Attachment Styles

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Why They are Important to Understand for Couples Counseling

Briefly, there are three primary attachment styles evolving from a person’s childhood, one secure and two insecure styles. Attachment styles are blueprints for how we relate.

What we learned in childhood from the way our parents loved or didn’t love us, sets the standard for a level of our hope about satisfying partnership.

Secure Attachment Styles – when we are given enough love, lots of hugs and kisses and appropriate affection, when there is a roof over our heads and an orderly sense of what is expected of us – we grow up to have secure attachment. Generally, we feel good about ourselves and about others. We can trust other people. We expect to be loved and can give love without feeling smothered or worrying about being abandoned. We can set good boundaries. A person with secure attachment style feels worthy of being loved and having their needs met, thinks people are safe to trust emotionally, and feels comfortable exploring their own interests & direction, seeks connection with friends and partners. Sexual relationships are motivated by the desire for pleasure and intimacy.

Avoidant Attachment Styles (insecure) – when our parents are cold or so abusive that it isn’t safe to attach to them, we grow to have an insecure attachment style – called avoidant attachment style. Kids like this may exaggerate their self-importance and distance from others to reduce stress. We feel good about ourselves but think other people are not to be trusted. We might grow up to feel like self-reliance is the only safe path. Relationships feel unsafe and we pull back to get safety. A person with avoidant attachment style seems to value independence over connection, believes that others are untrustworthy, has difficulty asking for help, and invests little emotional energy in relationships. Sometimes sexual relationships are motivated by the desire for pleasure or used to cope with negative emotions like stress.

Anxious Attachment Styles (insecure) – maybe our parents were erratically available and we had to fight for every bit of attention we could get. Anxiously attached people often think that they are not okay and that their partners are likely to abandon them. We lack self-confidence and need to check in often to see if everything is okay in our partnerships. A person with anxious attachment style worries that they are not lovable, over inflates their need and might not respect the boundaries of their partner, has difficulty with independence and acts clingy. Often times sexual relationships are motivated by the need for approval – we want our partners to find us attractive and we desire for intimacy. In an effort to please the other the anxiously attached person might not direct the sexual relationship for their own pleasure.

How does this translate to negative cycles in our partnerships?

What are the emotional and sexual cycles? Let’s first look at the fundamentals of how the emotional attachment cycle and sexual attachment cycle work in romance. In emotional security, partners help defend each other from threat (safe harbor). They respect differences and separateness, encouraging the other to express their individual purpose, work, or calling in life (secure base) (Johnson, 2017). When working with a couple’s emotional cycle in distress, we see predictable behaviors from each partner. Our instinctual protective behaviors tend to spring from our attachment styles – fight or flight, pursue or withdraw.

Typically, one partner, the emotional pursuer (often having an anxious attachment style), reacts to even a slight disconnect by pushing for engagement, reassurance, attention, or closeness. The other partner, the emotional withdrawer (often having an avoidant attachment style), often pulls away to avoid escalation, trying to protect the relationship by keeping things calm. The emotional pursuer can easily escalate with anger and criticism—getting emotionally louder in a further attempt to reach their withdrawing partner, which can scare their partner, make them feel suffocated, controlled and/or feel accused of not being enough—causing further shut down. The pursuer believes pushing is necessary to feel safe. The withdrawer believes not engaging is necessary to feel safe. Each partner’s protective defense reinforces the other partner’s protective defense. Johnson’s model, Emotionally Focused Therapy (the modality used all our couples therapists) aims at helping both partners to identify and unite against their negative cycles of defensiveness and more importantly, replacing them with positive patterns of responsiveness. 

Every interaction—a) where the pursuer feels rejected by the withdrawer’s move away, then, b) the withdrawer feels like a failure when the pursuer pushes with messages that the withdrawer’s disengagement is wrong c) the withdrawer retreats further sending the message that their pursuer’s needs are too much—strengthens the persistent and repetitive dynamic of this negative cycle. As the negative cycle gains momentum, the costs to the relationship of—increased distance, mistrust and reactivity and decreased closeness, trust, and safety—are grave.

We theoretically hold in our mind that both partners need both types of connection and utilize and clarify their movement toward each other in either cycle. For instance, we can easily see how unintentionally sabotaging the emotionally pursuing partner’s efforts are: though their heart is frantically pushing them to reach for their partner, they become angry, manipulative, or controlling. Therapists observing the withdrawing partner—who is seeking some breathing room and hoping to keep everything calm—see them adding fuel to the fire by placating, forgetting, and minimizing problems. One partner is dying of thirst while the other drowns.

Sexually, we see the pursuer increase their requests by complaining and criticizing, sending the message to their partner that they are not enough in bed. The withdrawer deflates their partner by claiming that they never think of sex, even when it is their central point of conflict in weekly therapy.  Again, we don’t want someone to have sex when they don’t want it. In fact, compliant sex would likely worsen the couple’s sexual attachment, as it’s not what it needs to be: erotic and freely expressed. But sexual low desire goes unexplored when left unchallenged. 

Making explicit the shared experience of how both partners shift strategies in the emotional and sexual cycles in the crossover interplay creates a beautiful opportunity to feel empathy for each other. In reversed positions between the sexual and emotional attachment cycles, they both long for engagement but feel frustrated and blocked in their advances as pursuers. At the same time, they each can identify feeling overwhelmed and perhaps controlled by the needs and requests of their partner in the other cycle where they typically withdraw to find safety.  


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