You and your partner have a pattern, it may look like this: You are feeling restless, you think it’s because of your relationship. You start to wonder what is wrong in your relationship. You question if your partner is cheating on you, if they’ve fallen out of love with you, if they are no longer interested in you sexually. You start to question if you’ve gained weight, if you are boring. All this anxiety in your head causes you to start to cling to your partner. You start to question them more about where they’ve been, do they find you attractive, “how come we don’t have sex anymore?”. You plan date nights, but lingerie. The more you try, the more your partner pulls back. They ignore you, change the subject, become more focused on the TV, computer, everything else but you. All of your efforts seem to drive away your partner.
Or maybe your pattern looks more like this: Your partner brings up a conflict with you. They didn’t do the best job of bringing it up in a gentle way. You’re angry at them, you feel defensive, you can’t really put words to your feelings but your pissed and you are shutting down. Your head goes blank, you really don’t know what to say, you aren’t really even listening to your partner anymore. Your partner gets more angry, raises their voice, acts more desperate to get your attention but it doesn’t work because you’ve gone into panic mode and have checked out. The conflict escalates until someone or both of you explodes and says something that you or they regret. Both of you retreat, don’t talk about the issue, no resolution has taken place.
These are just two common patterns I see in couples. You may not realize it but both of these patterns are caused by attachment wounds and fear of abandonment.
There are 3 types of attachment; secure, anxious, and avoidant. Attachment is formed in our childhood through our relationships with our primary caregivers.
As you might have guessed, we aim for secure attachment. Someone with secure attachment is comfortable with their own feelings, comfortable with their partners feelings, enjoys intimacy and closeness but also values independence (theirs and their partners).
Most of us are anxious or avoidant. People with anxious attachment styles tend to be anxious in their relationships and tend to personalize their partners interactions. To feel secure in their relationship they tend to need frequent re-assurance from their partner, attention, and intimacy. When their partner pulls away or expresses a need for independence this makes the anxious person hold on tighter.
Avoidant attachment style people tend to value their freedom over their relationships. When they get close to intimacy and vulnerability they have the urge to push away. People who fall into this category often times are uncomfortable with their own feelings or their partners feelings.
These attachment styles can make it challenging to be in a relationship. For example, the classic dance I see in couples therapy is an anxious person who is in a relationship with an avoidant person. The push, pull of this pairing can create much conflict.
Another common mixing that I see in my work with couples is a mix of avoidant and secure. Frequently the secure person is confused by the avoidant person’s apparent lack of interest in the relationship. This pairing often comes to couples therapy saying that the relationship lacks emotional intimacy.
What can a couple do if they are finding themselves in an incompatible attachment style relationship? I first want to say that attachment styles can be changed. By learning to understand our emotions, and getting comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, and learning how to express and manage our emotions in a healthy way we can start to make the transition over to a secure attachment style.
Another option is to work on attachment styles together, with your partner, in couples therapy. Couples therapy can help you to learn how to communicate with your partner in a way that they can hear. Couples therapy can also teach you tools on how to hear what your partner is communicating with you. Beyond the basics of listening, couples therapy can also help you to learn how to negotiate for your needs in your relationship, help you to learn how to navigate conflict (because conflict is normal), and couples therapy can help you learn how to reconnect with your partner following a conflict.
It’s true that attachment styles can cause conflict in relationships. However, if we can learn to understand, express our feelings in a healthy way, and learn to communicate with our partner we can create meaningful and healthy relationships, no matter what our or our partner’s attachment style is. When we learn to understand our feelings and communicate with our partner it is entirely possible to work through conflict with our partner in a way that brings about resolution.