SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains attachment styles and what they could show you about your relationships.
I recently got out of a relationship where I was dating someone that really loved me, but I was not sure what I was feeling at that point. I had a lot going on in my mind, so we decided to call it good and part ways. However, we left the door open to getting back together in the future. As time went on, I started to have clarity of my feelings. I love this person with all my heart, but I also realize we both have things to work on in order to have a healthy relationship. When I needed space, my partner would instead give me a lot of love and affection. I would then push him away. Now that my life is in a better place, I am trying to get rid of this self-defense mechanism. I started therapy and I am also on medication for depression. I reached out to my partner a few weeks ago and he requested some space, which I am giving him. So my questions are: How can a couple get through phases like this? What is the best way to approach reconciliation between me and my partner?
It sounds to me like you and your partner have different attachment styles. One is pushing while the other is pulling away, and neither of you feels secure in the relationship. The first step toward reconciliation would be to understand what happened last time so you don't repeat it.
Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller wrote an interesting book on attachment styles called "Attached." In the book, the authors explain there are three basic attachment styles and we are all functioning from one of them all the time. But your attachment style can change with different life experiences, they say. Your attachment style is your way of functioning in relationships and with intimacy at any point in time.
What is your attachment style?
Understanding your attachment style can help you to see why you behave and react the way you do. Here are the three attachment styles Levine and Rachel discuss:
- Anxious: These people have a lot of fear of failure and rejection. They love to be close and connected to their partners, but they get anxious that their partners don't or won't feel the same way about them. They can be needy, clingy, insecure and easily offended or upset. They need their partner to reassure them that everything is OK and do it often. They need lots of intimacy and are prone to dramatic behavior when they start to feel they might not be loved. They also feel insecure if alone and are always seeking a partner to love them.
- Avoidant: These people have a fear of loss around losing their independence and having a relationship take over their lives and "cramp their style." They want a relationship, yet they often pull away, shut down, get quiet or get emotionally distant. They are sometimes uncomfortable with intimacy and can keep partners at arms-length. Sometimes they are overly picky in dating and hold onto a story that they just can't find the right one, but maybe they aren't sure they want to.
- Secure: These people find trusting, balanced, relationships come naturally and easily. They feel secure with themselves and intimacy, and they aren't easily offended. They don't function from fear, so they feel safe even through natural ups and downs. Their relationships tend to have less drama and more peace and security. These people are less reactive and can see that their partner's emotions and ups and downs are not about them.
It sounds to me like you might have an avoidant attachment style and your partner might have an anxious style. This is also the most common type of relationship, according to Levine and Heller. They think anxious people tend to attract avoidant people, and vice versa, so they can reaffirm the beliefs they both have about love and relationships.
The anxious person believes no one loves them and the avoidant believes love is smothering, the authors say. They each fulfill these beliefs for the other. These relationships are also the most difficult because the natural reactions and behaviors of an anxious person are the perfect triggers for the avoidant person and vice versa. This cycle isn't a healthy relationship for either party.
Changing your behavior
Here are some of the game playing, bad behaviors each type can display that triggers the other:
- Anxious Style: Excessive calling and texting and anger when there is no answer. Keeping score and getting offended too easily. Acting hostile and threatening to leave. Manipulation and trying to make their partner jealous.
- Avoidant Style: Withdrawing and pulling back. Not answering calls or texts. Finding other distractions to take up your time. Leaving whenever there is conflict. Lying and saying you have plans when you don't. Sending mixed signals. Never committing.
If your relationship is going to work, you and your partner should work to identify your attachment style and the core fear that is driving it. Are you afraid of failure and rejection and it's made you anxious? Are you afraid of loss and it's made you avoidant?
If the answers to those questions are "yes," then you need to decide what you both need and want in a relationship. You must do this without your partner because with them you might just list things you think your partner wants to hear. By working alone, however, you can be honest about your needs and what you think a healthy secure relationship should look like. Then be honest about whether you can really provide this for each other.
If you are avoidant and your partner is anxious, you both have some work to do on your fear triggers before this will work. Here are some things each of you can work on:
Anxious people can:
- Work on being more secure with themselves and knowing their value doesn't change based on other people or their actions.
- Learn to trust that the right partner and relationship will work; if this one isn't working, it's not the right one.
- Start trusting that the journey they are on safe in a relationship and they don't need to expect the worst all the time.
- Stop overthinking, mind-reading, being jealous and overreacting.
Avoidant people can:
- Work on identifying the loss triggers that make them want to pull back and practice staying even when it's scary.
- Trust that a healthy relationship will add to their life, not take from it.
- Work on being grateful for all the positives in a relationship instead of focusing on the problems and looking for red flags.
- Understand that in a secure relationship they will still have their independence and freedom, and the two aren't mutually exclusive.
You may want to work with your therapist or coach to help you lessen the fears that drive these behaviors. I would say that unless you've both done some work and gained some added skills and tools, you are probably going to repeat the same problems that broke you up the first time. However, with some added knowledge, skills and tools, you could make it work.
You can do this.