Do you find yourself having the same hang-ups when it comes to your interpersonal relationships? Maybe your exes have repeatedly told you that you are emotionally distant, or perhaps you find it hard to be vulnerable. Maybe you're frustrated by how reliant you feel on your partner, or maybe you've been called "clingy".
Our "relationship issues" are not defects or faults in our character. Our default mode of relating to others, be it friends, family, or romantic partners, primarily evolve from our early experiences. At least this is what researchers and theorists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby postulated in the 1950s. Commonly referred to as attachment theory, Ainsworth and Bowlby's work has stood the test of time. The video below gives a brief overview of attachment theory.
By shedding light on why we function in relationships the way that we do, attachment theory allows us to use insight for creating change. We can actively choose to acknowledge our tendencies and mindfully challenge those tendencies.
Ainsworth and Bowlby outline three forms of attachment: secure, avoidant, and anxious.
Having one or more parent or caregiver that is responsive to our needs, both physically and emotionally, creates a secure attachment. As infants, those with secure attachments had caregivers who would pick them up and try to soothe them if they were crying. As a result, those with secure attachments generally learn to expect that their needs will be met in relationships.
People who grow up with secure attachments tend to find it easier to form relationships with emotional closeness later in life. They are more likely to effectively manage emotions and separate their thoughts and feelings. As an adult in a relationship, those with secure attachments assume that if they have a need, their partner will try to fulfill that need. They are able to articulate their needs with the expectation that their partners will do their best to meet those needs.
Barriers / things to work on for the securely attached:
Building skills to more accurately label emotions.
Having tools and skills to be more effective in communicating.
Practicing assertive communication.
When a child’s needs are sometimes met and at other times ignored, an anxious attachment style is created. At times caregivers may be nurturing and at other times they may be emotionally or physical unavailable or distant. As a result, children are left feeling confused, anxious, and insecure in the relationship. The caregiver’s inconsistency usually prompts children to attempt to cling to them.
As adults, those with anxious attachment styles continue to be uncertain if their needs will be met. As a result, they often do not voice their needs because they fear that their partners will not be able to meet those needs or that they will become overwhelmed by the anxiously attached person.
Often times, those with anxious attachment styles are afraid of being assertive because they fear that their partner will get mad or leave them. By bottling up their own needs, resentment can build until the anxiously attached person explodes on their partner.
Children with caregivers who are distant, consistently unavailable, or cold typically to exhibit an avoidant attachment style. Children learn that their needs will not be met.
As an adult, a person with an avoidant attachment style tends to emotionally shut out their partner. Rather than telling a partner what is wrong, the person with avoidant attachment often assumes that their partner will be unable to meet their needs. Rather than trying to fix things in a relationship, those with avoidant attachment tend to have more affairs than the other attachment styles because they are quick to write off their current partner and look to the next person to fix things.
Avoidant attachment often leads to loneliness, isolation, insecurity, and instability in relationships. These people don’t usually know how to reach for their partner and shut them out rather than articulating what they need. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be more distant and uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. They tend to say, “I’m good, I don’t need anybody.”
People with an avoidant attachment tend to be detached from their emotions, especially during periods of stress. In working to change these patterns, a person with an avoidant attachment style first must work on connecting with their internal experience and emotions. By connecting with their emotions, they will be better able to articulate their needs to their partner.
The good news: Attachment injuries can heal.
All it takes is one person. Research indicates that having as little as one person in your life that is supportive, consistent, and caring can heal attachment injuries that occur early in life.
Dr. Julie Hanks outlines the 5 skills for improving assertiveness in a relationship:
Self-reflection – understanding our past and our attachment style, how we were impacted by our family (or caregivers) of origin.
Self-awareness- understanding our own needs and building awareness around what we need.
Use of calming skills and self soothing when we are upset in a relationship.
Learning communication skills for articulating our needs.
When we begin to recognize that our partners need us and have needs to be filled, just as we have needs to be filled, we can begin to better understand them and love them unconditionally.
So, the next time you’re in the middle of a fight with your partner, try to take a moment to pause, and think about the belief you are operating from. What assumption are you making about your partner? What is the feeling, and where is it coming from?
As Dr. Hanks shares in Therapy Chat, fights about the dishes or financial issues are rarely about the surface issues. More often, fights stem from feeling misunderstood or alone in a relationship and the belief that your partner will not be able to meet your needs. Chances are, your partner is feeling the same way. When we realize that our partners are experiencing pain just as we are, we can grow in empathy and compassion and begin to say, “ok, how can we work together to meet both of our needs?”
Disclaimer: The points made above are waaaaaaay easier said than done. Fights with my partner rarely look like “let me pause and see what needs he has that aren’t being met.” I’m more of the get defensive type. Fortunately, he is often the calm and collected one, which allows us to eventually have the kind of conversation I am advocating for. If it were up to me alone, I’m not convinced we’d ever get there. Guess we are all works in progress.