Does your relationship sometimes feel like a rollercoaster ride? Are there periods where everything is going great and then suddenly the fighting starts? Then things turn positive for some time, and you're hoping they will stay that way. But like clockwork, the fighting starts again.
Do you crave closeness with your partner, but they keep pulling away, wanting alone time or to be out with friends instead of you? Do you feel the communication is lacking, both when you're together and not together? Is the relationship always on your mind, and you constantly seek reassurance from your partner? Do you keep trying to get more attention and intimacy from your partner, but they keep pulling away?
Or do you feel smothered by your partner? Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of time they want to spend with you and the amount of communication they desire? Are you annoyed by how much they want to talk about the relationship? Do you shut down and withdraw when they come towards you, requiring more attention than you feel comfortable giving?
If these examples sound like your relationship, you may have incompatible attachment styles. Attachment styles predict satisfaction in relationships. Incompatible attachment styles can lead to unresolvable conflicts between couples.
As discussed in the book “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - And Keep - Love” by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller, there are three main attachment styles. These styles are secure, anxious, and avoidant. The book has a quiz to determine your attachment style. A summary of each style is below:
Someone with a secure attachment style is comfortable with intimacy in a relationship, does not become overly worried about the relationship, does not get easily upset over relationship issues, can effectively communicate needs and feelings to a partner, can read and respond to a partner’s emotional cues, and can support a partner.
Someone with an anxious attachment style has a strong desire for emotional closeness but fears their partner does not desire the same level of closeness, becomes overly worried about the relationship, tends to be very sensitive to a partner’s mood and behaviors, tends to take a partner’s behaviors too personally, and becomes easily upset about the relationship.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style prefers autonomy to intimate relationships, can become uncomfortable with too much closeness, does not spend much time worrying about romantic relationships, tends to not open up to partners, and often looks out for signs that their partner is infringing on their independence.
Secure people tend to gravitate towards secure people, and their relationships will typically be healthy and calm.
Anxious and avoidant people tend to gravitate towards each other, and their relationships will be volatile, as they each constantly trigger each other’s insecurities.
The below excerpts are taken from “Attached.”
“Research on attachment repeatedly shows that when your need for intimacy is met and reciprocated by your partner, your satisfaction level will rise. Incongruent intimacy needs, on the other hand, usually translate into substantially lower satisfaction.”
“People with an anxious attachment style cope with threats to the relationship by activating their attachment system — trying to get close to their partner. People who are avoidant have the opposite reaction. They cope with threats by deactivating — taking measures to distance themselves from their partners and “turn off” their attachment system. Thus the closer the anxious tries to get, the more distant the avoidant acts.”
Secure people make up about 50% of the population. Anxious people make up about 20%. Avoidant make up about 25%. And combinations make up about 3–5%. Women tend to make up a higher portion of the anxious population while men are more likely to be avoidant.
That means that a high amount of the population is not securely attached and is potentially falling into the anxious/avoidant pairing trap. This attachment pairing is an indicator of an unhappy relationship due to the way each partner's behaviors trigger the other's insecurities, often resulting in a pursuit/withdrawal dynamic.
It is possible to become more securely attached, although it takes a lot of emotional work, as it typically involves healing wounds that go back to childhood. It is also easier for an anxiously attached person to become securely attached than it is for an avoidantly attached person to become securely attached.
Levine and Heller recommend focusing on effective communication to alleviate relationship conflict. They recommend pausing before either withdrawing (avoidant) or acting out in protest behavior (anxious). Often people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are out of touch with their own needs and therefore find it difficult to communicate their needs to their partner. It's important to pause before reacting to figure out what it is you need, and then effectively communicate to your partner.
The principles of effective communication discussed in "Attached" are:
- Wear your heart on your sleeve - be emotionally brave
- Focus on your needs - use verbs such as need, feel, and want
- Be specific - state precisely what is bothering you
- Don't blame - do not highlight your partner's shortcomings
- Be assertive and nonapologetic - believe your needs are valid and express them authentically
If you are in an anxious/avoidant pairing, you may or may not be able to resolve your differing intimacy needs. But by understanding your attachment style and your partner's attachment style, and using effective communication, you will be better equipped to make a decision about continuing the relationship.
You may be able to work through your differences and have a satisfying relationship. Or you may determine that to get your needs met, you need to find someone with a more compatible attachment style.