Are you anxiously attached? Avoidant? Disorganized? What do all of the labels even mean? And if you know your attachment style will that predict which types of romantic partners you will do best with?
The answer is yes and no. There is one kind of attachment pattern that we ALL do better with— secure. Folks that are securely attached have the optimal relationship template. They tend to be better at negotiation, repair, trust and attunement to name a few things. About 50% of people are securely attached and for those lucky folks relationships tend to be a bit easier. Mind you they’re not in relationship nirvana! They still have fights, break up and mess up, but just not to the degree that those of us with insecure attachment are likely to do.
I know, it doesn’t seem fair, but research doesn’t lie. For the unlucky 50% of us who grew up without enough security to form a secure attachment template we are going to have to put in a bit more work. The good news is that under the guidance of a good attachment-savvy therapist you can learn to remodel your attachment template. This can be done in individual OR couples therapy. If you are in a coupleship and want to work on learning secure patterns I can’t recommend enough that you search out a therapist who is trained in the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). This therapy is specifically designed to teach secure patterns to couples through various exercises, interventions and experiences. It’s even fun a lot of the time, which is more than I can say for a lot of therapies. You can learn more at www.thepactinstitute.com. PACT training spans 3 levels so if you can find someone with a Level 2 or 3 training they will know more than someone with a Level 1 status. But any PACT therapy is better than no PACT therapy in my book.
So what can we predict based on attachment styles and how they interact? There are actually predictable patterns:
When you have two people with an Avoidant (also sometimes called Dismissing) style in a relationship together you need to watch out for what I call the “slow drift.” These folks will, at first, feel very compatible. They will appreciate how they can give each other space and how neither feels “needy.” It can, at first, seem like a match made in heaven. However, if the couple isn’t coached to correct for this, they tend to very slowly drift apart. Ten years down the line they end up in the office of a couples therapist with the complaint that they feel “like roommates.” They may have developed separate friend groups and hobbies, are often sleeping in separate bedrooms (always with a good excuse like someone snoring or one person being a night owl) and may take separate vacations. They generally don’t fight but they also don’t feel close. Often sex has slowed down to barely a trickle. These couples lack the emotional pull to stay close in each other’s orbits. What at first seemed like refreshing freedom later becomes too much space and not enough connection. These couples can revitalize their relationships with coaching and often do well to create small, quick daily rituals that keep them in connection. Again PACT therapy is great for helping them find their way back to each other and adding more emotional and sexual intimacy back into the mix.
The double anxious, also called Preoccupied, also called Angry Resistant style couple has its own issues. When both people have this style they tend to burn out quickly despite having great sex and amazing emotional intimacy right off the bat. This style craves so much connection and interaction that they can drive each other crazy. Fights can last hours and hours. Jealousy is common. While the highs are high, the lows can be miserable and very destabilizing. These couples need to learn how to regulate themselves as individuals at times and not always seek out the partner to soothe them when upset. We want to teach them to maintain the connection but turn down the intensity to a slow boil. Something that is still hot and satisfying but has some staying power.
You might think at this point that the answer is to find your opposite. This would be the Avoidant paired with the Anxious/Preoccupied style. While these two styles will balance each other on a systemic level the problem is that they don’t make any sense to each other. The avoidantly attached person will feel smothered and controlled by the anxiously attached/preoccupied person. The Anxious/Preoccupied/Resistant person will feel neglected and abandoned by the Avoidant partner. Each partner will vilify the tendencies of the other because they have no sense of those behaviors as being normative. They can only see their partner’s tendencies as being personal attacks on what they feel they need to be happy in a relationship. So while on a meta level this opposites-attract situation should provide the optimal balance, on a day-to-day level partners simply feel misunderstood and mistreated. These couples need to learn about each other’s styles and how to interpret their partner’s behavior as not being personal but rather coming from deep childhood experiences that lead to these behaviors as being the best strategy to maintain connection to important people. Once each partner can have compassion for how their person came to be wired this way they can then learn how to gently re-shape their partner’s style using compassion and support as opposed to threat and punishment. Again these skills can be taught by a PACT couples therapist.
If you have been poking around in the attachment literature and identify with one of the insecure styles don’t despair! Insecure people can have successful relationships if they learn about their own style and the style of their partner. Secure partner skills can be taught and, as I mentioned at the beginning, these can even be fun to learn! I urge you to learn more about the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy and seek out help if you are struggling. Your romantic relationship is your biggest asset and it’s worth investing in. If you want to get started right away I always recommend listening to Dr. Stan Tatkin’s audio program “Your Brain On Love” (available through your local public library, on iTunes or at soundstrue.com) or reading his latest book We Do. It’s never too late to re-configure your attachment pattern and the results can be life changing.
Wishing you health and happiness,