NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship

In her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations For a Lifetime of Love, marriage and family therapist, Sue Johnson, discusses, among other things, how attachment styles impact relationships and how to overcome relational dynamics that might be ruining your relationship (see my article: Telltale Signs That You and Your Spouse Are Growing Apart).

How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship

Before going much further, I think it would be useful to define the term "attachment styles."

What Are Attachment Styles?
Your attachment style is how you relate to people.

Your attachment style is developed during infancy and it is formed based on your relationship with your primary caregivers (usually your parents).

The four attachment styles for adults are:
  • secure
  • insecure - anxious-preoccupied
  • insecure - dismissive-avoidant
  • insecure - fearful-avoidant
Based on the names of the categories above, it's obvious that the healthiest attachment style is the secure attachment style.

Although much has been written about attachment theory, I'm focusing more on the practical aspects of understanding attachment styles in relationships rather than the theory, so this is a basic explanation of attachment styles.

Even though people develop their attachment style early in life, it is possible to change how you relate.

How Do Attachment Styles Affect Relationships?
When two people come together in a relationship, they interact with each other based on their attachment style.

Although this might not be evident at first, once the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate, each person will interact with the other based on the attachment style they developed at an early age (this assumes that neither person has been to therapy and has not made any changes).

Most people have little to no awareness of their particular attachment style. 

The best way for me to demonstrate attachment styles in a relationship is through a fictionalized vignette:

Fictional Vignette:  How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship:

Mary and Joe
Mary and Joe, who were both in their early 30s, were dating exclusively for a year.

During the early part of their relationship, they got along well and decided to be monogamous to see if their relationship would develop.

After six months, Mary suggested that they talk about where their relationship was going (see my article:  Dating: Is It Time to Have the Talk?).

Although she didn't want to rush things between them, she knew she wanted to get married eventually and have children, and she was increasingly conscious of her age and that her "biological clock was ticking." All of this made her feel anxious.

Joe was open to having this talk.  He had also been thinking about talking about their relationship, but he probably would have waited a few more months.

At first, it was awkward for each of them to begin this discussion.  So, Mary began by saying that she loved Joe, she was happy in their relationship and she could see them getting married and having children together.  Then, she waited anxiously for Joe to respond.

Joe listened to Mary, and he responded that he loved her very much and he could also see them getting married and having a family "eventually," but he wasn't ready to make that commitment at this point.

When Mary asked him when he thought he would be able to make this commitment, Joe thought about it and then told Mary that he didn't know.  Even though he felt their relationship was heading in the direction of getting married and having a family, it just didn't feel right to him at the moment to make that commitment.

Mary was disappointed to hear Joe say this.  She had hoped that he would, at least, tell her that he wanted to set a date for them to get engaged.

When she told Joe this, he said he would be open to their living together and seeing how things worked out.  And, then, if things worked out for them, he would feel comfortable talking about getting engaged.

On one level, this made sense to Mary but, on another level, she also had a nagging doubt that if she and Joe moved in together that he would never ask her to get married.  She was aware that she felt this way based on how her mother talked about couples who lived together (her mother would say, "Why buy the cow when the milk is free?").

Over the next few weeks, they talked about this impasse several times, and Mary tried as best as she could to put aside her doubts.  They decided that even though they both had their own apartments, it would be better to find another place together that was neither hers nor his.

Two months later, they found an apartment that they both liked, and they moved in together.

Mary had hoped that when they moved in together, they would spend most of their free time together.    But Joe wanted to continue to go out with his friends a few nights a week and even sometimes on weekends, which left little time for Joe and Mary to spend together.  Mary realized that they were seeing each other less than before they lived together.

When Mary complained that they weren't spending as much time together as she would like, Joe dismissed her feelings as out of hand.  He told her that he felt they spent plenty of time together and he wasn't willing to give up his nights out with the guys (see my article: New Relationships: Time Together vs Time Apart).

As time went on, Mary felt increasingly upset and anxious about Joe's time away from her.  She felt that it meant he didn't care about her.  Her reasoning was: If Joe cared about me, he would want to spend as much time as possible with me (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

At the same time, Joe felt increasingly annoyed with what he perceived as Mary's demands on his time.  He couldn't understand why she was "making such a big deal" out of the time he spent with his friends.  He assured her that he wasn't seeing other women. What more could she want?

