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Stressful Patterns: How Your Attachment Style Can Help or Wreck Your Important Relationships

When it comes to relationships, your attachment style can mean the difference between bliss and torment. But what is your attachment style? Where does it come from? How does it work? To understand the concept of attachment, we must go back to the cradle and to the world which the infant first inhabits. It is a world where primary needs (food, shelter, warmth, cleanliness, security, and human contact) reign paramount. Anytime the infant must experience hunger, disconnect, isolation and pain, a little trauma is the result. When those needs are frequently left unattended, a “primal panic” can be the result, depending on the length and severity of the deprivation. Of these primary needs, the need for closeness with other human beings is the most deeply felt by the child’s mind and spirit and it can be, at times, at least as important if not more important than physical needs. It is not unusual for couples in counseling to express their intolerable distress and deep sorrow about their disconnect from their partner. For example, Jennifer says, “I just can’t seem to reach him. That is why I get so mad. I feel so alone all the time. I can’t bear it.” Or Jeff may say, “She doesn’t even seem interested in talking to me anymore, let alone have sex. All she cares about is the kids. I really don’t have a wife.” These are adult manifestations of the same longing, a cry for help in the face of a painful deprivation of emotional needs for closeness and security.

A secure attachment style results from infancy, childhood and adolescence characterized by positive, attentive, and nurturing care. A secure attachment produces individuals who are well-adjusted, who can form and sustain long-term relationships, and who are not easily defeated by any difficulties that may arise between them and significant others. Far from being overly dependent on others, they can give and take from their relationships with balance and fairness, while remaining strong, confident, and truly themselves. In this sense, a relationship that provides secure attachment can become a safe haven, a secure shelter from life’s storms of anxiety and stress. It also provides a secure base from which to explore, change, play, learn, and grow. Amy says, “Whenever my fear that I may lose my job rears up, I don’t just get angry or overwhelmed. I know that I can always can go to him and get a hug. He is there for me. I can count on him.” A partner’s emotional availability and responsiveness is at the core of establishing secure attachments.

When the infant has the misfortune to experience a caregiver who is frequently absent or unavailable, this intermittent pattern of caring and not caring is traumatic, and produces an insecure attachment style. In time, this translates into a message of rejection, devaluation, scarce importance, as if the caregiver were saying, “Your needs do not matter to me, you are not deserving of my attention, and there is only a fragile connection between us.” When children experience this type of caregiving, their reaction follows a predictable pattern. First, there is distress, crying, and emotional pain, which are the only means available to the infant to get attention. In couples, this would have Marie say, “I cry, even poke him, and poke him again. I know I nag him. Anything to get a rise out of him.” When the frantic attempts to get attention fail, the symptoms of separation distress begin to appear: angry protests, dashed hopes, desperate disappointment, negative cycles of demand and distancing. In children, this can result in acting out behaviors, physical violence toward inanimate objects, highly physical “games” in which the anger of feeling neglected can find its expression. In adult relationships, this insecure attachment may produce angry demands for attention, or the starting of trivial arguments as a way of connecting with the other even if only in a negative way. In time, these cycles of angry pursuit and defensive withdrawal become almost infallible predictors of separation and divorce. Evidence-based research by Gottman has shown that the happiest couples know how to ask for what they need from their partner in a softer, more vulnerable way and they can stay emotionally engaged even when the other partner is temporarily unavailable or distressed. On the other hand, the stonewalling that signals a complete lack of emotional response between the partners almost invariably leads to anger, contempt and then to complete withdrawal.

What can be done to remedy this toxic situation? An understanding of attachment theory and the styles exhibited by each partner is the necessary first step. Understanding alone, however, is not sufficient. Explaining, offering advice and problem solving can only go so far in soothing a partner’s emotional needs. A more indirect approach that offers emotional recognition and contact, one that says, “I am here and I get you. I have your back. Do not be afraid,” is much more likely to be effective. I have heard many spouses complain that their partner is very quick to come up with a fix, when all they want is a loving and caring emotional presence.

Within the two basic attachment styles (secure or insecure), attachment theory further identifies three sub-types of insecure attachment: anxious, avoidant, and fearful/avoidant. In the anxious variant of insecure attachment, individuals become anxiously attached and are constantly worried about the relationship. They are flooded with anxiety and alternate between angry demands and the frantic pursuit of reassurance, which often has the effect of driving their partner farther away. In avoidant attachment, individuals learn (as a defense mechanism) to minimize their emotional needs, to numb their emotions and to focus on others matters, such as work or children. With their partner, they seldom acknowledge their needs and generally do not ask for emotional connection, which often produce anxiety and deprivation in the other partner. Lastly, some individuals exhibit a mixed pattern of behavior that combines anxious pursuit and fearful avoidance of closeness. While this can give a very confusing message to their spouses, “I need you desperately—don’t get near me,” it is quite often evidence of severe childhood, adolescence or adult trauma that was experienced in relationships with significant people. Often, these are individuals who were abused or violated by attachment figures and who are now caught in the painful dilemma of seeking comfort from someone whom they also fear as a dreaded source of danger.

In couples counseling, as well as individual counseling, an exploration of each partner’s attachment style can yield surprisingly accurate results and can help explain relationship difficulties, as well as offer a way forward toward healing and emotional fulfillment.