Have you ever felt like the same themes keep resurfacing again and again in all your romantic relationships? Maybe you feel uncertain about how much your partner cares about you, and you worry that he or she will leave you if you do something wrong or aren’t attractive enough. Or maybe you feel smothered by his or her efforts to wrangle more of a commitment from you than you’re ready to make. If you often find yourself engaged in what feels like a push-pull dynamic, chances are high that you’re gaining information about your own attachment style- and perhaps discovering that your partner’s style may differ from your own. This blog entry gives a brief introduction to the different attachment styles, and discusses how to navigate relationships with someone with a different attachment style.
In their book Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find- and Keep- Love, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller expose the three main adult attachment styles and offer advice on how to navigate romantic relationships from each of these orientations. Essentially, our attachment style determines the way in which we relate to other people, and can have an enormous impact on our level of satisfaction within relationships. An anxious attachment style is characterized by a great capacity for closeness and intimacy, accompanied by the pervasive fear that one’s partner does not want the same level of closeness. Anxiously attached people tend to take their partner’s behaviors very personally, and wish for reassurance and security (Levine & Heller, 44).
An avoidantly attached person often prefers autonomy to close relationships. He or she feels uncomfortable with too much intimacy and may be perceived as emotionally distant. Avoidant types also react strongly to any threat to their freedom or signs of control by their partner (Levine & Heller, 44).
Secure individuals are naturally warm and loving in relationships. They are effective communicators, and they easily read their partner’s emotional cues and respond to his or her needs. Secure types are not easily upset by relationship issues, and they are skilled at supporting their partner emotionally (Levine & Heller, 44). This post will focus on anxious and avoidant attachment styles, since they tend to result in more volatile, unsatisfying relationships.
When someone with an anxious attachment style pairs with an avoidantly attached person, the anxious partner will crave intimacy while the avoidant partner uses distancing strategies to avoid becoming too close. This dynamic tends to increase the anxiety of the first partner, who will attempt to get closer by protesting or eliminating the barriers the avoidant partner has placed between them. However, these efforts are in vain; intimacy requires the willing effort of both individuals. This “anxious-avoidant trap” of conflicting intimacy needs will exacerbate the insecurities of both partners. The harder the anxious partner tries to get close, the more distant the avoidant partner acts, and both partners thus remain in the relationship “danger zone”. In order to increase their feelings of security, both individuals must learn how to feel less threatened, and work to identify and address their attachment triggers. In particular, the avoidant person needs to learn to be emotionally available, and to address his or her partner’s upsets before they escalate. In return, the anxious individual can work to help their partner feel secure in maintaining a sense of independence and autonomy (Levine & Heller, 157).
Effective communication is the greatest tool to counteract the turmoil caused by conflicting attachment styles. An insecurely attached person might avoid expressing their deep desire for closeness and reassurance out of fear of being rejected, but the very act of stating such feelings in a straightforward manner is ultimately what helps an insecure person decipher whether an individual will be able to meet his or her emotional needs. If you have an anxious attachment style and your partner has done something to activate your attachment system, rather than reacting with protest behaviors – withdrawing, trying to make him or her feel jealous, not answering phone calls- stop yourself. Determine what your real needs are, and use direct communication instead, once you’ve calmed down completely. Likewise, if you have an avoidant attachment style, use effective communication particularly when you feel compelled to escape your partner. Explain that you need space, and that you would like to find a way of taking some alone time that doesn’t escalate his or her feelings of anxiety.
Effective communication is built on five basic principles.
- The first is to be emotionally brave. This requires complete honesty about your feelings.
- The second is to focus on your needs and work to convey them clearly, using verbs like need, feel, and want.
- Third, Be specific about what exactly is bothering you, rather than speaking in general terms.
- Fourth, Don’t blame your partner or make him or her feel selfish, incompetent, or inadequate- accusations will only exacerbate the conflict.
- Finally, be assertive and nonapologetic. Remember that your needs are valid, and they are crucial for your happiness (Levine & Heller, 235-237).
With work, honesty, and courage, anxious-avoidant pairings can become more satisfying and feel like less of a roller coaster. It requires a commitment from both partners to communicate effectively, and to respect each other’s needs and feelings.
Zoe is passionate about supporting women as they move through their own process of healing and growth. She is trained in Psychodynamic therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral therapy. Zoe incorporates mindfulness and creative expression into her therapy sessions in order to help clients process experiences nonverbally, in addition to traditional talk therapy and EMDR. Zoe’s background in wilderness therapy has allowed her to witness the healing power of relationships and community. She enjoys empowering individuals to build healthier support systems by helping them examine the obstacles to their intimacy. She is warm, nonjudgmental, and deeply caring.
Levine, Amir & Heller, Rachel S.F. Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find- And Keep- Love. Copyright 2010 Amir Levine & Rachel Heller.