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attachment theory

Navigating the world of romantic relationships: How to minimize conflict and move towards feeling more connected

Navigating the world of romantic relationships: How to minimize conflict and move towards feeling more connected

Close relationships, especially those that involve a romantic partner, have been shown time and again to be key in a person’s long-term happiness. A recent Harvard study that spanned a period of 75 years actually demonstrated that relationships, more than anything else (such as career success or financial security) predicted the greatest degree of happiness over time!

So, why does it seem so difficult at times to feel connected and satisfied in our romantic relationships? One important factor that plays a role in our ability to connect and understand our partner stems from our attachment style. Attachment style stems from childhood and refers to the way in which we perceive our ability to be connected, trust, and depend on others. Securely attached individuals are thought to acknowledge and accept distress, and reach out to others for social support. Insecurely attached individuals, however, demonstrate more difficulty when encountering distress. Two types of insecure attachment exist, namely anxiously attachment and avoidant attachment. Individuals who exhibit anxious attachment styles are thought to respond to distress by overly focusing on it and seeking an unnecessarily high degree of support from their partner, whereas individuals with avoidant attachment styles respond to distress by attempting to downplay its importance, leading them to avoid seeking social support when needed. As you can imagine, these types of relating in insecurely attached individuals can create conflict in a couple. Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in understanding couple conflict and promoting healthy relationships, has shown that insecurely attached individuals relate to each other in predictable ways, meaning that we can both predict and adjust the way we relate to our partner.  

Dr. Johnson refers to the idea that love is a dance, and couples who are struggling to feel connected often end up in a predictable dance where neither feels heard or appreciated by their partner. To help clarify things, here’s an example of a conflict with a couple where each person exhibits some form of insecure attachment:

  • Wife (anxiously attached): I’m upset that we didn’t spend time together this weekend, and I don’t feel like it bothered you in the least.
  • Husband (avoidantly attached): You’re being too sensitive, it’s not a big deal that we didn’t spend time together, we see each other every day.
  • Wife: How can you say that? We barely have a chance to talk before going to bed!
  • Husband: I can’t listen to this again. It’s always the same conversation.
  • Wife (escalating conflict, yelling): You never want to listen, you’re always running off, you never care about how I feel, you never help out around the house, I’m so upset with you!
  • Husband: (Silence, turns away). 
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The above example depicts a wife, who is experiencing a sense of disconnection from her partner, and in order to elicit that connection and reduce her feelings of anxiety, is becoming critical of her husband’s role in the relationship. At the same time, the example shows a husband who is avoidantly attached, and who is feeling overwhelmed by his wife’s criticism, and therefore is resorting to shutting down and avoiding the situation in order for it not to escalate further. This type of “dance” is referred to as the demand-withdraw dance, where one person is trying to calm their anxiety by approaching the other and their partner is feeling flooded and overwhelmed with criticism, which leads them to flee the situation emotionally or physically (or both).  

For a long period of time, couples would come to therapy describing this type of argument, and therapists would get caught up in the details of the argument (in this case, spending time together). However, research has now shown that the details surrounding the argument are not especially important, but rather the way in which each partner is relating to one another is what matters most. The demand-withdraw dance is really a demonstration that each person in the couple is screaming out for connection, but is simultaneously terrified of being either abandoned or criticized. Neither partner wants to take the first step to let their guard down, for fear that they will be left alone or attacked.

So where does that leave us? Now that we have a better understanding of why and how couples feel disconnected and afraid, we can work towards developing healthier and more pleasurable patterns of relating to one another.

Step 1: Recognize the dance

By noticing that both partners play a crucial role in the escalation of conflict, couples can begin to minimize the amount of blame they place on each other and come to view the “dance” as the shared enemy. By noticing when the dance begins, they can slow down their way of relating and take time to be more mindful of the way in which they communicate their needs.

Step 2: Step back and realize that you are each yearning for connection, but are afraid to risk being hurt

By acknowledging that you and your partner’s fear is what is preventing you from feeling connected, you can begin to view your shared vulnerability as an opportunity for connection. Both partners care about one another and want to connect, and beginning to view the arguments as a call for connection and not an attack helps to lower defenses and leads couples to communicate about the underlying vulnerability that they share.

Step 3: Replace criticism with kindness

This is a difficult transition, as couples often become use to being critical or defensive. However, shifting your perspective from blaming your partner to giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, makes it easier to respond to one another with kindness and compassion. Ultimately, this is the person with whom you share your life, so it makes sense to treat them more than anyone with kindness, compassion and respect. Once you begin relating in a kinder way, you begin to step outside of the negative dance and into a more meaningful, positive way of relating.

Knowing that much of the way we relate to our partners is due to our attachments that were formed in childhood can help us to better understand the dynamic and also recognize that we do in fact have control over the way we relate to one another. By sharing your fear and vulnerability and not attacking each other, couples can begin to feel more connected over time, which relates to a more engaging and rewarding relationship over the long term! 


Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


REFERENCES

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Gotham Books: New York.

