The Whale of Attachment Distress


Small events create huge disturbances in our relationships. “Old wounds, usually from before we ever met our partner, are like whales that are waiting in the deep to be triggered by events on the surface of life.”

One of the most amazing pieces of nature footage I have ever seen was of an underwater photographer filming a “bait ball”—a frenzied school of small fish rounded up by predators so they could feast on them. As he filmed, a huge whale came up from the depths with its mouth wide open, barely missed swallowing the photographer whole, then consumed most of the bait ball. Interviewed afterward, the photographer said he’d never experienced anything like that in his entire career. Unfortunately, most of us have experienced something like that many times in our closest relationships.

I’ve used the image of a powerful creature coming up from the depths to explain to couples in therapy what happens when a seemingly small disagreement becomes highly reactive. I tell them about the photographer and what I call “the whale of attachment distress.” In any important relationship, we want to feel a consistent “attachment” or connection that assures us we matter to the other person. The way we create secure attachment with partners, children, or close friends is to give people our time and our engaged interest and attention. This is exactly what young children need to build a sense of their connectedness to people who consistently love them and keep them safe. It turns out we never outgrow a child’s need for secure attachment. We’re wired from day one in this world to monitor whether we do or don’t feel a steady connection with people who are important to us.

If one or both partners in a relationship have a history of not feeling loved or protected throughout life, the intimate relationship they hope will be the antidote to that painful history ends up triggering old wounds over and over. Small disagreements, such as over why someone doesn’t pick up after themselves, can become huge fights when the deep, dark whale of attachment distress surfaces. This happens when “You don’t pick up your stuff” gets translated into “You don’t care about me—and you don’t even care that I’ve brought this up many times before!” Such thoughts can easily progress to: I feel invisible to you or Do I mean anything to you?

Old wounds, usually from before we ever met our partner, are like whales that are waiting in the deep to be triggered by events on the surface of life. Watch out when the whale of attachment distress surfaces! In particularly reactive couples, it can seem to swallow the whole relationship. Often people at these moments say things that inflame things further, such as “I’m so done with you!” You know that the whale of attachment distress has surfaced when something seemingly small produces a strong emotional reaction.

So what do we do about the whale of attachment distress? The first thing is to know it’s down there and to have a name for it. Just as we’re encouraged in meditation to say “This is judging” when judging thoughts arise, we can practice naming attachment distress when it appears. We can also work at losing our shame that our relationship has some attachment distress because all relationships have it. It’s not whether we have it or not, but whether we can name it when it surfaces and, like the photographer, avoid getting swallowed by it. It might help if we keep one eye on the surface of our relationship and the other on the depths of our inner world. If you see the whale coming, after all, you might be able to avoid getting swallowed!

Ultimately, the best approach to attachment distress must go beyond just dealing with the whale when it surfaces. Creating secure attachment with a partner every day is what makes the whale less likely to surface over time. When we know by direct experience that a partner is truly there for us every day, we’re less prone to Do I mean anything to you!? thoughts that are typical of attachment distress. To begin increasing secure attachment, I tell couples to show up to a daily ten-minute meeting to discuss gratitudes and highlights from the day. This can be one part of slowly building an “I am here for you every day” attachment that makes attachment distress less frequent and less intense.

Keep reading about attachment styles: “Islands, Waves, Anchors: Why Your Attachment Style Matters.”

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