ERP 361: How To Reset Your Attachment System For A Healthy Relationship – An Interview With Marc Sholes

By Posted in - Podcast February 28th, 2023 0 Comments

Do you find yourself constantly drawn to partners who are emotionally unavailable or abusive?

If so, it’s time to hit the reset button on your attachment system and break free from the cycle of toxic relationships. In this age of self-help and personal growth, there are countless resources available to help you navigate the complex world of relationships. One such resource is Marc Sholes’ book, “Reset Your Romantic GPS: The Journey to Self-Discovery and Healthy Relationships.”

Through his extensive experience as a therapist and his own personal journey, Sholes offers practical guidance on how to rewire your attachment system and establish healthier patterns in your relationships. So if you’re ready to take control of your love life and build fulfilling, sustainable relationships, tune in to this episode to learn more about how to reset your attachment system for a healthy relationship.

Marc is a New York City psychotherapist with 35+ years of experience working with individuals and couples. He is a board member, faculty, and supervisor at the National Institute for Psychotherapies, a leading training institute for psychotherapists.

He is also the author of the popular book Reset Your Romantic GPS: Why You Steer Toward the Wrong Partners and How to Change for the Better.

Marc lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

In this Episode

7:33 Attachment and its impact on relationships.

15:36 The impact of insecure attachment on a child’s development and how it affects their adult life.

20:57 The benefits of taking risks and standing up for oneself, even if it may not result in a positive outcome.

23:40 Motivators for change and overcoming hindrances in developing healthy habits and relationships.

29:03 Overcoming fear and loneliness from childhood trauma.

32:07 Overcoming challenges to make healthy choices and improve mental health.

38:00 Understanding the avoidant style in relationships and navigating healthy patterns with “Reset Your Romantic GPS”

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Identify your attachment style through self-reflection, therapy, or online quizzes.
  • Understand the characteristics of different attachment styles and how they manifest in relationships.
  • Practice mindfulness and self-awareness to notice patterns of behavior and thoughts related to your attachment style.
  • Challenge negative beliefs and patterns related to attachment by seeking therapy or using self-help techniques.
  • Develop healthy communication skills to express your needs and boundaries in relationships.
  • Engage in activities that promote emotional regulation and self-care, such as exercise, meditation, or journaling.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and your partner, and understand that relationships take effort and compromise.
  • Avoid entering into relationships with people who exhibit incompatible attachment styles.
  • Read self-help books or seek guidance from a therapist to gain additional tools and support in resetting your attachment system.
  • Practice patience and self-compassion in the process of resetting your attachment system, as it takes time and effort to create lasting change.

Mentioned

Reset Your Romantic GPS: Why You Steer Toward The Wrong Partners, And How To Change Direction For The Better ****(*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Connect with Marc Sholes

Websites: marcsholeslcsw.com

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LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

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Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Marc, thank you for joining us here today.

Jessica, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here!

Yes, this is one of my very favorite topics as it relates to relationship. I was just sharing with you my background and all the different people that I’ve really felt tremendous gratitude to their contribution to the couple’s field. But when it comes to attachment, and I know that this has been a buzzword for many over the last several years. Because of growing awareness and so-called the new science around the powerful impact of our attachment systems, and how they influence how we relate to the world, and more specifically, to relationship. You wrote a book, but we’d love to dive into this topic with you about, I think the thing I’m hearing you speak to is: how attachment hinders us, our attachment style, and also attachment and how our style can help us live our most optimal authentic life. Yeah? 

Yes. 

Great. Okay, well, for people that are just getting to know you here, what would you like people to know about you? Also, if you’re willing to share a little bit about what got you interested in serving people in this specific area?

