Attachment and Detachment – How Does This Really Look in Session?

September 2, 2016

How Does This Really Look in Session?

I just had a session today where for a whole 15 minutes my co-therapist and I left the client alone with her horse. Our client requested it, and though it is not something I would do for everyone, for her it was appropriate. My co-therapist and I began a conversation, once apart from the client, about how we had to regulate ourselves against this feeling of “doing enough” in session.  But then I have to remind myself that this is why Natural Lifemanship is principle-based – it is intended for an organic unfolding in each session.   There is no formula in good therapy, clients come to us and we learn about them – for this, we draw on our training, our understandings of relationships, and our trust in our therapy partners and clients themselves.  It is easy to fall into a habit of asking clients to “do attachment” and “do detachment”, but attachment doesn't just mean asking a horse to look at you and detachment doesn't just mean asking a horse to move in circles around you. We have to be more flexible in our thinking so that each session is adapted appropriately for our client’s needs.

Attachment and detachment happen in every move that we make within a healthy relationship. I was immediately reminded of this when we walked back after this 15 minutes to check in with our client and see what happened for her during that time. I had noticed that she mostly sat on the opposite side of the round pen while the horse grazed quietly nearby. From the outside, this looks like nothing is happening. But as we visit with our client we find out that she has noticed that her horse is choosing to eat clovers over just plain grass, they are sharing space and coming into physical contact every now and then. She has also noticed other things about her horse, small subtle things about her body language – her ears, a tail flick, the flies are bothering her. This client found herself picking clovers and taking them over to her horse with the desire to connect and “make her horse happy”. Though it doesn't look like much, this is a beginning to attachment. She is attuned to her horse, she's paying attention and she's noticing things about her, all important aspects of being engaged in the early stages of a relationship.

As we talk about her experience, the client notices that she has done all the work that day in the relationship, asking nothing of her horse except to be allowed in the same space. While it looked like nothing happened, a small practice of attachment was occurring, but it was a one-sided attachment. These choices that my client made allowed for great processing of her relationships – in which she often works hard to meet the needs of another without asking much in return. She was able to see this herself because this is exactly how she approached this new relationship with her horse.

What I hope to work toward with this client is an understanding that for this to be a healthy relationship there has to be some growth toward mutual attachment.  And hopefully, when she gets that, she will likely find that for her relationship to continue to be healthy she will need some detachment (connection with space) as well.  All of this can unfold organically – just like this first session.  If we trust that we created a safe (and brave, as my colleague Rebecca Hubbard, says) space for processing and vulnerability – the client can be the driver of realization and the driver of change.  For now, this does not require that our client stand at the horse’s hind end and ask the horse to look at her, come to her, and to follow her, yet it is still an experience in attachment in a new relationship and provides plenty of information for reflection, processing, and goal setting. Do I expect to spend every session leaving my client alone while she sits on the grass and watches her horse? No. But if that's what our client wants, then we have important aspects of the therapy and important aspects of a healthy relationship to explore together. It’s all information for the therapy.  Allowing the process to unfold organically means that issues arise naturally, as they need. And consider how much more powerful it will be for that client when SHE decides she wants more from the relationship, and then SHE decides to ask for it.  It is her relationship with that horse after all.  If I am the driver of change, if I set it up and “make” it so, then is it ever really hers?  What kind of relationship am I modeling to her if I don’t trust her to think, to want more, to grow?

It is not unusual for professionals to want a toolbox of “what to do” – and to therefore walk away from our Fundamentals training with the thinking that attachment is asking a horse to look at you, come to you, and follow you, and detachment is asking a horse to go away. But in fact, attachment and detachment are two categories of behavior within a relationship. If, as the saying goes, relationships are a dance, then attachment and detachment are the behaviors that make up that dance. Attachment is the contact; it's the invitation to dance, it’s taking their hand, it’s the cheek-to-cheek connection, and the energy exchanged between the two people in close proximity. Detachment is the space between that makes it possible for fluid movement and for keeping off of each other’s toes, it’s the strong arms that create a frame around the two people, it’s the energy that is exchanged to maintain space between.  It is the structure that supports the dance while attachment is the closeness. Both are necessary, both require engagement between the two. In order to execute the dance, there is a flow back-and-forth between attachment behaviors and detachment behaviors – structure, closeness, structure, closeness.  This is an easy exchange of attachment and detachment based on our attunement, based on us paying close attention to each other as we move closer and then we move further away, as we make contact and then we create space - all while we are engaged with each other.

So in our sessions, and with our horses, attachment and detachment occur like this – unfolding organically as each participant makes choices. Attachment and detachment are simply building blocks of healthy relational interactions.  And, as our relationship grows, our intimacy grows – the steps of the dance become more challenging, more intricate, and more rewarding – but within them is always engagement through attachment and engagement through detachment.