Attachment Theory: How It Manifests In Relationships, with Dr. Sharon May

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

We spend a great deal of our time searching for someone with whom we can share our lives without threat of abandonment. But even after we find that person, we may still have feelings of insecurity. In the first episode of a series with couples therapist and author Dr. Sharon May, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen discuss how to find safe haven in your relationship.

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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more go to
Dr Daniel Amen: We are so excited this week. We have a very special guest. Actually one of my friends, she's been a friend for a long time, but one of the most important things in life is how we are connected to other people.
Tana Amen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). [inaudible 00:01:05].
Dr Daniel Amen: And Dr. Sharon May is with us all week. She is the founder and president of Safe Haven Relationship Counseling Center. She received a PhD in marriage and family therapy, and a master's degree in theology from Fuller Graduate School of Theology. She is the daughter of Archibald Hart, that's I think where I met her. I love her father. He is the author of a number of really great books and she actually is the author of How To Argue So Your Spouse Will Listen, from Thomas Nelson, which is...
Tana Amen: We need that for our children too.
Dr Daniel Amen: And Safe Haven Marriage, which she wrote with her dad. She speaks all over the world to couples, executive pastors, counselors. She and I share a number of patients together and I just don't think we can get enough of how we can get along better with each other. Thank you so much Sharon for being with us.
Tana Amen: Yes, thank you.
Dr Sharon May: Oh, thank you for having me. It is such a delight.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, what are the problems you see that people typically run into when it comes to involve their intimate relationships?
Dr Sharon May: We have been created and we're wired to be in relationships, to love and be loved, to be seen and heard and feel we're cared for and we're cherished, or at least really liked. And when we marry, we have the hopes of finding this one relationship where we will have what I call a safe haven, that I can turn to you and feel loved and cared for and I can trust you with my heart and I know you're going to be there for me. And at the end of the day, no matter how much we are so different and we argue all the time, that we can curl up in our safe haven knowing that you're there for me. And couples will fight for that and will even divorce to find that.
Tana Amen: [crosstalk 00:03:22].
Dr Sharon May: And the way we go about getting the love we long for, keeping connected in marriage, working out our differences, being refined, because marriage is not just about happiness, it is about where we become our best version of ourselves, and that is through arguments and having to get along and intertwine our lives. And couples, we really spend a lot of energy trying to say, "Just hear me out. Just care for me. Love me." And, "Why did you do that? Do you still care for me, love me, value me?" And we spend a lot of energy trying to find and keep that safe haven.
Tana Amen: I love that.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, tell us a bit of your story and how you came to really be interested in relationships and helping them heal.
Dr Sharon May: I was always, ever since I was a young kid, I would read my dad's psychology books. He was an engineer training to be a psychologist, and would grab his books, I can remember being 10, 11, 12, trying to understand. So I've always been interested in why do we connect and love, and then went of course to UCLA and would watch fellow students. "Why did they date that person? Why did they stay dating that person? They just shouldn't." And being very curious of it. I then went back to graduate school in my 30s and I wanted to do couples therapy. I wanted to help couples connect and love.
Relationship is just hard. And marriage is hard. And when you get married you think, "Oh, this is going to be so easy." And it's not. And then you're like, "Did I marry the wrong person? Because this is not easy." No, that is marriage. Marriage is difficult. Once you know that, you can then say, "Okay, now I can work on it."
So, I remember being in graduate school, so excited to do marriage counseling and my first couple came, and at that time the model that was taught in graduate school was more cognitive behavioral, "Stop doing what you're doing. Do more of the positive things, do less of the bad things." And I remember sitting down with my couple and they were arguing about chores, who was going to do what chore, and who was going to do the dishes and take out the trash. I said, "This is great. I'll take out my whiteboard and I'll do a chore chart."
Tana Amen: They're for kids.
Dr Sharon May: "And then everyone knows who does what then you eliminate the arguments." And then teach them communication skills. "You hold the mic and 'this is how I feel,' now you hold the mic and we change the mic..." Well, after three sessions they called me and said, "You're the worst marriage therapist we've ever been to, you're fired." I remember being devastated. "What?! I want to do marriage counseling." I tried to do then, kids therapy. No.