Well, I’m in Manhattan, and I’ve been a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for 35 years here, seeing a lot of couples and a lot of individuals. Just living in New York City, it helps bring patients in. Because it’s a complicated city, and a great city. Originally, what got me into this work, that goes all the way back. I mean, I grew up with a charismatic, interesting, but kind of depressed mother. I was born with a kind of curious and empathic disposition. So I started counseling her at a very young age, I got good at that, and so it became my profession. But what also it did was, it created a kind of insecure, anxious attachment, in which I felt most familiar, my language for connecting was trying to figure someone else out and try to help someone else. So that becomes a way of relating, as opposed to figuring out what my own needs were. 

So as I got into the profession, I sort of focused on that, and was able over time for myself to move from an insecure attachment to a more secure attachment. So you write what you know best. I also know firsthand how limiting and time-consuming the waters of an insecure attachment can be. I spent a lot of time in relationships before I got married. I’m married now for 25 years, and I have three great kids. But I spent a really long time in relationships, I think, waiting in those waters, making people unhappy. I mean, it takes two to tango. As I worked out of that, and learned from that, into a more healthy relating.

Yeah. Well, thank you for your willingness to share. You’re, like many, and I also am in this category of being inclined, but also being shaped in part by my upbringing. I mean, we all are, but just as it relates to my profession as a psychologist, similar to the way you describe. Also, the journey and intimacy, that that is largely my own journey, and hardships brought me into really doing the deeper dive and understanding the deeper nuances and principles and workings of relationship. I mean, psychology is such a wide field. I didn’t necessarily set out to focus on intimate relationship, that was in my own hardship that led me into this. I feel grateful that I’ve been practicing and have seen the benefits of doing the work. I’ve been with my husband now for, not as long as you’ve been married, but we’ve been together, I think almost 17 years, and I feel like we continue to nurture and do the work. So it’s powerful, and it pays off. 

So one of the things that I am grateful for is your framing of attachment, because it seems like you’re emphasizing, bringing awareness to, when we’re not conscious of our strategies. To your point, if I can be super hyper-attuned to another people-pleasing, and know what they need and accommodate, that there’s a way of relating that that works. But it’s also likely for the person people-pleasing in an attempt to get that connection. So there is a strategy; there is a learned way and learned moves. One of the things that the language that I hear you using is the GPS, and the awareness around what are we mapping, and what perhaps is already programmed, and are we in awareness to that? Is that right?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s hard to believe that is, it’s really true. Attachment is a language, say, a language of relating that we learn very early on. So very quickly, somebody who develops a secure attachment, it usually happens through when an infant and a young child’s needs are responded to, in a good enough consistently enough way. Those are needs of tension relief, of eye contact, of response to hunger and physiological needs, needs for comfort and care. So what happens is that those needs of the child, when they’re responded to well enough — not perfectly enough, but consistently enough — they internalize the sense that not only are my needs okay, but that the world is going to respond to them. They internalize this kind of lifejacket, this sense of safety, that they’re lovable, that the world is going to be there for them if they need it, and they go out into the world with this sense of buoyancy. 

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“Life is filled with obstacles and challenges. But if you approach those obstacles and challenges in relationships with a sense of buoyancy, you’re not afraid you’re going to drown. So you can really pick-and-choose and work through the things that mean something to you, and you can also leave things that aren’t good for you.”

On the converse side, with an insecure attachment, that’s usually developed where the response to those kinds of needs we were talking about are met very inconsistently; at times, not at all. A tragic thing happens around that, because the child internalizes this sense that their needs are not okay, they’re not lovable, they’re not going to be responded to. Now the burden of the attachment is on the child: maybe what I need is not good, maybe I need too much, maybe it makes my parents anxious. So the child begins to become preoccupied with the other, with the caretaker, in the hopes of being able to connect with them, and that’s how they feel secure. The security isn’t internalized; the security is now external. That’s very different, going into life in that way, with that sense that I don’t have it inside of me to feel safe and secure.

