Hollywood movies have given us romantic ideals about relationships. Opposites often attract in movies. In the beginning, the couple amusingly clashes until they finally get together and then THE END, they live happily ever after, we presume. Such Hollywood endings suggest that when we finally choose a romantic partner, the hard part is over. We both are ready and willing to meaningfully connect. In real life, however, achieving a lasting connection is not so easy. But familiarizing yourself with attachment theory may be helpful.
When couples connect, they physically calm each other.
Research shows that when couples connect psychologically, they connect biologically too. Scientists monitored people’s vital signs in various situations with and without their partners. Results showed how couples regulate each other’s heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and the level of hormones in their blood. When couples connect, they physically calm each other. And when one partner feels disconnected from the other, his/her stress levels can rise until they reconnect.
Consequently, issues arise when our intimacy needs differ from those of our partner. Ideally, we would all feel autonomous yet connected, both loving and loved. In reality, a couple might love each other deeply, but one or both parties can feel isolated and misunderstood because of conflicting intimacy needs. And, if unaddressed, loneliness may ensue.
Adult Attachment theory offers an explanation. According to psychologists, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, we all belong to one of four attachment theory styles.
Whether a new relationship or together for 35 years, partners fall into one of these categories.
Secure: affectionate yet independent, feels comfortable with intimacy (50% of the population).
Anxious: craves intimacy and worries a lot about a partner’s ability to love them back, the strong and continuous need for reassurance (24% of the population).
Avoidant: craves distance, emotionally and/or physically from partners, needs a large degree of separateness (24% of the population).
Anxious/avoidant: craves intimacy, but avoids it or withdraws for fear of rejection (1% of the population).
Attachment theory style categories apply to our views of intimacy or togetherness, how we deal with conflict, our attitudes towards sex, our ability to communicate wishes and needs, and what we expect from our partners.
However, like all categorizations, attachment theory style categories are over-simplified. They may help us better understand our relationships, but they don’t tell us the whole story. For example, rather than belonging to one discreet category, we tend to fall somewhere along a spectrum, like the one below.
According to attachment research, securely-attached individuals can flexibly attune to the intimacy needs of partners who have either Anxious or Avoidant attachment styles. But when insecurely-attached individuals (Anxious, Avoidant, or Anxious/avoidant) form relationships, they will most likely have difficulties with closeness. People with Anxious/avoidant styles have the most difficulty in relationships. Often psychotherapy is needed if they are to overcome their complex intimacy needs.
Secure attachment is not always rosy either. Even if we fall into the Secure category, our partner’s insecure attachment behaviours can trigger insecure tendencies in us too.
This means that people with Anxious and Avoidant styles often end up together. Unfortunately, both party’s behavior tends to exacerbate each other’s insecurities. When feeling insecure, Anxious partners attempt more intimacy while their Avoidant partners try to distance themselves. An unfulfilling cycle can ensue that makes both parties feel unsafe and unhappy in the relationship.
Adult attachment researchers, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller co-wrote Attached, a book about navigating closeness in relationships. They suggest that such insecure attachment behaviours make the connection more difficult. However, with a willingness to address their insecure behaviour, couples with Anxious and Avoidant styles can happily exist. Here’s how.
If we understand that our partner cares about us but is just programmed to act in a predetermined manner, we can manage our differences rather than blindly react to them.
Though some combinations are more challenging than others, attachment styles are not good or bad.
Behaviours of Anxious and Avoidant partners have their upsides. Stereotypically, Anxious behaviours are labelled as needy, repeatedly asking for reassurance, for example. But Anxious behaviours can also be considerate, attentive, and loyal. Avoidant behaviours are often depicted as cold and uncaring. However, Avoidant behaviours can show independence and free-spiritedness, travelling on long adventures, for example. In fact, these behaviours may have attracted us to our partners in the first place.
As a society, we tend to value autonomy and look down upon dependency. But our Attachment theory styles are not our fault. We are biologically programmed to feel unsatisfied and/or lonely when our most basic intimacy needs are not met.
After all, we are biologically enmeshed. In this way, dependency is a fact and not a preference, says Levine and Heller. Research studies found that oxytocin, the bonding chemical that our brains produce when we cuddle, calms us down. We become less agreeable and more defensive if our brains are depleted of it. Conversely, prolonged intimacy can be stressful for Avoidant partners. Allowing our Avoidant partners some alone time can calm their nervous system.
An arrangement for Saturday mornings that begin with a long cuddle in bed but also include alone time in the afternoon may make the week much more enjoyable for both parties.
Both Anxious and Avoidant styles fear that their partners will let them down, so they tend to suppress their own needs rather than talking about them. Levine and Heller suggest that couples show a willingness to engage and be emotionally brave. Communicate intimacy needs clearly without resorting to attacks or defensiveness. Don’t assume that others know what you need. Be specific and unapologetic.
Another misconception is that healthy couples don’t argue. But Levine and Heller suggest that it’s not whether we argue but how we argue that is important. Our fears of rejection can trigger reactive and unhelpful behaviour, such as generalizing the conflict, lobbing insults, emotionally shutting down, or running away.
Show concern for your partner’s well-being, stay focused on the issue, and resist the urge to react immediately. If we resist knee-jerk reactions and learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that our partner’s opposing attachment theory style triggers in us, we can react with the bigger picture in mind.
Perhaps the most important step is the willingness of both partners to work together to become more secure. In a true partnership, both partners hold responsibility for the other’s well-being. Once we let go of Hollywood ideals, we can learn to truly connect.
Now that we’ve covered attachment theory, let’s dive into toxic communication patterns and how they can ruin relationships.
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