So I remember talking with a fellow colleague, Brent Bradley, and he said, "Have you ever looked at marriage relationships through the lens of attachment theory? And have you ever heard of emotionally focused therapy that allows us to begin to understand," and this was in the mid '90s, "to begin to understand that the bond that connects child and parent, husband and wife, friend to friend, even coworker to coworker, this bond that connects us, if it's safe and secure, we get along and when we feel this bond is threatened, then the alarms sound, 'You're not there for me. You didn't take the trash out.'"
The trash, it's not about the trash. Sometimes it is, "Take the trash out, it helps me out." But a lot of times it's the meaning the trash takes on. "If you didn't take the trash out, then I'm alone like I was growing up. No one watches over me and cares for me, just like when I was growing up." And the meaning that we put on, "You didn't take the trash," is a meaning, I call it "the dragon," that puts a meaning that threatens the bond. "Because you didn't take the trash out it means you don't love me, care for me, not there for me." And that then is what creates the biggest drag.
Tana Amen: That makes so much sense.
Dr Sharon May: Wow.
Tana Amen: Because that's how, because if you just think about-
Dr Sharon May: I just went back through my first marriage.
Tana Amen: Right?
Dr Sharon May: I'm working on a new book called Your Brain Is Listening, and it's basically listening to all of the stories that you created through your life. It's listening to the ANTs, the automatic negative thoughts, and it's listening to your brain, whether it's working well or not working. And I was working on some of my own childhood stories, I'm one of seven, and so one of my stories is "you're insignificant."
Yes, and that's your dragon.
Dr Daniel Amen: And so that would be one of my dragons. And then, so when my first wife, both of us have been married before, was not affectionate, then it just, the dragon came and ate me up and it became probably more important. Well no, but it really became a bone of contention for us. So maybe it was less about the bone and more about the story behind the bone.
Tana Amen: I love that. Yeah.
Dr Sharon May: Yes.
Tana Amen: So true.
Dr Sharon May: Yes, and so I always say that couples marry each other's dragons and the way we react-
Tana Amen: Oh, I'm sorry.
Dr Sharon May: [crosstalk 00:09:33] dragon [inaudible 00:09:34] because-
Dr Daniel Amen: [inaudible 00:09:36] except when you were saying marriages are hard, ours is actually-
Tana Amen: I know, I'm thinking I, but this time round I got lucky.
Dr Daniel Amen: Easy...
Tana Amen: This time around is my safe haven. This is my safe haven.
Dr Sharon May: Yes. Yes.
Tana Amen: I feel safe even when we argue. There's been maybe twice in our marriage where I've felt like, "Okay, this feels scary," which is pretty good out of 15 years.
Dr Sharon May: Yes, and you're right, Tana, we're all going to feel unsafe, that's wired in us. When our amygdala hijacks saying "danger, danger," our amygdala does not know the difference between a rattle snake and our spouse's look on their face, tone of voice, our spouse, "You didn't take the trash out. You didn't do what I had hoped you would do that makes me feel loved." And we marry each other's dragons, and it is as a husband and wife, we learn how to tame our dragons, change our stories. "Is that dragon, what it's saying to me, true now? Or was it true when I was growing up or a certain season of my life, and how do I react when that dragon raises its head?"
So when I see the box of chocolates that there's not those peanut butter cups that I love and my dragon says, "Danger, danger, you have to take care of yourself," the way I react is I just go quiet, and I go self-sufficient, and I pull back. Some people will say, "You didn't take the trash out." Zero to 60, "How come you don't... I'm the only one that takes care of this home," and "No one's there for me." And as soon as your hear the story you put on an event, you have to slow down and say, "Is this true in this moment, or was that true growing up or in another season, is this my dragon, my fear, my vulnerability?"
Tana Amen: It's so true.
Dr Sharon May: And is [crosstalk 00:11:41]-
Dr Daniel Amen: So, when we come back... When we come back, we're going to talk about the kinds of dragons that may be in your relationships.
Tana Amen: Yeah, so interesting.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, be interesting, I'm curious about your dragons.
Tana Amen: Why, I can just relate to so much of what you're saying and I'll bring it up in the next podcast, but there's just especially one part of your technique that I love.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, if you want to learn more about Dr. Sharon May, she's the author of How To Argue So Your Spouse Will Listen. Also, Safe Haven Marriage, she does intensives for couples.
Tana Amen: [crosstalk 00:12:17].
Dr Daniel Amen: How can they learn more about your work, Sharon?
Dr Sharon May: Yes, they can go to our website,, and they can find out information about the marriage intensives for individual couples and the group intensives we have called Grow Together.
Dr Daniel Amen: Love that. Stay with us.
Tana Amen: If you're enjoying the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, please don't forget to subscribe so you'll always know when there's a new episode, and while you're at it, feel free to give us a review or five star rating as that helps others find the podcast.
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