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Relationship Dynamics – What’s your Style?

Hey!  What are you doing?!

Ever wonder why you act the way you do – Like that time that you couldn’t wait to see your significant other, but pretended instead to be busy?  Or, the other time when you were finished being mad after the fight, wanted like hell to be close, but gave the silent treatment anyway?  Or, maybe that time when you made passionate love for hours and she asked you to stay but you said no?  Why do we act like we do . . . and sometimes in counterproductive ways?!   

There are many theories that attempt to explain interactions between people. Of all of the theories I’ve studied for couples counseling, I’ve found that attachment theory is the most consistently valuable, allowing me to predict with almost perfect accuracy, how intimacy will play out and how conflict will be handled.  If you take a minute to learn your and your partner’s attachment styles, you can do the same!

Attachment Styles

Attachment styles were first recognized by researchers Bowlby and Ainsworth. Bowlby and Ainsworth found that how children were treated when they were little determined how they act towards their partner as adults. They found that there are four ways of acting, which they termed “attachment styles.” Each style is based on two things: (1) the person’ s view of him/herself as loveable and (2) the person’s view of their partner’s ability to show love. Each attachment style comes with a set of behaviors that determine how they respond during conflict, how they behave in their relationship and how they view their partner. The four attachment styles are secure, anxious-ambivalent, dismissing-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Secure                                                                            Dismissing Avoidant

I’m OK, You’re ok                                                         I’m OK, You’re not OK

Anxious-Ambivalent                                                  Fearful-Avoidant

I’m not OK, You’re okay                                                I’m not OK, You’re not OK

Secure:  The secure attachment style comes about when the parent(s) provide consistent care.  The child feels loved and believes he/she is lovable.  The child duplicates this in adulthood by selecting someone also secure.  During conflict, he/she assumes resolution will occur and so stays relatively calm and loving.  High defensiveness is not needed because the outcome is expected to be positive.  Conflicts are handled with a sense of fairness, with each showing kindness and respect towards the other. 

Dismissing-Avoidant:  The dismissing-avoidant style manifests when the parent(s) fails to show proper care.  The child feels neglected and angry.  The child fears he/she is lacking some quality that makes him/her worthy of love, but hides this insecurity by developing a grandiose (inflated) sense of self, and deciding that it is the parent(s) that are lacking.  When the child becomes an adult, he/she does the same thing – they view themselves as superior and see the other as lacking.  They blame their partner for pretty much everything and make this known, often putting their partner down.  Because their ego is fragile under the pretend grandiosity, she/he cannot accept blame for relationship issues and finds a way to make it the other person’s fault.  During arguments, he/she tends to be critical and condescending.  He/she is quick to “dump” his/her partner for not living up to their expected standards (which often are unrealistically high). 

Note:  I’ve found that sometimes the dismissing-avoidant’s parent did show care.  However, this care was demonstrated by spoiling the child, elevating the child’s status, and providing high levels of intrusive attention rather than providing nurturance.  When the child becomes an adult, he/she believes that they should be cared for in this same way by their partner. They see their partner more as a source of gratification than as a person. Making matters worse, because all of their superficial needs were always met, they were not able to build appropriate frustration tolerance.  As adults, this leaves them upset when their needs are not met and confused by their partner’s lack of ability to attend to them always. Because their focus is on continuing to have their own needs met, they tend to be inconsiderate of their partner.  For example, I know of one dismissing-avoidant woman who woke her husband up at 3 am to talk with him about a class at the local community college that she was thinking to take.  She didn’t care that he had to get up the next morning for work and would be tired.  She never considered that there may be a preferred time to talk as that’s what she wanted in the moment.  The partner of the dismissing-avoidant often is treated as a means-to-an-end rather than as a person also having needs and desires.

