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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

IFS and attachment theory in action: which part of you is choosing your partners?

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy can be like a whodunnit where the client is both the mystery, and the detective. It’s like you’re constantly discovering new parts and yelling, “It’s you!”

As outlined my previous post, one of the most helpful clues that you will find in the IFS journey is attachment theory. In short, attachment theory demonstrates how we were taught to be in a love relationship as infants or children affects our most intimate relationships we have as adults. Equally as important from an IFS perspective, these attachment patterns heavily influence our internal systems, and how we relate to parts of ourselves. And in taking the internal journey of IFS, it becomes very clear that your childhood environment – and what you had to do to survive it - affects you in your relationships right now. The way in which our caregivers showed up and implicitly demonstrated what love was affects how we are in our relationships now. In this one way, the past and the present are not separate, but continue to fold in and overlap onto each other inside us, playing out in how we relate externally to others.

To recap, attachment at its foundation is an evolutionary system that motivates a child to seek proximity to parents and establish a loving connection with them. When we think of essential needs a child must have met to survive, we will often go to obvious things like food, water, and shelter. But in understanding the primacy of attachment, we can go a little further and think, “But how does a child get consistent access to food, water, and shelter?” because they literally can’t get it on their own. And, they can’t get it on their own for so many more years than other animal species. So, take a moment and really consider right now, when were you able to fully access food, water, and shelter? Or, if you have children, when were they able to truly do that for themselves without any assistance from you?

Taking in account that it will be many years before a child is able to meet these basic needs on their own, these years also overlap with the brain being wired for what to expect in the world - what type of person you will gravitate towards, and who you will steer clear of. In the early years of life, connections between brain cells are being made at an incredible rate – at least one million​ new neural connections (synapses) every second. So children are completely dependent on their caregivers in the years that the brain is doing the majority of its wiring. This goes some way to explaining why humans are so impacted by their environment, because the environment and the way you were loved shapes the wiring.

A common mistake people make when they come to therapy is to say, “Oh, I don’t remember my childhood.” While it’s true they may not remember explicitly, the way their brain was wired comes up implicitly every moment in their life. If you want to "remember" what happened to you, and how your original attachment programming is affecting you, just notice your reactions in relationship to important others because this is the evidence of what you implicitly remember. The reason effective therapy deals with the present and the past is because your past truly comes alive in your present and there’s actually no clear differentiation. I often say to clients, "Time is not chronological". In your most difficult, reactive, relational moments, it’s because a younger part of you is in the driver’s seat working from the original attachment system. And what IFS does so brilliantly is to disentangle the past and the present.

A good example of this is someone who comes to therapy saying, “Why am I always attracted to people who [insert problematic quality here]?” And then you don’t even have to do a “inventory” of the past because very few people are going to say, “Actually, I do remember my mother not being emotionally available for the first 5 years of my life”. Nobody says that. But what we know is that attraction in adulthood is activation of our earliest attachment patterns. That’s literally what attraction is… Attraction on that first date means that there is a high likelihood of you playing the same part as you’ve mastered because you adapted in a specific way to your parents in your family home. So, in IFS we might say a child part of you may be running that first date interaction. As an example, I will often see people who go on a first date and notice the person is distant or cold, and they have to work hard to get this person’s attention and then seem confused as to why they find this attractive. Using attachment theory as an explanation, it’s because in the original attachment relationship this person had to try very hard get the attention of the caregiver who was emotionally distant. And again, consider how this person who is finding the emotionally distant person attractive, had to work so hard in the original configuration with the parent to get attention, had to perform, had to be a certain way, not once, but millions of times to get love. In the developing brain this becomes a very practiced neural circuit, so when the child part takes over and says (implicitly), “Wait, I think I see this again,” on a first date, it makes sense the person, without knowledge of IFS or attachment theory, would be interested in that, despite obvious problems (from an adult perspective).

Like many things in life, this explains why having a predominant sense of secure attachment is like the rich getting richer. If what is familiar is that person across you at the first date is emotionally available, is lighting up because of you, is interested in you, and that's what you had as a child, then you will probably gravitate toward that. That's why someone with a secure attachment history will often gravitate towards someone with a similar attachment history, often has supportive friends, a good relational life, because this is what that person got in their original attachment relationships.

It’s powerful to get really curious about how you approach these ideas. People who come to therapy and say things like, “I’m on fire with this person and there’s this amazing feeling when we connect” but the rest of the time that same person is emotionally unavailable, invalidating, or just don’t pay attention, it’s probably because when you are connecting (usually sexually), it will feel like you’re getting the full life force energy of the other person in that moment. No connection is going to feel like that if you’re in a different type of relationship. For a time, it won’t be as “natural" because it will be calmer. And without even talking about it, I could take a guess that from that person’s childhood, once in a blue moon they really felt connected to their caregivers, felt validated and seen, and those moments did feel extra high because the majority of the moments were so low.

So ferocious, intense connection might feel great, but that’s primarily because you’re starved of connection in other parts of the relationship, and you’re only used to those highs every once in a while. And that’s your childhood, and your attachment patterns emerging in your current life, with your past overlapping onto that. In your adulthood, you may be someone who is in a relationship with a person who is extremely emotionally abusive, never available, very gaslighting. And back in your childhood, as a helpless child, think about the distance and the invalidation or the punishment or the physical abuse, and then think about the moment that child gets a hug. I don’t think children getting a hug from available parents to whom they are securely attached feels as extremely good to them as it would to the child who only gets that intermittently. So that plays out in our adult lives, and people can be very naïve to this.

The hopeful thing about IFS is that insecure patterns of attachment held by child parts of you don’t have to be your destiny. As adults we have so much agency, rather than go immediately to fault finding or blame you found yourself in an unfulfilling relationship. When you unblend from the parts of you that hold these attachment injuries, and start to bring some clarity and understanding and start to see a way out, this is the foundation for change. The brain is always looking to be rewired and it’s always looking for repair for things that didn’t feel good originally.

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