This question was submitted by a number of readers and the following text is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.
You should not start playing amateur psychologist here, applying labels and faux diagnoses, but, that said, becoming aware of not just your patterns of behavior (and why you act as you do) and being aware of how others act (and why) can help you live your life with more conscious intention. Understanding how well or badly your partner manages his emotions under stress, what his working assumptions about relationships are, and how comfortable or uncomfortable he is with intimacy will give you a bead on how your relationship might thrive or founder, and what you can do preemptively both for yourself, for him, and the two of you. Do remember that attachment styles aren’t carved in stone for anyone; you should be thinking about how he and you respond, react, and act most of the time. (Note that I am using the masculine pronoun but it could just as easily be feminine.)
The appeal of the securely attached
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the best possible partner would be securely attached; yes, file this one under “Duh.” If you’re insecurely attached, being with someone who is secure is a possible game-changer. It’s not just the partner whose emotional stability is likely to ground you from the get-go but his family and closest friends. This isn’t to suggest that securely attached people don’t have friends with insecure attachment—of course, they do—but you might be welcomed into a world that permits you to build on your own experiences with caring others (called “islands of security” by experts) and rebuild your style of attachment from the ground up. Yes, earned secure attachment is real. But so is enhanced security and I’ll return to that at the very end of this question.
But let’s assume that you end up with someone who is insecurely attached instead; it’s here that you need to pay attention because these relationships can include a terrific amount of turbulence and, yes, heartbreak, if you don’t understand how to make the relationship work.
Let’s start first with the worst possible pairing: the anxiously-preoccupied and the dismissive-avoidant. Yes, each is a person whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood but their adaptation and coping mechanisms render them totally incompatible, with different emotional motivations and needs. The anxiously attached daughter wants relationship but her anxiety is pervasive; she has a low opinion of herself and doesn’t have the base of confidence in herself to quell her worries. She’s emotionally volatile—quick to defend and anger—and can’t calm herself down. The dismissive-avoidant is Mr. Cool; he thinks well of himself and little of others and thinks of himself as a self-sufficient island. Hidden from view are those needs that were never met in childhood and the hole in his heart; yes, he may also be high in narcissistic traits. You can see where this is going: her volatility and neediness push him away at the very moments that she needs him close so there’s lots of drama and maybe hot makeup sex which masks the fact that there’s no way he is ever going to meet her needs. Unfortunately, her own ideas of what passion looks like—more like a rollercoaster with lots of ups and downs—may keep her from seeing that this is never going work. And Mr. Cool will deal with it until the moment at which he’s oh-so-tired-of-it and moves on to different and presumably greener pastures.
But relationship failure isn’t necessarily guaranteed even with these diametrically opposed styles of attachment or even when two anxiously-preoccupied people couple up, or two with an avoidant style. Research shows that while the pairing of two people with insecure styles of attachment can be problematic, there are ways to ameliorate and even strengthen the relationship. One suggested approach is what researchers have called partner buffering.
Do you buffer your partner?
Partner buffering is part of every relationship but it has specific pertinence for the ones we’re discussing; researchers Jeffrey A. Simpson and Nicola C. Overall have come up with a schema they call “Dyadic Regulation Model of Insecurity Buffering.” Yes, it sounds like a pile-up of psychological jargon but it’s really quite intuitive and smart. Basically, when partner A is in distress, partner B tempers his or her reaction to partner A in ways that “buffer” the partner’s emotional reaction rather than inflame or exacerbate it. To work from one of their examples, let’s assume that Hillary and Joseph are fighting and Joseph knows that any kind of argument trips her warning bells because she’s anxiously attached. Even though he continues to argue, he also reassures her of his commitment to making things work; that permits her to regulate her anxiety.
In another experiment, Overall and Simpson videotaped couples as one partner asked the other for specific changes in behavior and to the relationship. This is, of course, a tender subject even for the most secure among us and a potential tinderbox for the insecure. But, as the researchers noted, those with an avoidant style displayed less anger and withdrawal—they always have their running shoes at the ready, don’t forget—if the partner softened the approach, acknowledged his good qualities, and recognized his need for autonomy.
Using what you know about your partner’s response to stress can also help the relationship run more smoothly. If you already know that your partner gets anxious, beef up the attention and support you give at a time of stress or crisis. Conversely, if you know your partner is avoidant and needs to lick his wounds in private, respect that and don’t force him into sharing when he’s not ready; instead, make it clear you will be there if he needs you. That said, your partner isn’t a DIY project and you’d better be committed to both your responses and the relationship. The same goes for your partner.
Understanding “enhanced security
There’s also evidence that apart from helping you navigate insecurity in a relationship, certain strategies can actually enhance the attachment security of one or both partners; yes, we’re back to enhanced security as I promised at the beginning of the answer. Ximena B. Arriaga, Mdok Kumashiro, Jeffry A. Simpson, and Nickola C. Overall have proposed a model (Attachment Security Enhancement Model or ASEM) which goes beyond simply buffering reactivity and actually changes a partner’s security for the better. Our working models of relationship—those unconscious lessons gleaned from early experiences—can be confirmed by our adult relationships (alas) but, more hopefully, can be edited or re-written by them. The researchers posit that security gets enhanced by processes that shift the person’s mental models of the self and others. For example, an anxiously attached person gains confidence when a partner personally validates her goals and pursuits or praises her for handling something difficult well; she (or he) feels capable and more secure. An avoidantly attached person may have his or her vision of others shift by positive experiences with closeness—thereby making him or her more open to interdependence and enhancing his or her security.
While the researchers’ model is theoretical, it reminds us that the lessons of childhood experiences aren’t set in stone; with conscious awareness and knowledge, we have the power to write our own scripts.
So, yes, both your attachment style and that of your partner matter but there are strategies at hand.
Adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2019 by Peg Streep
Photograph by Milan Popovic. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Mikulincer, Mario, Philip R. Shaver, et al. What’s Inside the Minds of Securely and Insecurely Attached People? The Secure-based Script and Its Associations with Attachment Style Dimensions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,2009, vol. 97(4), pp. 615-633.
Arriaga, Ximena B, Madoka Kumashiro, Jeffry A. Simpson, and Nickola C. Overall. Revising Working Models Across Time: Relationship Situations That Enhance Attachment Security. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2018, vol.22(1), pp. 71-96.
Arriaga, Ximena B. and Madoka Kumashiro. Walking a Security Tightrope: Relationship-Induced Changes in Security Attachment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2018, vol. 25, pp. 121-126.
Simpson, Jeffry A. Psychological Foundations of Trust. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2007, vol. 16 (5), pp. 264-268.
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