When Jeff and Marion first came to see me for couples therapy, Jeff was at his wits’ end. “However much I try to get closer to Marion, she just won’t have it. I feel she is constantly pushing me away.” Marion sat in stony silence. I could practically feel her discomfort. Eventually, she said: “He needs attention all the time — he just never gets enough.” The couple engaged in a constant dance of Jeff’s advancements and Marion’s attempts at distancing herself. Both Jeff and Marion are quite typical in their presentation for couple’s therapy where one partner tends to maximize, being very expressive in their wants, and the other tends to minimize, denying any emotional needs.
Your unique template of life
Both Marion and Jeff understand their world according to their own unique organizing principle. This template of life was learned in early relational experiences, usually with parents or primary caretakers. Both partners’ template determined what they expected from their relationships, how they responded to their partner’s behavior are and how they interpreted their interactions. While these templates are not set in stone, they originate in our childhood experiences and get confirmed or amended with subsequent experiences in adult life. For example, if you learned as a child that your parents are not reliable your template of human relationships would include a view that people generally are not reliable. You would be more likely to regard your partner as ultimately not quite trustworthy either.
Your attachment styles
One way of thinking about these templates is to look at our attachment styles. There are three main categories: secure, anxious-preoccupied and avoidant-dismissive. There is also a fourth category of fearful-avoidant which is a much rarer presentation. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory described attachment as an integral part of the human experience throughout our entire life span. From the moment we are born we are primed to relate to other people. Without mum or dad looking after us we would not survive. Attachment theory originally described how infants bond with their primary carers. Later research by Hazan and Shaver demonstrated that as adults we too can be divided into different attachment style categories. Our attachment style is of relevance in our romantic relationships. There are three vital ingredients in a romantic relationship: intimacy (or attachment), commitment (or care giving) and passion (sexual attraction. Attachment and commitment closely mimic the first bond experienced between infant and parents. As lovers, we learn to attach to our partners and to take care of each other.
Secure or insecure — what’s my attachment style?
Your attachment style will roughly guide the way you respond in relationships. The following descriptions are a bit like cardboard stereotypes, but they give you a rough idea of the different relational styles that people have.
- If you are secure you generally don’t find it so difficult to establish intimate relationships. You don’t worry about being abandoned by your partner or by someone getting too close to you. You are happy to depend on as well-being dependable for your partner.
- If you are anxious- preoccupied you crave intimacy and frequently worry about your partner’s commitment and love for you. Are they really there for you? You will need to have reassurance that you partner is committed to you. Ideally, you like to merge with your partner to feel secure in the relationship.
- If you are avoidant- dismissive you are somewhat uncomfortable being too close to others and your partner being too dependent and close to you. You try to minimize closeness. You are concerned that you will lose your independence in your relationships. You value independence above all.
- If you are uncomfortable with closeness but also worried about your partner being available for you, you may be fearful-avoidant, i.e. both anxious and avoidant, an attachment style that less prevalent as the other two insecure styles. With this attachment style you experience the worst of both insecure worlds.
Roughly 50% of adults have a secure attachment style with the remainder of the population displaying an insecure attachment, that is either anxious (20%), avoidant (25%) or fearful (5%).
Your attachment style is partially determined by the way your primary carers like mum and dad cared for you when g as well as your life experiences as an adult.
Depending on your relational style you will develop strategies in life that are aimed at suiting your attachment system. You will often recreate familiar attachment patterns in your relationship without being aware of this.
In a relationship each partner acts as an attachment figure for the other; both partners can be in the role of the dependent child at times as well as in the comforting role of the nurturing parent. This is fine if neither partner gets too stuck in either role.
What attachment pattern plays out in my relationship?
Your relationship will be more or less stable depending on the attachment style of you and your partner. Let’s look at the different combinations of styles in which are commonly observed in couples:
In a relationship were both you and your partner are secure you manage to allow for dependency as well as independence. It’s ok to express your needs and to listen to the needs of your partner. Each partner is fine with being dependent as well as dependent on. The need for closeness and togetherness as well as separateness can be openly expressed and received. Both partners are likely to be aware of the other’s experience and can be empathic, understanding their partner’s feelings and thoughts.
Anxious preoccupied/anxious preoccupied
If you have an anxious attachment style you would have been accustomed to a parent-child relationship where your parent was inconsistent in their response to your demands, at times meeting your needs, at other times ignoring it. Over time you would have learned to ‘crank up’ your call for attention in order to elicit a response from the parent.
In a relationship where both partners frequently demand that their needs are met there is likely to be a high level of disagreement and conflict in the relationship. This is not always openly expressed. Often both partners sulk rather than argue. In this relationship, partners compete for attention and for being in the dependent position while at the same time not offering dependency to the other.
Avoidant dismissive/avoidant dismissive
If you are avoidant you present as hyper independent and self-sufficient. You have learned to not acknowledge feelings of dependency and vulnerability. In a relationship with two avoidant partners any sign of dependency — either in the self or the partner — will be perceived as threatening and therefore repressed. Most relationships of this type don’t tend to be long term. However, if both partners continue to accept the unwritten rule of ‘I’m not dependent on you and you are not dependent on me’ then the relationship can continue without open conflict until an event disrupts this status quo. This unspoken contract may not work anymore for example with the arrival of a child or one partner losing their employment. In both situation, dependency needs will become more obvious.
Anxious preoccupied/avoidant dismissive
This combination of attachment styles is the one that is usually most prevalent in couples therapy. In this relationship, two opposite positions are very entrenched with little movement between them. One partner wants more closeness and the other feels overwhelmed and engulfed by the other. Both partners highlight each other’s insecurities: the anxious partner will try to get closer; the avoidant partner reacts by withdrawing further. The anxious partner is more likely o express their discontent with the relationship, often being accused of ‘nagging’, while the other believes that the main problem with the relationship is the partner’s constant needs for arguments.
In order to both feel well in the relationship both partners need to find a way to deactivate their attachment system.
Your relationship is likely to be very up and down — up when the needs for dependency and togetherness are met, down when they are not. You often find an element of instability and dissatisfaction persisting throughout your time together. You may be arguing constantly about things that seem to be small on the face of it. You do stay in the relationship because you are emotionally connected but often feel that the relationship is not right for you.
It only takes one partner to make the relationship as a whole secure. If a secure partner is paired with either an anxious or avoidant partner the relationship overall tends to function very much like a relationship between two secure partners. The secure partner seems to be able to step into the role of being dependent on their partner as well as being dependable. They can soothe the fear of the anxious individual as well as challenge the avoidant person in assuming a position of dependency.
What do I do with this knowledge?
One of the hopeful messages of adult attachment theory is that attachment styles are stable, but they are changeable. Understanding your attachment style and that of your partner will help you clarify your own as well as your partner’s thoughts, behavior and feelings better. Understanding can generate new insights and helps you working towards a more secure and adult relationship. If you are insecure you can work on challenging your old relationship templates by recognizing your fears and addressing them in a more adult way.
Fisher, James, Crandell, Lisa (1997). Pattern of relating in the couple in Sexual and Marital, volume 12, 3: 211–223, Taylor & Francis online
Fletcher, Garth J. O. (2002). Attachment & Intimacy. The New Science of Intimate Relationships. London: Blackwell
Levine, Amir and Heller, Rachel (2010). Attached. Identify your attachment style and find your perfect match. London: Rodale.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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