Anxious-Ambivalent:  The anxious-ambivalent attachment style arises from inconsistent parental care. The child sees that sometimes his parent cares for him well and subsequently believes the problem must be on his/her end – that care in that moment must be dependent upon his/her own behavior.  The child blames himself and tries to behave in ways to get the love and attention that he/she craves. When the child becomes an adult, he/she is clingy, emotional, needy and expressive (of his needs).  During an argument, s/he may holler, throw things, name call and show inconsistent behavior, moving towards the partner and then away and then back again (hence the terms anxious and ambivalent!).  Anxious-ambivalent persons often present as overly emotional and out of control.  He/she typically seeks immediate resolution of problems and is a “chaser” – chasing his/her partner until issues are resolved and a sense of security is reestablished. 

Fearful-Avoidant:  The fearful-avoidant attachment style arises when the parent(s) fails to provide needed nurturance.  The child’s perception of the issue is two-fold:  He/she believes both that the parent is incapable of providing love and also believes he/she is not worthy of it.  The child initially calls out for care, but attempts to acquire nurturance are ignored.  The screaming child stops screaming and withdrawals.  When the child becomes an adult, he/she is fearful of relationships.  He/she avoids intimacy due to a fear of not getting his/her needs met and having to relive rejection. He/she typically shows little emotion.  When in a relationship, he/she tends to withdrawal believing there is no use in extending effort that will not be met with success.  Fearful-avoidants often pursue academic, intellectual, career or spiritual efforts to acquire a sense of esteem and belonging.  For this reason, such persons are often very successful in their professional lives. During arguments, the fearful-avoidant tends to withdrawal.  They seek peace and experience feelings of great stress when conflicts get heated.  They would give anything to make it stop and so often retreat for an unofficial time out until things simmer down.  The fearful-avoidant prefers to approach situations from a practical place.  They tend to shut down and to show little emotion (stonewalling).  This lack of emotion makes them look uninvested and can be provoking to their partner. 

Attachment styles are important.  They often determine to whom we are attracted and also the dynamics of our relationship. People who are secure, tend to select others who also are secure, avoiding some of the chaos that comes with the less secure styles. The two avoidant styles tend to pair with the anxious-ambivalent. This is because the anxious-ambivalent is a chaser and the avoidant styles are essentially runners, running in the opposite direction of intimacy. As both the anxious and avoidant styles are uncomfortable with full-blown mature intimacy, there is always a certain amount of space between them that keeps them from getting too close. If the avoidant takes two steps back, the anxious person takes two steps forward. Hence, there are always two steps between them. This pattern has been referred to as “the dance of intimacy.” This is in high contrast to the secure style wherein each prefers a close relationship and no safety space is needed. Notably, less than 25% of the population is believed to have a secure style. That means 75% of the population is struggling with issues of attachment – issues which likely result in difficulty experiencing true intimacy, not to mention negative patterns of conflict resolution.

Note:  By now, you should know your and your partner’s attachment styles and be able to predict how you and your partner are going to behave in times of conflict.  Now you have a choice in terms of how you behave in kind.  If your fearful-avoidant partner retreats, you know he/she is in need of peace and just trying to protect him/herself.  It doesn’t have to carry the same punch of rejection that it used to.  You can give him/her space.  If your anxious-ambivalent partner follows you from room to room it may help you to understand that he/she is only trying to maintain connection and security.  You can offer a soothing statement such as, “I am upset right now but I don’t love you any less.”  Do that enough times and you will have established a new pattern of relating.  No one has to run to feel safe or to acquire peace and no one has to shout to feel heard or to resolve an issue.   By understanding your own behavior and your partner’s behavior, you have the tools to make a difference. 

During your next argument, examine your own behavior.  What are you doing that reflects your attachment style?  What is your partner doing that reflects his or her attachment style? What can you do differently so that your partner gets his or her needs met? What can you do differently so that you get your needs met?   Practice giving your partner what he/she needs (soothing, space, security, etc.) and watch how the dynamic changes.  Notice how your response changes the dynamic.  Feel your own power!

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