Cooper, M. L., Shaver, P. R., & Collins, N. L. Attachment styles, emotion regulation, and adjustment in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1380-97.

Johnson, S. M. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown, and Company: New York.

Johnson, S. M., Makinen, J. A., & Millikin, J. W. (2001). Attachment injuries in couple relationships: A new perspective on impasses in couples therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 27, 145-155

Kobak, R. R., & Sceery, M. (1988). Attachment in late adolescence: Working models, affect regulation, and representations of self and others. Child Development, 59, 135-146.

Attachment Theory: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Attachment Theory: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Ever wonder why some individuals seem to effortlessly trust people, while others fear rejection or become uncomfortable when relationships get serious? Many of us have heard that our connections with our parents may play a role in our relationships as adults (Bowlby, 1969, 1982), but how exactly does this work? And does this mean that those of us who had difficult upbringings are doomed to have problematic friendships and marriages later in life?

Researchers have been studying these questions for decades, in part because relationships have been shown to contribute to our health and happiness.

As children, our primary attachment figures usually consist of our parents (often the mother in North American cultures). Research originating with Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) showed that

  • Children whose parents are consistently responsive may develop what is called “secure attachment”. This means that, for example, each time her baby cries, the mother responds in an appropriate and reliable way. Through these experience, these children learn that their caregivers can be trusted to meet their needs.

  • Children whose caregivers respond in an inconsistent way may develop what is called “ambivalent/resistant attachment”. For instance, when her child is upset, the mother may provide warmth and reassurance sometimes, but she may be unresponsive or critical at other times. Because these children do not know what to expect, they may then become anxious that their caregivers will not be available when they are needed.

  • Kids whose parents act in a consistent but critical/rejecting way develop what is called “avoidant attachment”. These parents are reliably harsh or cold with their children. These kids then learn that their caregivers cannot be counted on to address their needs.

  • A fourth category called “disorganized attachment”, which is related to situations like abusive parenting, was later added by Mary Main and colleagues (Main & Hesse, 1990; Main & Solomon, 1990).

Wondering how they measure attachment styles in kids? This brief video provides a good demonstration: 

As teens and adults, we form connections with secondary attachment figures like friends or dating partners. Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) described adult attachment like this:

  • Secure attachment: These adults have a positive view of themselves, and a positive view of others. They believe that they deserve to be loved, and that others can be depended on to provide this care for them. They tend to feel comfortable in relationships with others.

  • Preoccupied attachment: These adults have a negative view of themselves, and a positive view of others. They desperately want to be accepted by others, but they doubt that they merit such love and attention. They can be anxious that their friends or partners will reject them. They are sometimes described as “clingy”.

  • Dismissing attachment: These individuals have a positive view of themselves, and a negative view of others. They prefer to focus on independence and self-sufficiency rather than relationships. They may feel uncomfortable if someone wants to become close with them.

  • Fearful attachment: These individuals have a negative view of themselves, and a negative view of others. They do not feel like they deserve to be cared for by others, and they view relationship partners as undependable.

Preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful attachment are types of insecure attachment. Preoccupied people can be seen as pulling others towards them, while dismissing people can be viewed as pushing others away from them.

Is there a direct link between our attachment style as kids and as adults? Do insecurely attached kids all become insecurely attached adults? Not necessarily! Studies show that there is only a moderate relationship between our attachment styles over time (Fraley, 2002; Pinquart, Feussner, & Ahnert, 2013), suggesting that some people do change attachment styles! How does this happen? One possibility is that people can have “corrective attachment experiences”; someone who was insecurely attached as a child may, for example, go on to have a really supportive best friend, a loving partner, or a close connection with another relative like a grandparent. Even though they did not form a secure attachment to their parents, these other experiences can show them that some individuals can be trusted, and just as importantly, that they themselves are worthy of love.

Curious what your attachment style is? You can find out by completing this quick questionnaire: What is your attachment style?

There are many ways that your attachment style can impact your relationships. For example, a preoccupied person may repeatedly ask for reassurance that his partner still loves him, while a dismissing person may find himself pushing relationship partners away (perhaps even feeling “trapped” or “claustrophobic” when others seem to get too close). A fearfully attached individual may find themselves playing “push-pull games” and testing to see if their relationship partners will stick around. A therapist can help individuals identify their relationship patterns and work to improve them if they are problematic. For example, relaxation and stress-management techniques can help preoccupied individuals manage the anxiety/fear that others will abandon them.

Finally, learning about your attachment style can help you gain more self-awareness, self-compassion and insight into why you may feel or act certain ways – whether it be at the beginning, middle or end of a relationship. And remember - knowledge is power! 


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: Assessed in the strange situation and at home. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a
four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.

Bowlby, J. (1969, 1982). Attachment and loss: Volume l - Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Fraley, R. C. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 6, 123–151. 

Main, M., & Hesse, E. (1990). Parents' unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism?

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention, 1, 121-160.

Pinquart, M., Feussner, C., & Ahnert, L. (2013). Meta-analytic evidence for stability in attachments from infancy to early adulthood. Attach Hum Dev, 15, 189-218. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2013.746257