The Still Face Experiment and Attachment Injuries.

As children we are uniquely vulnerable and really need love and connection from our parents, just as much as we need food and shelter. Studies have shown that children who are deprived of this love basically stop growing, and in severe cases they can even die. This has come to be known as “failure to thrive”. Due to numerous different circumstances many of us had the experience of being dropped or abandoned by our parent(s). In emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) we talk about “attachment injuries” – times when you needed your someone close to you and he/she wasn’t there for you or was cold/despondent and just really let you down or hurt you. This kind of experience can be scarring, and can affect the way a person relates with the world.

Childhood attachment injuries can lead a person to develop an anxious attachment style – fearing abandonment, never truly being able to feel safe & comfortable in a relationship, and taking steps to avoid perceived threats of abandonment. They can also lead a person to develop an avoidant attachment style – going through daily life holding the belief that he/she can’t count on others. This results in the person closing off from others and avoiding being vulnerable/relying on people.

The following is probably the single video I most often refer my clients to. It depicts a moment of detachment between a mother and baby. Pay attention to how you feel while watching it. For some people it can be a powerful experience.

Typically people repetitively exposed to situations similar to the one in this video develop an anxious attachment style and act a little bit like the baby, almost to say “hey! where are you! I need you! what’s going on!?” If a person experienced something similar to what this baby experienced, but there was never any reconnection, then the person would be more likely to develop an avoidant attachment style. If the woman in the video were to continue avoiding responding to the child, the child would likely eventually just give up. This is the avoidant person – “I can’t trust the ones I love to meet my needs and/or they might actually hurt me, so I’m better off not relying on them.” In that place the person closes off to others and avoids vulnerability.

The video deals with the case of a baby but these kinds of situations can be found in adult relationships too. In EFT we look at the negative cycles couples get stuck in. Turns out most couples fit into what we call a pursuer/distancer relationship. The pursuer is the anxious person in the relationship, who gets triggered and fears their partner won’t be there for them, while the distancer is the avoidant one who skirts away from being open and vulnerable because of that ingrained core belief that they aren’t safe, can’t trust to be vulnerable, and are better off guarded and distant. In these relationships the pursuer looks a lot like the baby in this video, reacting to a rupture in the relationship with anxiety and desperate attempts to regain connection. Sometimes this might even look like screaming, blaming, and yelling. Anything to shake the other person out of their detachment and re establish connection. The challenge and the goal in EFT couples work is to help couples recognize their cycle, catch it when it happens, turn towards each other, and openly communicate their emotions in times like these. The pursuer might be yelling at him because she’s feeling insecure and worrying he doesn’t love her in some way, while the distancer might be withdrawing because he is afraid of disappointing her. If we can recognize our cycles we can see what is actually going on in these situations. If we can do that, then we can talk about our emotions without harboring as much resentment and fear.

Sometimes as a therapist you refer people to watch a video or read a book. If it really speaks to them then you know you have something to work on and the subject is important. When I show this video to people who have experienced abandonment or attachment injuries as a child or in an adult relationship they often tear up or cry, while those who haven’t just see it as interesting and maybe a little bit sad. If this video speaks to you we have some things to talk about.

For more on this, check out this video with Sue Johnson, the founder of EFT talking with Edward Tronick, the man who developed the still face experiment:

For more on attachment check out my other blog posts on the subject here:

Joe Borders, MFT
Counseling and Therapy in Roseville and Sacramento
(530) 448-6602

1722 Professional Drive,
Sacramento, CA 95825
775 Sunrise Ave., suite 110
Roseville, Ca 95661
More about counseling and therapy with me

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