Relationship disconnection is a common occurrence in many relationships, and it makes sense why—we can’t be attuned to our partner and their needs all the time, and even if we are, it’s likely that we will make mistakes as far as anticipating what they may need or the type of support that will feel best for them. In secure relationships, when partners recognize they have become disconnected, they intentionally work together to repair the attachment rupture, come back together, and be sure they are on the same page as they move forward in their relationship.
We’ve talked a bit about attachment styles looking like a pie—we all have different sized slices of each style. As someone with a sizable slice of the anxious attachment style, I know that repair can feel like a tricky process to navigate. Before I intentionally began doing my own attachment work, as much as I wanted to repair disconnection with partners, I also felt tremendously anxious about doing so. What if the disconnection happened again? What if I made myself vulnerable, put down my wall, allowed myself to be hurt again, and my partner took advantage of that? When I was deeply hurt in a partnership, I would criticize my partner, make a huge deal about the argument and disconnection, use all the relationship skills I had to try to engage them when they would pull away (all common behaviors for someone with the anxious attachment style). We would finally (and painstakingly) get to the point where it would be possible for us to repair…and then I would shut down and shut them out. We would be stuck in a horrible cycle of push and pull, approach and retreat, anger and sadness. Finally, we would be so exhausted by this dynamic that we would give up, move on, and not talk about the disconnection anymore. It was pretty much the worst.
Here you can see clearly the anxiety and stress that accompanies this insecure style, as well as the protective mechanisms I used to use to mask my fear and vulnerability. The other component of this is that as a person with a slice of the anxious attachment pie, I had a habit of choosing partners who didn’t know how to respond to me in a secure way—so my fears were often realized in partnerships, and my anxieties proven correct. It was a vicious cycle. But more on that in my next post (spoiler alert: many of us choose partners who have a different style than we do, and that's okay!).
I continued in this old way of relating (much to the irritation of my current, mostly secure partner) until I began to learn about attachment theory. I started to understand what was happening for me and the ways that my old patterns were showing up just as we were coming to a place where we could reconnect and move forward together. As much as I was trying to stay present, my brain was trying to recreate the dynamics and emotions of previous relationships and interactions that didn’t meet my needs. My body and brain were responding to the old patterns because I was being triggered to remember them unconsciously in the present moment. And to be totally honest and candid with you, it really sucked. When things were really frustrating, I started to believe that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in a long-term relationship, or that I couldn’t be.
Learning about my attachment patterns empowered myself and my partner, and gave so much hope to our relationship. Doing my own attachment work changed our relationship dynamic drastically. The concept that shifted things the most? Repair.
When I look back at previous relationships, I realize we were missing this key step in healing. We were skipping over the good part and moving forward with a lot of baggage, resentment, and fear. Relationships don’t thrive on those things. Relationships thrive on mutual respect, trust, and safety—and that is what repair provides. But we didn’t know how to do it.
There are a few options for trying to tame a rupture in connection between partners. The first two are the common and misguided strategies I used to use all the time, and the ones I tend to see in my therapy office before folks learn about their attachment patterns and apply their new knowledge to their relationships. The third is true repair.
- Pretend the rupture never happened and move on. Don’t talk about it, don’t acknowledge it, and sweep it under the rug. It might feel easier or more convenient in the moment, but it causes significant resentment down the road, and our wounds get bigger, deeper, and more difficult to heal.
- Come to a place where no one gets what they need—essentially a relationship stalemate. It’s that place where you might say “we have to agree to disagree” and no one feels happy or reconnected.
- Prioritize your partner's feelings in the relationship. Recognize when your partner is hurting and fix it. Know that problem-solving will be ineffective if either of you is feeling overwhelmed is in fight/flight/freeze. When being right is the goal, repair is delayed and suffering continues for both partners.
What I know now is that repair is where it’s at when it comes to long-term relationships. The ability to repair fosters resiliency, trust, and security. When we disconnect and reconnect, we strengthen our secure attachment muscles. The more often we repair, the less we will actually need to—because we won’t stumble into disconnection as often when we are attuned to each other’s needs. Repair creates resilience and increases our ability to return to each other after each argument, hurt, or misunderstanding. Secure relationships and partners tolerate discomfort for short periods of time because there is trust that reconnection will occur.
I think of repair as a mindset. It’s going to look different for each relationship and moment of disconnection, but it’s prioritizing reconnecting over being right. It’s setting aside ego, breathing, and having deep empathy for your partner and the way they are hurting. It’s making eye contact and remembering that this is a person you love and are on a team with. Each relationship is different, but repair may look something like this:
- Recognize the issue is deeper than what you can see here. Have compassion for yourself and your partner. Your earlier experiences are shaping your current disconnection. Assume you are both doing your best.
- If possible, engage in physical touch and take a break from talking. Sometimes we keep talking because we don’t know what else to do. What would happen if you paused and hugged? Breathed together? Sat close to one another on the couch? If you rubbed their back or held their hand? Physical closeness reminds your nervous system that you are safe, and safety leads to repair.
- Know your partner’s vulnerabilities and speak to those vulnerabilities in a caring way. “I know it’s hard for you when I go out with my friends and we don’t talk for a few hours. I remember you telling me what it was like for you when you wouldn’t know when your mom would get home from work and you were all alone. I imagine it brings up some of the same feelings when you don’t hear from me. I’m sorry I didn’t reach out to you. I’m going to really try to remember how it could upset you in the future and make a plan to stay more connected. Can we talk about how to do that together?"
Repair feels a lot like being able to take a big, deep breath. When I experience repair or witness it with the couples I work with, I see nervous system settling. Relaxation, calming, more eye contact, and a general sense of feeling okay and safe. Sometimes people even feel sleepy once repair is achieved because they are no longer in fight/flight/freeze mode. There is now room for humor and joking together and maybe even laughing about the argument. The tension of the disagreement is replaced with lightness, closeness, and a return to each other.
How are you with repair in relationships? Does it come easily for you, or does it feel like a struggle? Do you want to learn about what gets in the way of repair for you personally? I'm facilitating a virtual Attachment Exploration beginning April 30th that will support a deeper understanding of the emotions and patterns that come up for you in relationships and hold you back from experiencing the settling of repair and reconnection. I would really love to have you there. Let's practice and learn together.
Here's to empowering ourselves and our relationships!
p.s. It's here! The Healing Anxious Attachment Online Course!
This course is for anyone interested in feeling healthier in relationships. You don't have to be in a relationship currently to benefit from the material. You can learn more and get started here.