How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship

The more Joe dismissed Mary's feelings, the more insecure and unlovable she felt.  She also blamed herself for going against her feelings that she shouldn't move in with Joe unless he made more of a commitment.  She saw Joe's dismissive comments about her feelings as proof that she made a mistake.

One Friday night when Joe came home from playing pool with his friends, he was shocked to discover that Mary had packed her bags and she was ready to go home to her family.

Mary was sitting on the couch in tears, "I'm not happy.  It must be my fault that you don't care about me, but I don't know how to fix it.  I think it's better if I leave."

When Joe got over the initial shock of seeing Mary with her bags packed, he sat next to her on the couch and told her not to be so hasty.  He suggested that they talk before she moved out, which she agreed to do.

Then, Joe explained that he likes his independence.  He said he didn't want to feel hemmed in by their relationship.  He still wanted to have friends and spend time with them.  He thought part of the problem was that Mary didn't spend more time with her friends and because of this, she was too emotionally dependent upon him.

Mary disagreed with Joe.  She told him that, as far as she was concerned, he was her primary relationship and more important than her friends, but it was clear to her that he didn't feel this way.

Joe thought that Mary was being too "clingy," but he didn't want to tell her this because he knew that she was feeling bad enough already.  He wondered to himself if he even wanted to be in relationship.  He never felt a real need for a relationship.  He preferred to be independent and on his own, but he also didn't want to be lonely, and when he met Mary, he fell in love with her.

Joe and Mary didn't resolve anything that night, but they agreed to continue to talk about it, so Mary unpacked and she stayed.

After a few days, when Mary felt her anxiety escalating again, she told Joe that she thought they could benefit from going to couples counseling.  Joe groaned inwardly when he heard Mary say this.  He didn't think they needed couples counseling, but he could see that she was very anxious and he didn't want to lose her, so he agreed to go.

After a few sessions of couples counseling, their couples counselor talked to them about attachment styles.  She said her impression was that Mary had an anxious-preoccupied attachment style and Joe had a dismissive-avoidant style.  She also told them that it was not unusual for people with these attachment styles to be attracted to each other.

Their therapist helped them to recognize their attachment styles and how it was impacting their relationship.  She also helped them to begin to make changes.

Since attachment styles are ingrained, it was not easy or quick work in couples counseling, but Joe and Mary made progress.

Mary learned to deal with her insecurities in the relationship, and Joe learned that his dismissive manner was a defense mechanism that kept him from getting closer to Mary.  He also learned that what he saw as "independence" was part of the defense mechanism.  Each of them learned to communicate about what they needed from the other.

How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship
Joe recognized that he was spending much of his free time with his friends to avoid getting too close to Mary.  He saw that, even though he loved her, he was also afraid of getting hurt.  So, he agreed to spend only one night with his friends and spend the rest of his free time with Mary.  This increased their emotional intimacy and made him feel more vulnerable, but he was able to talk about this in the couples counseling.

Mary recognized that part of her unconscious attraction to Joe was that he was avoidant.  His avoidance seemed to confirm how she felt about herself--that she was unlovable.  So, Mary dealt with her longstanding feelings of being an unlovable person and with their new level of emotional intimacy.

As they continued to work on these issues in couples counseling, which was challenging, they were both happier in their relationship.

Most people have little to no knowledge of their attachment styles or that they are relating in a particular way with other people.

As mentioned earlier, attachment styles develop at an early age based on the relationship that infants have with their primary caregivers.

While no relationship is perfect, when both people have a secure attachment style, generally, they tend not to have the kind of problems that people with insecure attachment have.

Although attachment styles are ingrained from an early age, people can change how they relate if they attend individual therapy or couples counseling with a knowledgeable psychotherapist.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're having problems in a romantic relationship or in your relationships with other people, it could be related attachment styles.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to understand your attachment style, how it developed and how you can change how you relate to others (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Although changing how you relate to others can be challenging, you will be happier with yourself and others if you learn to relate in a healthier way.

Rather than continuing to do what doesn't work for you, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who is knowledgeable about attachment styles.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me