How am I in my relationships?- Attachment styles in couples
Your unique template of life
In a couple each individual understands their world according to their own unique organising principle or template – learned in early relational experiences, usually with parents or primary care takers. These principles will determine what a person expects from relationships, what their responses to behaviour are and what meaning they make of interactions. While not set in stone our templates originate in our very early childhood and get confirmed or amended with subsequent experiences in adult life.
One way of thinking about these templates is to look at our attachment styles which fall into three main categories: secure, anxious and avoidant. Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory posed that attachment is an integral part of the human experience throughout the entire life span. As human beings we are primed to relate to other people. While attachment theory originally described how infants bond with their primary carers, later research showed that as adults we too can be divided into different attachment style categories which come particularly into play in our romantic relationships. Of the three vital ingredients in a relationship, intimacy (or attachment), commitment (or care giving) and passion (sexual attraction) the first two closely mimic the first bond experienced between child and parent. Roughly 60% of adults have a secure attachment style with the remainder of the population displaying an insecure attachment, that is either anxious, avoidant or fearful (a mixture of anxious and avoidant).
What’s my attachment style?
Your attachment style will guide the way you respond in relationships:
- If you are secure you don’t find it so difficult to establish intimate relationships; you don’t worry about being abandoned or someone getting too close to you.
- If you are anxious preoccupied you crave intimacy and worry about your partner’s commitment and love for you. You’d like to merge with your partner to feel secure in the relationship.
- If you are avoidant dismissive you are somewhat uncomfortable being close to others and therefore try to minimise closeness. You equate relationships with a loss of independence.
- If you are uncomfortable with intimacy but also worried about your partner being there for you, you may be fearful avoidant, i.e. both anxious and avoidant, an attachment style that is not as prevalent as the other two insecure styles.
Your attachment style is partially determined by the way your primary care takers cared for you as well as your subsequent life experiences as an adult.
Depending on your attachment style you will develop strategies in life that are aimed at suiting your attachment system. You will often unconsciously recreate attachment patterns in your relationship that are familiar. In a relationship each partner can function as an attachment figure for the other; both partners can be in the role of the dependent child at times as well as in the comforting role of the depended upon care taker.
What attachment pattern plays out in my relationship?
Depending on the attachment style of your partner your relationship will be more or less stable. Below are patterns of attachment styles commonly observed in couple pairings:
Secure individuals manage to allow for dependency as well as independence and for being dependent as well as dependent on. The need for closeness and contact can be openly expressed and received. Both partners are aware of the other’s experience and can be empathic, understanding their partner’s feelings and thoughts.
Anxious preoccupied/anxious preoccupied
Individuals with this attachment style are typically accustomed to parent-child relationships where the parent has been inconsistent in their response to the demand of the child, at times meeting the need of the child at other times ignoring it. The child had learned to ‘crank up’ their call for attention in order to elicit a response from the parent.
With both partners demanding that their needs are met there is likely to be a high level of disagreement and conflict in the relationship. Both partners compete for attention and for being in the dependent position while at the same time not offering dependency to the other.
Avoidant dismissive/avoidant dismissive
In this combination both partners present as hyper independent and self-sufficient. As the partners have learned to not acknowledge feelings of dependency and vulnerability any sign of an expression of dependency – either in the self or the partner - will be perceived as threatening and therefore repressed. Most relationships of this type don’t tend to be long term. However, if both partners continue to acknowledge the unwritten contract of ‘I’m not dependent on you and you are not dependent on me’ then the relationship can continue without open conflict until an event disrupts the status quo. The contract may not work anymore for example with the arrival of a child or one partner losing their employment.
Anxious preoccupied/avoidant dismissive
This combination of attachment styles is the most prevalent in couple therapy. Generally this is a relationship where two opposite positions are very entrenched with little movement between them. One partner truly wants intimacy and the other feels engulfed and overwhelmed. Both partners exacerbate each other’s insecurities: the anxious partner will try to get closer; the avoidant partner reacts by moving further away. The anxious partner is usually the one to express their discontent with the relationship while the other believes that the main problem with the relationship is the partner’s discontent.
In order to both feel comfortable and secure in the relationship both partners need to find a way to deactivate their attachment system.
You are likely to be in this type of relationship if your relationship is very up and down - up when the needs for dependency and intimacy are met, down when they are not. You are likely to find that an element of instability and dissatisfaction persists throughout your time together; you seem to be fighting constantly about things that aren’t really worth fighting about and you stay in the relationship because you are emotionally connected while feeling that the relationship is not right for you.
One of the interesting findings of adult attachment systems is that if a secure partner is paired with either an anxious or avoidant partner the relationship overall tends to function very much like a relationship between two secure partners. The secure partner seems to be able to step both into the dependent as well as depended upon position therefore soothing the fear of the anxious individual as well as challenging the avoidant person in assuming a position of dependency.
What do I do with this knowledge?
One of the great findings of adult attachment theory is that attachment styles are stable but they are changeable. Understanding your attachment style and that of your partner will help you clarify your own as well as your partner’s thoughts, behaviour and feelings better and to work towards a more secure and adult relationship. If your attachment style is insecure you can work on challenging your old relationship templates by recognising your fears and addressing them in a more adult way.
Fisher, James, Crandell, Lisa (1997). Pattern of relating in the couple in Sexual and Marital, volume 12, 3: 211-223, Taylor & Francis online
Fletcher, Garth J. O. (2002). Attachment & Intimacy. The New Science of Intimate Relationships. London: Blackwell
Levine, Amir and Heller, Rachel (2010). Attached. Identify your attachment style and find your perfect match. London: Rodale.