As human beings, we are all wired with an inherent desire to connect and form bonds with others. We all want to love and be loved in return. That sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice, as we all know, it can be a bit more tricky.
I am friends with a couple who really love each other, but their interactions are fraught with conflict. They are both capable of having a secure, intimate relationship based on love and respect where both people are getting their needs met. In reality, though, they are unable to defuse even the slightest disagreement from becoming a huge argument. Every battle becomes personal and grows to include a long list of historical grievances on each side.
She is very warm and open, a naturally loving person. The way that she attempts to make her husband happy and support their marriage is to accommodate his needs. She’s a people pleaser. However, her own needs go unmet, which she tries to ignore, but in reality she is very unhappy. It seems the more she tries to please him, the more distant he becomes and she develops a great deal of anxiety about the relationship. She begins to take everything personally and spins even innocuous comments into negative ones.
When her insecurity in the relationship peaks she withdraws, but in a way that is calculated to get his attention and draw him back in. Alternatively, she will call and text him too frequently.
Her pattern is to:
- Please him
- Become Unhappy
- Spin out of control
This is the very definition of a vicious cycle!
She is a classic example of the attachment style classified as anxious. Her husband is a classic avoidant. He creates distance and prizes independence and autonomy over-reliance on others. He can be intimate, but he really would prefer not to share his feelings. While married, he maintains the illusion of freedom by being dissatisfied and thus creating mental distance. He constantly focuses on her flaws and idealizes his life before marriage, believing that a different woman would have been a more suitable wife.
From his perspective, all of her attempts at closeness look like attempts to control or manipulate him. The more she yearns for closeness, the more avoidant he becomes which manifests in behaviors that create even more distance, such as flirting with others, unilateral decision making, or a refusal to share even insignificant details about his day to day routines.
The needier she feels, the stronger and more self-sufficient he feels. But this is all an act on his part, he wants connection and closeness with is wife, he’s simply repressed that need out of fear. He only pretends that he doesn’t need her love and affection. The danger in this is that if you lie to yourself consistently, you begin to believe the lie is true.
I’ve explained avoidant and anxious, the third attachment style is ‘secure.’ A person with a secure attachment style doesn’t play games. They are comfortable sharing their needs, thoughts, and desires, and are respectful and supportive of their partners. They forgive easily and focus on problem-solving rather than winning when conflicts arise. Secure people form deep bonds of interdependence, not co-dependence.
Studies estimate that 50% of people have a secure attachment style, while 20% are anxious and 25% are avoidant. (I cannot even begin to guess what that other 5% is off doing.)
For most, attachment styles begin with Mom. From a purely biological point of view, forming a deep bond between mother and infant is important for the very survival of the child. But as the child develops and grows into a toddler, the type of relationship that the mother and child have can vary dramatically and have a lasting impact on the way we behave in adult relationships.
Social scientists observe that toddlers whose mothers are close by are more outgoing, curious, and playful. The proximity of their mother creates a circle of safety, or creativity, and they exhibit far more confidence to explore their environment. This is the interaction that leads to secure attachment styles. As we get older and we find adult partners, our circle of safety extends far beyond just a room. Knowing that we are loved and supported in our relationship gives us more confidence in our work, projects, and every aspect of our lives.
Many experiences shape who we are and how we relate with others. People who had avoidant parents may emulate that style and become avoidant as well, or because they were desperate for their parents love, become anxious in their attachment behaviors. Interestingly, and sadly, people with an anxious attachment style will often attract avoidants, while being disinterested in someone with a secure attachment style! Even though these relationships are uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing, they are familiar and therefore perceived as ’safe’ (the devil you know…). Often, those with anxious attachment styles hold beliefs of not being good enough or lovable.
On the other hand, distancers, those with avoidant attachment styles, love being pursued. It sustains them emotionally. Being in a relationship with another distancer would prove completely emotionally unsatisfying.
If any of this is hitting too close to home, don’t worry; with conscious effort you can train yourself to alter your behaviors. Interestingly, this list applies to both the anxious and the avoidants.
- Know your worth. You are lovable and deserve to be loved. You were sent to this world with a unique purpose, one that only you can fulfill. You are whole and powerful and absolutely deserving of love.
- Identify and then ask for what you really want. Repressing your true desires sends your partner the wrong message. Kabbalah literally means ‘to receive.’ We are all meant to be fulfilled, to have and share all the blessings that this life can offer. Often, the first step is to allow yourself to want them and then have the courage to ask for what you want.
- Be authentic. Do not play games.
- Accept yourself and accept others. Do not be fault-finding. Judgment invites more judgment. Whether you are judging yourself, or your partner, you will find that the judgments begin to multiply. Conversely, giving someone the benefit of the doubt or treating yourself with mercy invites more mercy into your life.
- Stop reacting. When we react to situations we are at the mercy of the situation and prone to fall into the mindset of a victim of circumstance. Stopping yourself from responding in a reactive and often damaging way allows a more proactive energy to come into the interaction. Every time we act or speak we have a choice, we can say or do positive things or decide to make things worse with negative actions or words.
- Learn to see issues as not happening to you, but rather happening to ‘us.’ Some of the strongest couples I know approach life from the perspective of “we.”
Thought Into Action
Even if you have a secure attachment style, avoidant or anxious behaviors may surface. Identify them and think about the emotions that underlie that behavior.