The therapist: “When the two of you argue, how do you react?”
Me: “I think we argue healthily most of the time. But, on the rare occasion when we both feel attacked by the other, we have opposite reactions. I need to keep talking through it to get to a conclusion.”
Him: “And I just need to go be alone.”
Any couple stands to benefit from learning about their attachment style— a theory originally proposed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Attachment styles start young- very young- in response to a baby’s attachment to their primary caregiver. As we get older, we hold onto these tendencies, and they primarily show up when we find a new attachment figure— in the case here, a romantic partner. Recognizing Patterns– a competency from Six Seconds’ Know Yourself model, empowers couples to learn about their attachment style patterns and change their behaviors from reacting to acting intentionally. Understanding you and your partner’s attachment style opens up a world of understanding about how you fight and play together— and how to do it even better.
ATTACHMENT STYLE WORKS LIKE THIS...
According to Bowlby’s Attachment Style Theory, infants learn certain behaviors that vary based on the perceived proximity of their primary attachment figure (in many cases, this is the milk-giving mother). If the baby perceives the primary attachment figure (PAF) as close by, they feel relaxed, loved, and secure. However, if the baby does not perceive that the PAF is close by, they will become anxious and employ behaviors to encourage proximity (crying, reaching out, etc.) Then, based on the response of these babies to their PAF, they fall into one or a mixture of three attachment style categories: secure, anxious-resistant, and avoidant.
Secure attachment style (60% of babies): These babies express distress when the PAF leaves the room, but when the PAF returns, the babies actively seek their attention and are easily comforted and reassured. They are aware of their needs and feel comfortable having them met.
Anxious-resistant attachment style (20% of babies): These babies seem a little distressed to begin with, and they become incredibly distressed when the PAF leaves the room. When they are reunited with their PAF, they are difficult to console. Interestingly, these babies show conflicting behaviors; they alternate between reveling in the soothing actions of their PAF and trying to push them away. They can’t seem to be filled up with enough attention.
Avoidant attachment style (20% of babies): These babies do not seem very distressed by their PAF leaving the room, and they are indifferent to (or actively avoid) the soothing attempts by their PAF. They seem to always push away attention.
WE ARE TALKING ABOUT BABIES HERE, BUT DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?
Adults often keep the attachment style patterns they learned as babies. Have you been in a relationship or friendship with someone who mirrors the infant attachment style behaviors in an adult way?
I can’t count how many friends, loved ones, and clients have come to me, perplexed, about this same conundrum with their partner:
“WHEN WE ARGUE, ONE OF US PUSHES THE OTHER AWAY, THEN THE OTHER ONE CLINGS ON FOR DEAR LIFE IN RESPONSE, AND WE END UP IN THIS EMOTIONALLY-EXPLOSIVE, UNNAVIGABLE GRIDLOCK OF CONTRADICTORY NEEDS.”
With varying degrees of intensity, I hear this sentiment a lot. If you share it, you are not alone. Having mismatched attachment styles does not mean that you are incompatible, broken, needy, or impossible (really— look at the encouraging research!) Your attachment style does means that you have a pattern. Once you recognize your pattern, you have the understanding you need to apply consequential thinking and make a plan.
PATTERNS: THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH ME, AND THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU
Let’s think back to my example at the beginning with the therapist, when I said “I need to talk through things until they are resolved” and he said “and I need to go be alone.” This conversation was literally revelatory for me because I finally figured out that there was nothing wrong with me or with him. We simply have oppositional attachment style patterns that, now that we recognize them, we can navigate.
By the way, your attachment style is not black and white. Attachment styles are a spectrum, and you may find yourself identifying with varying shades of gray. My partner and I are actually both primarily secure (and boost this by prioritizing healthy communication), but he has a tendency to be avoidant. I have a tendency to be anxious-resistant. Those very patterns that we saw in Ainsworth’s experiment with babies show up in our adult life, too. But now, the partner is the PAF, instead of the parent.
WHAT IS YOUR ADULT ATTACHMENT STYLE?
Secure: You give and receive love and attention with your partner. You recognize when you are feeling too far or too close to them, and you feel comfortable asking for more space or more attention. Your worth does not feel threatened by the actions of the other. You feel comfortable exploring the world away from your partner, and you feel confident that their love is still waiting for you when you return.
