If you are not feeling understood in your relationship, recognizing the attachment styles of both you and your partner can be crucial to building the relationship you want: with someone who understands you.
“He just doesn’t get it”. “My wife doesn’t understand me”. “I don’t understand relationships!”
If any of these thoughts have crossed your mind, you are probably encountering the impact of different attachment styles on your romantic relationship.
Love can feel like a foreign language sometimes! No matter how many times you try to convey your feelings, the message is not received clearly. Or worse, what you and your partner are asking of each other seems so different it is hard to imagine how both of you can be satisfied. This can leave us, at times, at an impasse with those we love when our emotional needs feel incompatible with our partner.
When you can recognize the role attachment styles play in relationships, it will shift your perspective entirely. These misalignments are not signs of incompatibility, but rather, opportunities to understand your partner more deeply.
What Are the Four Attachment styles?
Based on our early childhood experiences, people typically develop “styles” of relating to others that fall into four main categories: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. The latter three styles all reflect different types of “insecure attachment”.
It is important to note that these are not all-encompassing, and you may not relate to all the traits in a particular category. Like most traits of being human, we all fall somewhere along a spectrum between insecure and secure attachment. No matter where you lie on the spectrum of secure-insecure attachment, understanding the characteristics of these attachment styles can be highly beneficial to understanding your partner and yourself.
I’ll post a more in-depth look at each of these attachment styles in later blogs so you can start to build an idea about where you might fall.
How Do Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships?
Overall, attachment styles impact adult relationships when they create mismatched needs or behaviors between partners. The blueprint your early childhood experience creates about who you are, what you can expect from others, and how you can feel safe and get your needs met can create misalignments with your partner, particularly if their attachment style differs from yours.
The most common mismatch of attachment styles in couples therapy is an anxious-avoidant couple. For this reason, many of the examples below focus on how these differences may create a disconnect between a partner with an avoidant attachment style and their anxiously attached partner. A disorganized attachment style bears both anxious and avoidant traits and can be relevant on either side in any of these examples.
The Stress or Fears You Experience in Relationships
The fears and stressors insecurely attached adults experience in relationships reflect the ways their needs were unmet in early childhood relationships.
Anxiously attached adults derive their inner sense of security and self-worth from their relationships and prioritize assuring that these relationships are close and their needs will be met. As a result, they are highly alert to any signs of disconnection or misalignment with their partner, stemming from deep fears of being alone or abandoned.
Avoidant attachment develops when a person’s emotional needs were not responded to, or dismissed, by caregivers; leaving these adults with deep-seated beliefs of being unworthy of love and that their needs cannot be dependent on others. These individuals are primarily fearful of being rejected or seen as inadequate by their partners.
The Ways You Cope with Stress/Fears
Children who grow up in homes with a lot of anxiety develop strategies to manage this anxiety in order to stay safe with their caregivers. This is, by definition, how insecure attachment styles are born. Depending on the environment around them, children with insecure attachment relationships typically become “anxious” or “avoidant” as a way of protecting their relationship with their caregivers.
Those with anxious attachment styles are often overwhelmed with their emotions and their intensity. Their self-worth and security are closely tied to their relationship with their partner, so fears of abandonment and being left alone arise frequently. They feel a deep need to externalize their feelings and connect with their partner to soothe their anxiety. They are driven by a belief that if their partner could really understand how they feel, they would be able to respond in a way to reduce this stress.
Those with avoidant attachment traits have learned to disconnect from their emotions entirely. In place of their feelings, they tend to lean on thinking and logic to make sense of relationships and stay safe amidst distress.
How You Manage Conflict
One of the hallmarks of all insecure attachment styles is that they tend to blame their partners for relationship problems that arise between them. However, all relationships are a two-way street, and both partners play a role in relationship distress.
Anxious partners seek validation and assurance from their partners to feel safe. However, this can be perceived as demanding, needy, or controlling. They may seem hard to please and never satisfied by their partner’s behavior. When anxious partners feel disconnected, their fears are often expressed in frustration or with criticism. In conflict, these partners will pursue connection and resolution, even amid heightened emotional intensity.
Avoidant partners struggle to make sense of their own emotional experience and are, therefore, very uncomfortable with the emotional intensity of conflict. They tend to avoid difficult conversations or conflict to feel safe and in control. When facing conflict directly, they may rationalize the situation to minimize their or their partner’s feelings or discredit the intensity of feelings entirely. If the intensity of conflict becomes too great, avoidant partners often become flooded or shut down.
Desires for Intimacy and Connection
This is one of the most common sources of relationship distress that shows up in the therapy room. We all have different needs and desires for closeness, and our attachment style plays a large role in where you lie on this spectrum.
Anxiously attached partners desire intimacy and closeness, not only as a means of connecting to their loved ones but as a way of feeling secure in their own self-worth. Therefore, their desire for intimacy – both emotional and physical – is a primary need in relationships, and their first instinct for regulating emotions.
Avoidant partners feel less dependent on others for their own self-regulation, and thus, do not prioritize intimacy and shared time the same way. Moreover, these individuals have typically found safety in isolation and will lean on this strategy when stressed or overwhelmed.
With Understanding Comes Opportunity
You might be thinking, “okay, so now we understand why we are different. But what do we do about it?”
You’re right. Understanding why is not enough to make relationship problems change all by itself. What understanding can change, however, is the conversation about differences.
Without understanding, thoughts like “my husband doesn’t understand me emotionally”, may be accompanied by thoughts like “he thinks I’m crazy” or “he doesn’t listen to me when I talk to him”. When your partner’s feelings do not make sense to you, it is harder to listen with empathy. Conversations about differences can easily fall into the territory of blame and criticism.
When you can build an understanding of why your needs are different and how that fits into the context of each of your past experiences, you can discuss your differences in a way that maintains validation of both sides.