NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Resolving Relationship Problems Between Individuals With Avoidant and Anxious Attachment Styles

In my recent articles, I've been focusing on the effect of trauma on emotionally unavailable people with avoidant attachment style.  In my last article, Relationships: Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Emotionally Unavailable People, I provided a vignette about two fictional characters, John and Nina, as a typical example of how the combination of two individuals with an avoidant attachment style and an anxious attachment style can impact on a relationship.  In this article, I will discuss how experiential therapy can help to resolve these problems.

Resolving Relationship Problems Between Individuals With Avoidant and Anxious Attachment Styles

Clinical Vignette: Resolving Relationship Problems For a Couple With Avoidant and Anxious Attachment Styles 

John and Nina
In the vignette about John and Nina from my prior article, John had an avoidant attachment style and Nina had an anxious attachment style.  Nina wanted to take their relationship to the next level by the two of them moving in together, but John felt that Nina was too "clingy" and preferred to maintain the status quo.  

Nina felt their relationship was stagnant.  Since Nina came from a family where problems were discussed, she wanted to have a discussion with John about their problems.  However, John, who came from a family where discussions about family or individual problems were avoided, felt uncomfortable with this.  John felt defensive whenever Nina told him that he didn't meet her emotional needs.  

Listening to his childhood stories, Nina was shocked to hear the level of emotional neglect endured by John and his siblings.  However, John didn't see it that way.  He felt that he and his siblings "built character" and learned to be more independent.  He said his family didn't need to talk about emotional issues, and he and his siblings didn't want to "bother" their parents with their problems (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).  As a result of their different perspectives, Nina and John were at an impasse.

Although Nina's family tended to be more communicative with each other, Nina grew up feeling she wasn't good enough because her parents compared her unfavorably to her sister.  She brought those same anxious feelings of inadequacy into her relationship with John.  She saw his emotional unavailability as a reflection on her, and she felt that he didn't feel she was good enough for him.  

As things came to a head in their relationship, Nina told John that she wanted each of them to attend therapy to deal with their problems.  Although he was reluctant at first, John loved Nina and he didn't want to lose her, so he agreed to see a therapist.

At the recommendation of friends, Nina and John chose experiential therapists (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy).

Nina had no problem discussing her feelings of insecurity and inadequacy in her therapy.  She was open to talking about her family history and the connection between her feelings of not being good enough in her family as well as her feeling that way in her relationship with John.  

However, Nina's feelings of inadequacy also carried over into her relationship with her therapist.  She worried that she wasn't being a good enough client in her therapy.  Sensing Nina's feelings of not being good enough her therapist raised the issue so they could talk about it.  She told Nina that issues that clients face in their daily life often surface in therapy, so this wasn't unusual.  When she heard this, Nina admitted that she worried that her therapist might think that she wasn't as insightful or making the kind of progress that other clients might be making.  

Being able to discuss this issue in therapy helped Nina to see how her insecurities and anxious attachment style affected almost every area in her life, and that the origin of these feelings came from her childhood experiences.  

Being able to talk about her anxious, insecure feelings was a relief for Nina.  She could see how the trauma of her parents constantly pointing out that she didn't measure up to her sister affected her and carried over into her adult relationships, including her relationship with John.  

To overcome this trauma, her therapist recommended EMDR therapy (How Does EMDR Therapy Work?).  Over time, Nina grieved for her childhood experiences, and she began to feel more confident in her relationship with John and in her relationships in general.

Nina also began to understand and have compassion for herself as well as for John for his experiences of emotional neglect as a child.  She could see the connection between his childhood experiences and his avoidant attachment style, so she became more patient with John.

Although John was initially reluctant to attend individual therapy, he tried to be more open and less defensive in his therapy.  He liked his therapist, which helped him to feel more at ease in therapy.  He was also curious about how individual attachment styles affect relationships (How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

Although he was reluctant to talk about his family history at first, he felt genuinely cared about by his therapist and this helped him to open up.  As he talked about himself as a child who didn't want to bother his parents with his problems, he realized that he was neglected as a child.  This surprised him because when he spoke to Nina about it, he felt a sense of pride that he learned to be emotionally "independent" as a child. But, without the pressure of Nina complaining to him about their relationship, he was more open and he began to see how sad and lost he felt as a child without emotional support.

His experiential therapist practiced AEDP therapy and, as part of that therapy, she did Ego States work (also known as Parts Work).  She asked John to imagine himself as a young boy at home with his family and what it was like to feel so alone.  In response, John told her that he remembered telling himself as a boy that he would never depend on anyone ever.  This brought tears to John's eyes.

Then John's therapist asked him to shift his focus from his childhood self to his adult self who was looking at his childhood self.  In response, John felt nurturing feelings for his childhood self and imagined giving his younger self a hug and reassurance that he would always be there for him.

His work in therapy was neither quick nor easy, however, over time, John was able to see the connection between his childhood emotional neglect and his avoidant attachment style.  And, as he developed a greater sense of trust in his therapist, he also opened up and became more loving towards Nina.

    John and Nina:
As each of them worked through their emotional issues in therapy, John and Nina got closer.  They were able to talk more easily about the problems in their relationship.  Nina no longer felt anxious that she wasn't good enough in John's eyes.  John no longer saw Nina as "clingy" and he wanted to make a greater commitment to their relationship.  Within a year of being in their individual therapies, they moved in together and talked about getting married.

Attachment styles develop in early childhood.  

People with avoidant and anxious attachment styles often get together in relationships.  It's one of the most common pairings.  Often, their individual attachment styles eventually alienates them from each other, as in the case of John and Nina.  

Depending upon the needs of the couple, it's often beneficial for each person to attend individual therapy to understanding the roots of their attachment style and work through unresolved trauma before they can resolve their problems in their relationship.

If the couple is still having relationship problems, Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples (EFT) can be helpful so they can see how their individual patterns relate to their relationship issues and work to change problematic patterns.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are struggling with unresolved problems, you could benefit from attending therapy with an experiential therapist.

Regular talk therapy can help you to develop intellectual insight into your problems, but often the problem doesn't change because insight alone isn't enough.  

Although insight is important, experiential therapists know that change occurs on an emotional level--not just on an intellectual level.  

About Me
I am a licensed NYC experiential psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am currently working online with clients.  Online therapy is also known as teletherapy, telemental health and telehealth (see my article: The Advantages of Online Therapy), 

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 business hours or email me.