Oh, my goodness! This is often not in the field of awareness, it’s happening, all of these mechanisms as you’re referring to, in adulthood, that got shaped through our environment growing up. It impacts our thinking, our beliefs. It impacts our physiological responses, our emotional sense, our sense of esteem and worthiness, and also, how we relate to others. I mean, it’s so vast in what it impacts. If I can also just echo, I love the word buoyancy and what that provides for someone that has that inner security, or even the security and the belief in relating to others in the world, and the big impact. Even as you’re talking about the life jacket, I was like, wooh! Like, if someone has had the experience of almost drowning and not having the life jacket, that is traumatic.

Yes, people will try to avoid that at all times.

Well, and if it’s the lived experience like that, in the known, felt sense of not having it, it’s profound.

Yeah, it’s profound. So the longing for security becomes the main motivation under those circumstances, and the language for attaching is: to try to get somebody to love you, try to meet their needs, try to be invaluable to them. That becomes the main motivation. Then what’s not the main motivation is necessarily what you would authentically love, or what you would authentically like, or what you would authentically like to do. The main motivation is for security. 

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“People with an insecure attachment, although they’re very empathic and attuned, they will often stay in something that might not be good for them. Because there’s that possibility, and they don’t want to let go of that attachment that they’re in. They’ll do so sometimes, often, anything to stay in.”

Yeah. It reminds me, there’s an old saying, and I need to remember what it is because I often want to refer to it. But it’s this idea that we are more comfortable perpetuating things that are dysfunctional.

I like to say, we perpetuate things we know, so what we know is our home. Home does not have to be a regulating place. If home is a dysregulating place, it’s still home. It’s still what we know. The unknown, we are pretty terrified of. That’s how we get to a more secure attachment, is actually, as we become aware of these attachment styles, then the goal is to move in the opposite direction of what we know. That’s often where the hard work comes in.

Very hard work. Because from my own experience, but also what I understand about just the framework on how we’re describing this, it’s as though, even how you’re saying, these learned strategies interfere with one being able to live in alignment and congruency with themselves if they haven’t had the circumstances or even the privilege. I would hope that this isn’t a privilege, that we all have this. But I know that that’s not the case. But if we have the fortunate circumstances that we have that security, then we get to be able to live and express and be congruent and feel this authenticity. That without having it, it’s interfering with that. So it’s part of the call that I’m hearing you speak to, and also, when we didn’t have those fortunate circumstances, the path of healing and corrective. I’ve always framed it in my mind as like, almost getting the things that we didn’t get along the way, so that we can relearn. It’s like a relearning or a new territory, that we’re learning to take risks, but also feel security in the actual circumstances. It’s not just a thought thing that we make up, it’s that we actually have to have someone that we partner with that can show up. I’m curious what you would say about that.

Yeah, I mean, you’re spot on. There’s two points to what you’re saying. One is, we do need a new relational experience. But also, you get something, the person gets something merely by taking the risk of moving in a direction that shows self-respect for oneself. Even if you don’t get it that time, a person will get a piece of themselves when they take that risk. So you get something either way with that risk, believe it or not. Hopefully, you get a response, and you normally do get a more positive response. But if you don’t, you feel better about yourself for having stood up for yourself.

Marc, thank you for underscoring that. Because one of the things that I’m understanding that you’re also helping people have awareness around is when they’re choosing a partner, perhaps single and dating and looking for relationship, that this can play into the orientation there, if one is aware and taking those risks and showing up for oneself. I can feel inside myself, when I became aware, I don’t think I had the language or the understanding of attachment. But I was in service of healthy relating, and I could say not it. Because me saying not it, even though it wasn’t earning a secure attachment with a present other, the ‘not it’ and me being in the practice of being in service of that was huge, and not abandoning myself or going into dysfunction and continuing to be okay with that.

Exactly, so well-said. It’s hard. It’s hard to do that. But exactly like you said, there’s a positive feeling when you do do that, and you have your back and you take care of yourself. 

Not easy work, just saying. 

