Being in a loving, secure relationship can be incredibly rewarding. Especially one where trust is at the heart, loyalty prevails and care for one another is a priority.
But what happens when, despite the love, something doesn’t feel quite right? Perhaps arguments occur when the other person doesn’t step up in the way we wish they would, or we feel misunderstood, neglected or attacked when it comes to resolving everyday issues. It is common for even those in long-term relationships to feel they and their partner want different things from the union. For some, that balance might be impossible to overcome and could, in time, lead to a relationship breakdown. Others may compromise by putting their own needs on the backburner.
According to relationship psychotherapist Pam Custers, there is a way to tackle these differences without losing who we are or the relationship in the process – and the key is in establishing why we have the needs we do. We can learn the reason behind those needs by identifying our individual, and our partner’s, ‘attachment style’ – a term that is used by psychologists to describe how human beings respond in relationships when hurt, are separated from loved ones or perceive a threat.
“Our attachment style is predominantly laid down during our early development,” explains Pam. “From our first breath, we look to our parents for availability and response. Our early emotional equilibrium affects how we function within a relationship as an adult. Essentially, our attachment style becomes a template for how we manage emotional triggers when we get older.”
Research into the ‘attachment theory’ was pioneered by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Denver University psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver presented readers of Colorado newspaper, Rocky Mountain News, with three descriptions – asking them to decide which statement they identified with the most. Each statement described a pattern of feelings we are likely to experience in relationships, each corresponding with three different attachment styles. In using the same statements, listed below, we too can identify which category we fall into:
- I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
- I find others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, but this sometimes scares people.
- I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others and find it difficult to trust them completely and difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close and often others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
The School of Life (theschooloflife.com) writes that in the first option, ‘love and trust come easily and signals a secure attachment’. While the second statement shows an anxious attachment pattern, ‘where one longs to be intimate with others but is consistently scared of let down and can precipitate crisis in relationships with counterproductive aggressive behaviour’. The third statement refers to what is known as avoidant attachment, where it might ‘feel easier to avoid the dangers of intimacy through solitary activities and emotional withdrawal’.
It is thought around 40 percent of us fall into either the anxious or avoidant attachment categories. Although a large percentage of people are also securely attached, in times of stress – such as during an argument with our partner – our survival triggers can come out on an emotional level and we may err towards anxious or avoidant attachment. While in an ideal world we would all feel securely attached all the time, we can’t help which attachment style we naturally fall into.
Understanding your attachment style
Pam explains: “Our attachment style is like the colour of our eyes. It just is. Attachment styles occur across the world, whether you live in downtown Manhattan or are from an Inuit community. It does change with our surroundings and situations and may get slightly tampered as we grow. Most of us are often in a continuum between anxious attachment and secure, or avoidant attachment and secure. To help ourselves and our relationships, we simply must try to understand how we operate ahead of time.” Research tells us that a large proportion of people who are anxiously attached tend to fall in love with someone who shows signs of avoidant attachment. This is a common situation, but it can lead to couples inadvertently aggravating their partner’s insecurities or constantly triggering each other. This, in turn, can result in both parties polarising, despite loving and caring for each other.
“It’s like having an Apple Mac talking to a PC,” Pam explains. “Files are sent across and both systems can read those files without any problem most of the time. However, when there is a complex file being sent, there may be more difficulty in opening and processing it.”
If we take the time to comprehend our attachment style and that of our partner, we can accept we operate in different ways emotionally. Having this knowledge of each other is important for creating a healthier approach to solving problems. It is only when we reach this stage of understanding that progressive and positive conversations can go ahead, without potentially sending our partner into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
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According to The School of Life, those of us who fall into avoidant attachment may find it valuable to recognise just how much we ‘check out’ emotionally when things are intense, and how difficult that can be for an anxiously attached partner to comprehend. It is possible that in the past closeness seemed frightening to someone who is avoidant, and as a result we have developed this coping strategy of removal to protect ourselves. In contrast, those of us who are anxiously attached and with an avoidant partner may simply need to adjust the way we ask for more love, perhaps by toning down anger or intensity, and explaining in practical terms how it helps us to be reassured. Accepting that the avoidant person’s quietness or distance isn’t a sign of a lack of love but may be their way of keeping a balance of emotion, is also key.
Once we know our partner is not acting a particular way due to a lack of care, or because they are purposefully trying to attack or hurt us, we can help each other handle the situation more easily. We can then deal with issues that may arise with openness, honesty and an understanding of how the other person might be feeling.
“Having available, responsible and engaged conversations can make all the difference,” explains Pam. “When an avoidant partner realises their anxiously attached partner is only fearful of losing them, they can emotionally step forward and reassure them. If the avoidant partner goes quiet, the anxiously attached person can also recognise what is happening and won’t act aggressively to close them down further. Both parties can then move forward and solve the problem without causing more anxiety or withdrawal.”
While our attachment styles may adapt with our self-esteem and through significant life experiences – from parental nurturing, friendships and how we have been treated in former romantic relationships – it is the willingness to understand ourselves and our partner’s needs that allows for a happy, thriving relationship. This teamwork, where both parties can work together to set each other free from any negative feelings, enables the co-creation of a healthy relationship. If we look after that connection and consider each other’s needs, we are not only taking care of our partner’s emotional health, but ours, too.
Understanding an attachment disconnect
Spotting signs of an attachment disconnect is an important step
- “We don’t fall in love with our clone – and it’s common for many women and men who are anxious to attract a more avoidant person,” explains Pam Custers. “My advice is that we can all benefit from understanding our own attachment style, and that of our partner.
- “Sometimes it can feel like our partner is deliberately thwarting us – and that’s not to say in some relationships this may well be the case. Your partner may not be emotionally available or invested in the relationship, but that’s a different conversation.
- “If your partner and you are prioritising your relationship as being the primary one in both your lives, and you’re still having difficult arguments, then understanding your attachment style will facilitate how you maximise – and benefit emotionally from – your relationship.”
About Pam Custers
Pam is a psychotherapist and coach who specialises relationships. She leads the team at The Relationship Practice working with individuals, couples and families.