Recently, I wrote a blog post about anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. We know that the interplay between anxious and avoidant attachment styles is one of the most common—and I believe it’s because there is so much opportunity for healing if we can increase our awareness of this dynamic and actively make changes. It can also be the most painful dynamic if we don’t take steps to address the ways we are engaging in a negative cycle. When the cycle continues for long periods of time, relationships can experience attachment injuries and are at risk for significant disconnection.
In couples where one partner is anxious and the other is avoidant, we tend to see a push-pull, run-and-chase dynamic. Both partners become emotionally activated and they do what they do best: increase emotional intensity, questioning, and engagement (anxious) or withdraw, flatten, and dismiss (avoidant).
When I talk with couples who are committed to making changes in their relational cycle, it tends to look something like the following list of steps. This is not by any means a totally comprehensive plan, and often times, we take detours into other aspects of the relationship that are important.
Step 1: You and your partner become aware that you’re having the same argument over and over again, and no matter how many times you try to solve it, it keeps happening. Or, you have arguments about lots of other things but in the end, you find yourself referencing the same painful event that doesn’t seem to ever be healed.
Step 2: You decide to see a therapist who specializes in attachment work with couples, and/or you commit to doing the work together at home. I highly encourage folks to read Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson to deepen their understanding of the negative relational cycle that occurs between partners. This is also a great, short article about understanding the anxious-avoidant cycle.
Step 3: You begin to call out the cycle as it’s happening. You notice when you feel emotionally activated or shut down, and you notice your partner’s emotions and behaviors. You approach this challenge as a team. The goal is to recognize what is happening when it’s happening, and take steps to change the pattern. This is also a time to learn and master self-soothing strategies to manage the emotional activation as it happens.
Step 4: Deepen your understanding of the early attachment wounds you and your partner have. Really sit with them. Be uncomfortable together.
Step 5: With your new understanding, empathy, and compassion for your partner, your relationship, and yourself, you work together to create a new pattern in your relationship. You are aware of the ways you can get tripped up, so you take a different path together. And when you accidentally fall back into the old ways, you know your partner can gently remind you of the changes you’ve made and support you in getting back on track. You can do the same for them.
Addressing this dynamic requires both partners to have an understanding of the ways they become emotionally activated—meaning they are aware of their bodies and notice when they start to feel angry, frustrated, sad, and generally triggered. Often times, the experiences we have in our bodies during conflict feel similar to when we were younger, vulnerable, and didn’t have tools or strategies to cope with such intense feelings. Noticing the conversations and events that lead to this type of physical activation can give more information about the impact of early attachment experiences and pave the way to a more productive dialogue between partners about their needs.
A major component of reworking this cycle is gaining a deeper understanding of your partner’s experiences, past and present; this allows for increased empathy and emotional information that helps us make sense of interactions that have felt like they were “hijacked” by past conflicts and events. There is healing in receiving validation from a partner. If we can recognize what’s happening for them and for us during a conflict, honor it, and know that the hurt is rooted in early experiences, we can approach challenges with our partner much differently. If we are unable to validate in the moment, it’s okay to follow up after the conflict.
Addressing these types of relational cycles takes time, dedication, and support—after all, we are likely working to alter years of habitual behavioral responses to emotional triggers. I have to say that as a couples therapist, witnessing couples commit to the process and make significant, lasting changes in their partnerships is one of the most amazing things I get to see. Those changes impact the entire family and potentially generations to follow.
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