No, it’s not easy work. Because of that early experience, the world isn’t going to be responsive to your need, that your job is to accommodate to the other. So when you don’t accommodate, and you take care of yourself, and you’re in something that doesn’t feel right, and you’re able to say no, that’s the beginning of that kind of journey. To really simplify it, it’s like going to the gym. So for insecurely attached people, doing anything for the self has kind of a dread to it. But it’s just like when you go to the gym, if you take that dread, and you bring it with you, and you go to the gym, the next day, you feel there was something positive about that, and you want to do it again. So it’s kind of like something like that. 

I’m glad you said that. Because it’s getting at where I wanted to go next, which is the motivation or the agents of change. Pain is often a motivator for people. “Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore, or this hurts too much.” Or, unfortunately, some people come in to some circumstances that push them into tragedy, that then make them have to really question and look and re-evaluate. Hopefully we don’t get there, most of us. But the motivator is often pain to do something different. The thing that I’m also hearing you speak to as a motivator, if we can tolerate some discomfort, to have a little bit of a longer-term game, and play it out enough that we can start to train ourselves, that it’s worth taking those uncomfortable steps.

Yeah, you’re reading my mind. The discomfort of a healthy choice. So to know that in a healthy choice, there’s going to be discomfort; there’s going to be a sense of loss. But to trust it enough to see that there’s a gain. 

“The initial feeling in a healthy, more regulating choice, if you have a more insecure attachment, is going to be discomfort, and then you know you’re onto something.”

Yes. This is where there’s a fallacy sometimes that’s romanticized in a collective media culture, around finding the one and the date. It’s all this fairytale and magic and chemistry and the soulmate. I’m not saying none of that exists. But it’s part of it, and when we’re working with these other layers, it can get confusing. One of the things that I think you also do a great job, and I’m getting a sense of this, and help me if I’m getting this, is a motivating way is to paint the picture. “Like, here’s the hindrance, this is what the hindrance life looks like when we don’t perhaps say yes to this work and restructuring of it, or working with the GPS. And here’s what it looks like when we do start to work with the GPS.”

That’s exactly right. The consequences of overextending and over-accommodating, one of the tragedies is, you often don’t get the thing that you’re hoping to get. It doesn’t happen that way. You often end up with someone who’s very much like the early caretaker, and not able to give you what you need, no matter how attuned you are to them. Then what happens is, because there’s so much depletion and hyper-attuning on the other, there’s often an emptiness in the self. There’s a sense of, then, a lack of self-esteem, because you’re obviously living in a state of fear, as opposed to of courage. Then there’s all sorts of compensations for that, which aren’t always pretty. It could be substance abuse, or just being very attached to the known, and never really taking the risks and having lots of regrets. 

I’m interested in this work, and wrote this book, because it has nothing to do with the essence of a person, one’s attachment style. It’s really something that was kind of superimposed, and it’s a language that was learned. It doesn’t have to do with the core of that person. Every person deserves to be able to be who they are. So when you do change, when you become conscious of this, and you’re able to make more healthy decisions — those are healthy decisions in relationships, they’re healthy decisions with exercise, with sleep, with food — you notice that you’re in relationship to all these things, and sometimes they’re the ones, like food, you don’t want the food to be the driver of the car, you want the food to be the passenger. You want to be able to make conscious choices. So when you change the direction just a little bit, the journey ends up in a much different place. It doesn’t take 100% change. It really just takes a couple of healthy choices each day each week, and the direction begins to shift.

Right. Some of this can feel daunting if we look at all that might want to be changed in one’s life, but just the power of making small adjustments can have really big effects. I want to check something out, it’s rattling in my head, around when you’re talking about attachment style not being the person’s essence, that this is imposed, I get a sense that it’s the young or the little one’s vast adaptive strategy to make sense of and to work with the circumstances. So it’s like, those strategies and moves are really perhaps developed from a very young age. So when I say that, it’s like, if I put this on for myself, my people-pleasing, that strategy is actually three years old. It came from a three-year-old’s or a four-year-old’s self and brain, and it’s the best attempt. We don’t want to make that bad. But I’m 48. I mean, obviously, I’m not doing that as much as I used to do that. But it’s to think that, when we look at GPS and what’s programmed, again, not blaming it, but it might be four years old.

