bit of both.

Often what happens with anxious women is what Dalila calls the Anxious/Avoidant Trap. The woman senses that her partner is distant; her attachment anxiety is activated and she express this by becoming angry; he withdraws further; she threatens to leave; he does something reparative; she feels better and closer to him; he begins to feel engulfed, anxious about losing his sense of individuated selfhood; he begins to withdraw, and the pattern repeats itself.

This is when many women enter therapy. They’re in a painful conflict between longing for the relationship to “work,” while feeling on an emotional roller-coaster. They don’t know what to believe and they don’t know what to do. They’re gripped by strong longings for someone they experience as failing to meet their security needs and they’re intensely ambivalent; it’s painful to stay and it’s even more painful to leave.

Through our understanding that early attachment patterns are bound to get re-activated in an adult’s close relationships, we can reassure our patients that their reactions to disappointment in their present relationship are normal, not a sign of pathology nor of “being too needy.” Longing for a sense of security in an intimate relationship, while completely normative in our society, can evoke the corollary dread of abandonment. Normalizing her feelings can help restore her sense of being OK. It can mitigate against the shame of having needs that are going un-met, and it can help regulate emotional ups and downs.

Dalila recommends that we keep several things in mind: Helping to restore the patient’s ability to “go on with normal life” while in a relationship; exploring ideas about self-compassion and self-acceptance; and working together to differentiate between the traumatized-child she was, and the disappointed-adult that she is now. She recommends some psycho-education, such as showing the patient a video of the “still-face” experiment, and how emotionally disregulated an infant becomes when mother’s usual attuned responsiveness is suddenly absent. For some patients, this might help them feel, in a visceral way, the “logic” of their emotional reaction to a mis-attuned significant other.

Another focus of attention for the therapist that Dalila suggests is encouraging the use of mindful attention to the patient’s bodily sensations, affect states, and conflicted feelings. One of the things that’s empowering in psychotherapy is being encouraged to attend to oneself, to notice and care about what one is experiencing, especially when in emotional distress. When we attend to the patient this way, we’re doing something that’s missing in her present relationship and probably was insufficient in her earliest attachment relationships with caregivers. We’re supplying her with something she needs in relation to another human being . . . compassionate care, and over time, this can also become a silent, internal model of a more empathic attitude towards herself.

Next, we can help women express their feelings and needs in a way which might satisfy them, and optimize the chance that their partner will “hear” them. All of this is ultimately empowering to our patient in all of her relationships, whether she decides to stay in the present one or not. Dalila reminds us that we therapists are not responsible for “fixing” the relationship any more than the patient herself is responsible, alone, for the quality of the felt attachment between herself and her partner.

Dalila’s presentation was warm and illuminating. She offered us a guided meditation at the end of her talk which illustrated the concept of helping a patient ground herself in a pleasant and meaningful memory from childhood. The meditation is intended to relax the patient then guide her to remember a relationship in which she felt valued, loved, or seen. It could be with a family member, childhood friend, or even a pet. We were guided to ask ourselves what this person’s (or pet’s) love meant to us about our own worth and value. We are encouraged to sense how our bodies are feeling and to take note of how we feel, emotionally, when immersed in this memory. The hope is to activate in the patient a memory which can be utilized as an antidote to relationship anxiety when it occurs. It was a pleasant exercise which left me, and I presume others, feeling cared about and better about ourselves. Who couldn’t use a little more of that?


Madeline Taylor, PhD, LMFT, has been in practice for 40 years. She is associated with the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and has taught attachment theory, self-psychology, and intersubjectivity theory for 30 years. She has offices in Santa Monica and Calabasas, seeing adolescents, adults, and couples. “Nothing is as powerful as human understanding.” (George Atwood)

San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists