July 28, 2016
By Tobey Mandel, PhD, Psychologist
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:
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.
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.
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.
This is a difficult transition, as couples often become used 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!
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.