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Love Matters
with Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Why Your Relationship May Be Stuck in a Frustrating Tit-for-Tat Pattern

If your relationship feels stuck in repeated arguments that go nowhere, it may be because deeper issues are being triggered that have to do with attachment wounds or your unique attachment style.

To get your relationship out of a rut it can be helpful to address attachment issues at the source rather than recycling the same old arguments.

The term “attachment” in psychology refers to how we view and relate to those closest to us. For example, do you tend to view your partner as a safe, loving and supportive person most of the time, or do you experience him or her as undependable, aloof, smothering, threatening or unsafe?

Part of your view of another can stem from how your partner treats you. But part of how we come to view our partners may have little to do with how they have treated us.

Attachment views can be rooted in the past. Perhaps your parent was undependable, abusive or allowed you little room to be yourself. This can create a template in later life where you expect others to do the same. Or perhaps your normally supportive present partner wasn’t there for you as you hoped at a crucial time of need. You may have silently decided that you would not depend on your partner from then on.

Having such a template may keep you on the lookout for signs that another person will not treat you well while at the same time ignoring or discounting evidence when your partner does treat you well. Either way, such experiences can cause us to hesitate to trust, get close or depend on a partner even years later.

Reckoning with attachment wounds

In relationships that have fallen into a tit-for-tat pattern or bunker mentality, it is essential to revisit attachment wounds so they can be healed.

It is virtually impossible to love for any period of time without eventually feeling let down by your partner. Nobody is perfect, nobody is a mind-reader, and sometimes we simply fail to recognize our partner’s needs and vulnerabilities. When such a failure of attunement happens at a crucial moment, such as when we feel in crisis or particularly vulnerable, it can cause an attachment wound or unconsciously retrigger earlier attachment wounds.

For example, if we are going through a health crisis and our partner throws himself into his work, we may wonder: Does he really love me? Can I count on him to be there for me in the future? Are we really a team? Does he have my back?

These questions can shake our confidence in our relationship and in our partners. Sometimes we don’t even recognize how much we are shaken until much later.

Researcher John Gottman has identified four signs that a relationship is in trouble (contempt, criticism, stonewalling and defensiveness) which can happen because of unaddressed attachment wounds.

Other signs that your relationship may be stalemated by unaddressed attachment wounds are if you find yourself increasingly:

  • Reluctant to be vulnerable
  • Spending more time apart
  • Arguing more easily and finding it more difficult to talk calmly
  • Envisioning worst-case scenarios for the relationship
  • Expecting less from your partner
  • Viewing your partner in negative ways
  • Experiencing far more negative than positive interactions
  • Fantasizing about other people, past relationships or leaving the relationship
  • Complaining to others about your partner but not letting your partner know
  • Feeling less trusting or emotionally safe

Of course, sometimes these feelings stem from an unhealthy relationship or untrustworthy treatment by another. In that case, it is essential to get relationship and behavior problems addressed or to move on. But if these signs stem from attachment wounds in an otherwise mostly healthy relationship, it may be helpful to seek couples therapy for assistance in healing attachment wounds that persist.

Recognizing your individual attachment style

In attachment theory, we are all somewhere on the continuum of being securely to insecurely attached. How securely we tend to attach to others depends on how we were raised, genetics, earlier relationship experiences and other factors.

It’s estimated that half the adult population is relatively securely attached. Securely attached people tend to trust and cooperate with intimate partners more easily.

The other half of the adult population is less securely attached. Less securely attached individuals may find it harder to trust and may experience relationships that have greater conflict or drama.

Here is one online tool to help you identify your attachment style. A similar online tool also helps you identify your partner’s likely style as well.

Less securely attached people may be either anxiously attached, avoidantly attached, or a combination of the two. Anxiously attached people may react to a partner’s temporary lack of attentiveness with alarm, seeing it as a sign the partner might be falling out of love, rather than simply being preoccupied or distracted.

Avoidantly attached people may react with panic to a partner who is upset about a lack of closeness, seeing it as a sign the partner is trying to control them, rather than simply a matter of your partner seeking greater intimacy. You can read more about this on my blog on 18 ways to increase intimacy and communication if one of you has an avoidant style.

Attachment styles are not wrong or bad. But a less secure attachment style can make relationships more difficult and less satisfying. The good news is that your attachment style can be softened with time and work.

This is the second part of a four-part blog on the pursuer-withdrawer cycle in relationships. Part One covers why this cycle is a frequent problem in many relationships. Part Three offers seven effective ways to make your relationship closer and more satisfying, taking into account the needs of both the “pursuer” and “withdrawer.” Part Four offers eight more ways to get unstuck from a pursue-withdraw cycle.

Photo credits
I’m right by MoteOo
Broken heart silhouette by Geralt
Signs by John Hain

Why Your Relationship May Be Stuck in a Frustrating Tit-for-Tat Pattern

Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Dan Neuharth, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has more than 25 years’ experience providing individual, couples and family therapy. Dr. Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He writes two blogs for PsychCentral: Love Matters and Narcissism Decoded. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. His website: DrDanMFTcounseling.com


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APA Reference
Neuharth, D. (2018). Why Your Relationship May Be Stuck in a Frustrating Tit-for-Tat Pattern. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/love-matters/2018/08/why-your-relationship-may-be-stuck-in-a-frustrating-tit-for-tat-pattern/

 

Last updated: 10 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Aug 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.