Yes, I think that’s right on. Just to go with that for a second, the fear and the anxiety of the lack of attachment at three and four or two years old, or as an infant, is overwhelmingly frightening. That’s the fear we carry with us as an adult that we’re trying to avoid. That fear is gone also. I mean, really, as an adult, we have an apartment, we have friends, we have strengths. 

“The existential fear of loneliness that a child or infant has when there’s that lack of connectedness, we carry that with us, too. So we’re feeling a two-year-old’s existential horror, not our grown-up self’s situation. That’s why if we take the risk, we’ll find that we’re not going to drown.”

We can start to begin to be in relationship with that fear. Begin to talk to people about it, notice that we’re okay, do something for that fear that’s more healthy. We can start talking to that part of us. “Oh, you’re not drowning, we’re doing okay. We have our apartment; we’ve paid our rent. We have food in the refrigerator.” Literally, reminding it that it’s not a helpless being.

Yes. Somewhat, taking these risks sounds as though it’s being open to new information, open to new experiences that allow us to expand and perhaps up-level

Yes, up-level, that’s good. Like a computer, to put in the new stuff, it’s got an update, with updated information. 

Yeah. As we’re talking about it, I know this personally, I also know it professionally in assisting others in this terrain. I understand that it, again, is not easy work. But it’s also so powerful, I would never want to live in the ways that I used to live. Again, I don’t blame or shame that, and recognize it was the best I could do, and all of that stuff. But how accessible do you feel like this is, and what are you seeing in your work, and how people will get motivated to continue to stay on this path? I mean, for me, I’ll just say one thing before I turn it over to you, is that my experience with people and myself is that, and even as you’re talking, if I can start taking steps, that that becomes motivating, that helps me feel more committed to the path to keep going. But tell me what you’re seeing, as far as the development of this.

Yeah, what you’re saying is really important. First of all, there’s a lot more information. I mean, if any positive thing came out of COVID, it’s this mental health acceptance and how important mental health is. So there’s all sorts of places to learn about attachment theory, about healthy choices; there’s plenty of information to get. 

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“As you start taking risks or walking in the opposite direction of what you know, it’s hard. Because you’re basically saying, go from a place that feels like home, even if it’s not a healthy place, to a choice that feels unknown, but that you’re going to have something there for you.”

Things as simple as shutting off your social media or your phone an hour before going to sleep, dealing with the loss of what that’s like, because you want to find something that’s going to satisfy you before you go to bed. Actually shutting it off, and seeing if you can get a better night’s sleep. When you begin to make those kinds of choices, you find that the world presents other people who are doing those kinds of things. When you talk about those things, it brings in conversations where there’s a kind of support that happens. So it’s kind of a self-generating thing: the more you do it, the more you get. But it is a conscious choice. 

So another thing that people do, which is probably the number one thing to do, is five minutes of mindful meditation, a day. Five minutes of focusing on your breath, and when your mind wanders, coming back to your breath. Just doing that each day for five minutes begins to get you out of your thoughts, and begins to teach you that you can have a thought and a feeling. If you notice it, and you come back to your breath, you come back to your self, and that your self actually is a thing that can be relied on. Those little movements make a big difference. Then if you’re in a relationship that doesn’t feel good for you, you can notice: “You know what, this doesn’t feel good.” You can make some healthier choices around that. You can ask for what you want, take the risk of that. If you don’t get it, over and over again, with somebody who’s contemptuous or just not a very nice person to you. Or you can leave. Once you’re able to do that, you’re already well on the road.

Yes, the strength, and being able to put this into practice and implement it. This has far and wide impact when we start practicing. It impacts our whole life, in every aspect and every sphere. 

Yeah. It helps in work also. I mean, think about it. If you anticipate that the world is not going to respond to you, or that what you need or what you deserve or what you want is going to be rejected. If you go in to ask for a raise, or you want to get a promotion, how anxious, before you’re going in, you are! Because you anticipate this early experience. You want to shift that. You want to change that. You want to be able to take those risks, and see, maybe the world will respond to you differently now than it did back.