Anxious-resistant: You need more attention and affection from your partner to feel loved. You often feel too far from them, and you may easily become jealous if someone else has their attention. You may hate going to bed angry; you need arguments to be resolved before you can feel “whole” again. You may feel anxious when you are away from your partner; you worry that their love for you might be lost while they are away. You may have been labeled “clingy” or “needy” by some partners.
Avoidant: You are reluctant to give or receive affection. You highly value independence and personal space. You may have trouble staying in relationships for any length of time, especially if your partner is also avoidant or is anxious-resistant, because you quickly see how being in a relationship means giving up some independence. When you and your partner get in an argument, you go into self-preservation mode, needing to be alone or prioritizing your own needs. You may have been labeled “selfish” or “cold” by some partners.
And then there’s all the gray. Perhaps, like me, you are secure until an argument gets really intense, or perhaps you are slightly anxious-resistant all the time. Whatever you and your partner’s pattern is, knowing it is the key to navigating it.
WHERE "STAY AWAY!" AND "STAY WITH ME!" LIVE LONG AND HAPPY LIVES
ANXIOUS-RESISTANT (ASHLEY) & AVOIDANT (LUKE)
During arguments, Luke wants space and Ashley wants closeness. It took them a while to recognize this pattern, but now they understand what to look out for. At some point during an argument, Luke recognizes that he is feeling overwhelmed and trapped; he wants to find the nearest exit. In the past, this is exactly what he would do: leave the argument to take care of himself while Ashley was left feeling desperate and uncared for. Ashley finally talked to Luke about this pattern, and they were both able to empathetically understand the other’s point of view.
So they used their consequential thinking come up with a plan. When they argue, and Luke feels the pull to be alone, he has a pre-determined amount of time that he gets to be completely alone. This can be 30 minutes, 3 hours, a day, a weekend… but it is decided on in advance. When the time is up, he is completely expected to return to the conversation with Ashley (hopefully with fresh energy). Since Ashley knows that there is a limit to her time alone, she feels more secure. She focuses on grounding her own energy during this time— doing techniques to build up her own self-esteem, talking (ideally not trash talking!) to supportive friends and family. If Luke forgets to come back, it is her job to gently remind him that they have a promise he needs to uphold with her. In this situation, both of them get their needs met; he gets space, and she gets connection.
AVOIDANT (LUCY) & AVOIDANT (PREET)
Both having avoidant attachment styles, Lucy and Preet can have a hard time remembering why it’s nice to be in a relationship; sometimes they’d rather be alone. Engaging in empathy is a challenge for both of them, so they have a hard time seeing from the other’s point of view. The trick for Lucy and Preet is to remember their long-term goal together to make all the work of a relationship worth it. While they both deeply value stability and having a family, they easily forget that maintaining a good relationship takes some emotional work. Remembering their values of stability helps them think optimistically about their relationship, and then they feel ready to make some important changes.
So they’ve used their consequential thinking to come up with a plan. They schedule time once a week to connect as a couple. They wrote up a document together explaining why the other is important to them, and they reference it after they argue (during the same alone time Luke takes). This helps tie together their strong intrinsic motivation with their challenging lack of empathy. They prioritize alone time, so they sometimes use it to express their love for one another; Lucy likes to write Preet notes, and Preet likes to buy Lucy thoughtful gifts. Since Lucy and Preet have a tendency to ignore issues between them, they’ve found a trusted therapist who helps them draw out their thoughts on different issues that come up. Together, they are learning that giving and receiving love can be a beautiful, safe thing.
ANXIOUS-RESISTANT (JOHN) & ANXIOUS-RESISTANT (JANE)
John and Jane love each other dearly, but they can both run hot and cold. They shower each other with affection, but as soon as one of them feels hurt, they close up and expect the other to chase them. Because navigating emotions is challenging for both of them, talking about and validating emotions is extra important. They have a plan for doing this: as soon as one person feels hurt, they communicate exactly how they are feeling, taking care to use ‘I’ statements and communicating non-threateningly. Then, the other knows it is their responsibility to offer love, safety, and understanding. They take turns doing this as needed. This way, both of them have their needs met. They also have learned to value taking time apart to develop their own interests. In the past, they spent all of their time together and became slightly codependent. While they are both strongly empathetic, they are learning to bolster their intrinsic motivation by taking time alone. They are learning that they can also look for love from within themselves. Together, Jane and John are learning that love will be given steadily and without conditions.