The Key to Healthier Relationships

by Allison Abrams, LCSW-R

How partners can help one another change unhealthy patterns of attachment

Originally published on Psychology Today

According to attachment theory, we each develop a style of attachment—the way we relate to others—based on the relationship we had with our primary caregiver. This then becomes the template onto which we project most of our adult relationships. When our basic needs are met consistently by an attentive and loving caregiver, we develop a secure attachment to that caregiver and thus a secure attachment style. Psychologists refer to this type of caregiver as the good enough parent. Children who develop this style of attachment are more likely to end up in secure, healthy relationships as adults.

On the other hand, when children do not get their needs met, they develop an insecure attachment style. Those who are anxious/preoccupied may appear clingy, demanding, and fearful of abandonment. They will exhibit behaviors that actually push a partner away, thus confirming their beliefs. Those with an avoidant/dismissive style will be overly self-sufficient because they have learned they can only rely on themselves. They will often avoid intimacy and commitment. Those with an avoidant/fearful style of attachment crave closeness but at the same time fear rejection. So they may do things that push their partner away, thus creating their own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Important to note is that attachment styles are not mutually exclusive; they can fluctuate, or manifest differently with different partners. For example, someone with an anxious attachment style may feel more secure when in a relationship with a secure partner.

Approximately 50 percent of the adult population have a secure attachment style. For the rest of the population, navigating the choppy waters of romantic relationships may sometimes be a struggle. If this sounds like you, below are some steps you can take to ensure that your history does not determine the fate of your future relationships.

Develop confidence in yourself

According to clinical psychologist and relationship expert Jeff Menzise, one of the first steps for adjusting an insecure attachment style is to gradually build self-confidence. “Many of the complications associated with an insecure attachment in a romantic relationship stem from the partner’s lack of confidence in their own person,” says Menzise. “Regardless of source, the work becomes about re-establishing confidence and strength in one’s own ability to survive and maintain even without their partner.” Menzise suggests both partners engage in exercises where each partner does an activity on their own for short but ever-increasing amounts of time. The point of this, he says, is “to build the strength to stand alone in order to stand stronger together.”

Understand your attachment style

Understanding the attachment style you most closely resemble is the first step toward self-awareness in a relationship. Dating and relationship expert Megan Weks suggests this can help you identify any self-sabotaging behaviors you exhibit in relationships. “Your most basic childish instincts and urges will resurface with the development of increased intimate, personal bonds,” says Weks. “It’s important to understand which self-preserving methods your subconscious may default to when you are trying to create a new intimate bond with another person.”

Jessica Meiman, licensed mental health counselor, agrees that in order to change our attachment style, we have to know what we are bringing to our interactions and where this comes from. “Knowing our triggers that lead to old, unhealthy patterns is key,” she says. “Learning about how you came to attach in the way that you do will shine a light as to why certain issues exist in your relationship.” We can’t change something if we don’t know what needs changing. This is why, as with any behavior change, self-awareness is so important.

Become more mindful

When we are triggered in our relationships, especially if we have a history of trauma, our bodies will kick into fight-or-flight mode. Weks gives an example of what happens to someone with an anxious attachment style: “It could be that [your partner is] late coming home, and their phone has died and they were unable to contact you to let you know. When something like this occurs, your fear of abandonment may kick in causing an abnormal heightened state of anxiety.”

In order to think more clearly and make better choices about how we react, we must move out of this flight-or-fight state back into a state of awareness. Weks suggests taking a breath before responding, or calmly excusing yourself into the bathroom for a few minutes while you do some deep breathing, and then checking in with yourself and asking if the action you want to take will be beneficial to the relationship. Allowing this space between the triggering event and your immediate impulse is crucial if you want to avoid self-sabotaging behaviors.

Heal via the relationship

Marriage therapist Jordan Johnson, LMFT, explains that we tend to be drawn to people who emotionally trigger us without even realizing it. “It’s like our subconscious mind is trying to find a way to help us address our own inner conflicts,” he explains. In relationships, these conflicts can either become amplified and worsen or, he says, they can be addressed and healed. “Just because a relationship brings out our deepest fears or insecurities does not mean that it is a bad relationship.”

In fact, relationships can be our greatest opportunities for working through past injuries, which can actually bring us closer to our partners, thereby deepening intimacy.

Communicate your needs

In identifying our personal pain points, Meiman explains, we can put words to our experiences, allowing us to then communicate with our partners around our needs. “Communication will be the foundation on which we can work toward more healthy ways of relating and, ultimately, attaching. Openness about how we came to be and who we are, allows us to support each other in the ways we each need,” says Meiman. “Knowing our needs allows us to shift unhealthy patterns of relating. If you can communicate with your partner about the patterns you engage in, how those patterns came to be, and why you have certain needs at certain times, then you can work toward a shift in attachment style.

Understand your partner’s needs

A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., agrees that partners can help one another make shifts in attachment styles by helping each other put feelings into words and make meaningful connections. She suggests that if your partner has an avoidant attachment style, give them a little bit more space at these times; or if your partner has an anxious attachment style, give your partner extra reassurances and support. “If your partner wants you to text them every time you are running behind,” she says, “text your partner. This will help alleviate their anxiety and help them meet your needs. Attachment styles should be built upon, not torn down.”

Whether you are someone with an insecure attachment style or are in a relationship with someone with an insecure attachment style, becoming aware of and communicating your needs are key. With mindfulness, self-reflection, and hard work, changing unhealthy patterns of attachment is possible and can lead you to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships.

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