Yeah. Well, I love what you had spoken about, that it’s almost what was superimposed isn’t the self. So when people are having these interactions that don’t feel fulfilling or don’t feel good, not as a result, but the contribution of some of those insecure moves, that if one is not aware, they could then further reinforce or internalize: “Oh, I’m not lovable.” It is the self. But if we can start living in more congruency and alignment and authenticity, where people are responding to the self, the authentic, that’s super-exciting. I don’t know if I said that and it made sense.

That’s great. Because unfortunately, when you’re repeating the old pattern, what happens is, you really do feel that the self is not worthwhile. Unfortunately, it really is not giving the self. I mean, it’s a terrible feeling. So when you show up for the self, when you become aware that there are other choices, and you’re willing to stand in that uncomfortable space, and you show up for yourself, you give yourself a chance to be responded to for your authentic self, and chances are, people are going to respond to it.

Yes, that’s the beautiful thing that we have working with us. That life and expression and authenticity, that is the urge, and people resonate, and we’re wired up to feel that connectedness. So we have that going for us. Just when we haven’t had the fortunate circumstances to experience that, it can be terrifying to enter into that field. So I know our time is winding down here. But I do recognize we haven’t talked as much, and I don’t know if you want to say anything, about the style of one that might shut down or turn away, the avoidance tendencies. Anything that you want to say? I know it fits into everything we’re talking about.

Yeah, an avoidant style is a real fear of intimacy and rejection. It’s kind of a real feeling that it’s not safe to trust people with your emotional vulnerability. So avoidant people usually come across as very sure of themselves, very independent. Or if you go on a date with them, you might have a really great time, and then not hear from them for five days or two weeks, whatever. They run away from their own vulnerability. Also, if they are in a relationship, they sort of have contempt for your neediness because they can’t own their own. Avoidant it takes a little bit more work, because an avoidant person is not so apt to feel the pain of a more insecure ambivalent or anxious person who really wants to be close. Often, the two go together. 

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“An insecure anxious person who’s preoccupied with the other is going to be drawn to the unavailable, aloof, avoidant, and they can play out a whole dance there for quite a while. You want to spend as least amount of time doing that dance as you can.”

It sounds like your book is really assisting people in navigating this terrain. Is that right?

Yeah. It’s really a book to help people introduce them to the idea that they have this GPS, and how to change it, how to reset it, how to veer towards more healthy relationships, what it’s like to change course, the kinds of feelings you have to live with in order to give yourself a chance to get to the place you want to get to. It has some practical ways of doing that. Hopefully, it’s a book, like many self-help books, to help people have that moment of insight, and in the end, adds even just one open door that helps them make a choice that adds to their growth. 

Well, thank you for writing it and giving that gift. Because it’s people like yourselves that offer these openings. It depends on how people resonate, and the timing and whenever people get certain things and are ready. But to have the support and the guidance is huge.

Thanks, yeah!

Is there anything you want to say before we transition out and talk a little bit more about how people can get your book and get in touch with you or what you have to teach?

It’s on Amazon, you can go to Reset Your Romantic GPS, or you can go to Marc Sholes and it’ll show up there. I have a website, MarcSholesLCSW.com. If people want to refer to them, I can talk to them, they can give me a call or email me, which is fine. I have an Instagram, @RomanticGPS, with some tips here and there, and some motivational facts to help you along your road.

Well, thank you again. I’ll make sure to put the link to the book, and that seems like the best way to really get support. If people want referrals, or are in New York, or maybe want to work with you, depending on your availability or waitlist, and that you also provide nuggets and tips on Instagram, and there’s various ways to keep in touch with you. Well, thank you so much for spending your valuable time with us here today.

Oh, thank you. You make it very easy to think and talk. So I really appreciate it.

Signing Off

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