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Relationships and Coupling: Attachment Theory – Part Two
Falling in love can be one of the most profound and exhilarating of all human emotions but long-term partnering can be challenging. Over time, the patterns of behaviour which develop can lead to growing distance and much unhappiness. And our interpretations of these behaviours can also be unhelpful or destructive. Emotional distance might be read as lack of love whilst a constant need for contact and reassurance might look like lack of trust.
Does your partner avoid conflict, seem emotionally unavailable or absent? Conversely does your partner appear needy, cling and then accuse you of lack of empathy?
In Part 2 of our Attachment Theory series, we will explore how the attachment experiences from early childhood impact later relationships from the partners we choose to what we need from them. We know now that our style of attachment plays a role at every stage of the coupling process, from partner selection to the nature and success of the relationship and to the stressors that may eventually end it. Understanding your own attachment style and that of your partner will provide insight into relationship risks and vulnerabilities by shedding light on what each partner needs from an intimate partner and how they will approach getting those needs met.
Although broadly speaking a secure attachment pattern is likely to indicate a self-assured person, able to ensure their needs are met, those with other attachment styles will need to learn how to consciously choose better or learn how to recognise their needs and how to get them met without damaging the relationship.
Non-secure attachments account for around 40% of the population. Far from being a small fringe this means that a great many people that meet, date and fall in love with will have some insecurity in their attachment style. Understanding the impacts of these styles is critical to successful relationships for and with these people.
In the avoidance style, the expectation from childhood is that needs will not be met anyway and that the appropriate way to behave is to appear or be self-contained or not acknowledge any emotional needs at all.
On the other hand, those in the anxious attachment condition feel a constant need for the presence and validation of a partner. People with anxious attachment styles may demonstrate more consistency in their needs but the behaviour can be just as self-defeating. A need for constant reassurance and proximity can push their partners further away, sparking a downward spiral of greater insecurity and greater need. Harder still, people with this attachment style may well see independence in their partner as a sign of pulling away, withdrawing whether this behaviour is a coping mechanism in response to the self belief that ‘no one is really there for you’, unmanageable need or simply normal sociable behaviour.
For those with disorganised attachment style, the relationship may be characterised by distance and ambivalence. Afraid of both being too close and being too distant from others, relationships are often rocky as they both push and pull their partners. Frequently overwhelmed by their needs and inability to control their reactions to those needs their emotional disorganisation will feel like mixed messages to their partner.
Here at All Relationship Matters, we use Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT) to help couples locate their valid attachment needs beneath their disconnection and conflict and how they manifest in the relationship. Many therapeutic approaches work with couples to resolve the topics of arguments or learn how to argue better; they establish date nights and common ground and teach couples how to fight fair. We go far beyond that to understand the undercurrents of conflict and validate both partners assumed positions in the relationship.
Take the example of Louise and James (not their real names). They are married couple, with 2 children, both are well-educated professionals. James is an Engineer and Louise is in Marketing. As is so frequently the case, they approached us when all else had failed and when the word ‘separation’ started rearing its head. In our first session, Louise complains that she can never get James off his iPhone and laptop that she feels burdened by being a full time contributor to the household financially as well as the primary (perhaps sole) carer to the children. James feels stressed, undermined, like the kids are out of control but that his authority had been challenged to the point where he can’t intervene. With Louise constantly pointing out his faults, he retreats to the safety of technology. Over the course of a few sessions, it is clear from the behaviours described by each that James is in the Avoidant Attachment category, whilst Louise clearly exhibits the Anxious Attachment style.
I worked first to help them understand the drivers of these attachment styles and which behaviours stemmed directly from them. As our sessions progressed we looked at how each partners competing needs for intimacy and safety are acted out, currently via negative interaction cycles which were worsening the situation before gradually beginning to replace those with positive interaction cycles which validates both partner’s needs and position. For Louise her anxious attachment style ensured that she saw and remembered every instance of disconnection, distancing or rejection (from the time she reached for his hand on their wedding day and he didn’t reach back to his retreats to the garden after work). Louise felt alone in the relationship. Over time James learns that Louise’s need for reassurance and tuning in to Louise goes a long way to making her feel calm and seen. The bonus is when James is able to comfort Louise, it made him feel good and adequate. James's avoidant style is based on a fundamental sense of feeling not good enough This triggers his feelings of inadequacy. This in turn makes him mistrust and doubt the affection he receives. Louise's criticism has made him gun-shy and his distance is simply self-preservation. Gradually Louise learns that James needs are for safety, acknowledgement and reassurance. She sees that this approach goes further in delivering an emotionally supportive, engaging partner and co-parent than anger or nagging ever could have.
The attachment style you developed as a child doesn’t have to define your adult life. As with so many areas of our lives, self-awareness and emotionally honesty, with a little therapeutic help, offer the tools to defend against repeating negative and damaging pattern instead developing new styles of attachment for sustaining a satisfying, loving relationship. Seeing your partner simply as needy or clingy or for that matter emotionally distant is an over-simplification and a missed opportunity. Yes, we often partner with people who repeat the patterns of childhood, locking in patterns that are less than ideal and yes this may feel like a cruel irony. But looked at another way, it is also a second chance. There is hope. As a child, we have no choice but to accept the hand we’re dealt; as an adult, we exercise choice and control.