Last week we looked at the two fundamental human needs that we all have: our need for an independent sense of self and our need to feel closely connected and bonded to others.
We explored the way that individuals who have a secure attachment style balance these two competing needs in their relationships. This week we are going to look at the way that those who have an insecure attachment style (either anxious or avoidant) cope with their competing needs for connection and independence.
Insecure attachment introduces rigidity into our coping strategies. Because we experienced intermittent caretaking or neglect, abuse or abandonment as infants and children, those who are insecurely attached often live with a much higher degree of uncertainty in relationships with others. This insecurity impacts our relational functioning in different ways depending on whether our insecure attachment style is anxious or avoidant.
For example, if we are anxiously attached, we may experience high anxiety during moments of relational disconnection with our partner. Instead of knowing that our partner is simply attending to their self needs and will be back and available soon, our bodies remember the primal panic of being left alone for too long as infants or children and the old anxiety floods our system.
We couldn’t rely on our caretaker to come when they were needed, and we experienced minutes, hours or days of acute distress. Now we are adults, but we are again vulnerably dependent on our partner. Their withdrawal from us signals danger to our brains and bodies and sends us into high anxiety. Maybe they will never come back? Maybe they will never be available for us the way we need them to? They are unreliable and we can’t count on them, just as we couldn’t count on our caregivers.
If we are anxiously attached, we will experience rigidity around our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and others. We will expect our partner to leave us, be unavailable to us, or be unresponsive to us. We will assume that when they move in the direction of asserting self or taking care of self that they are leaving us behind. Flexibility allows us to hold a nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play in different situations. Rigidity eliminates nuance and creates a static assumption that all distance is abandonment, all withdrawal is rejection, all disconnection is potentially permanent. Our beliefs about ourselves, formed in infancy and childhood then swoop in as well creating shame and a belief that we are experiencing disconnection because ultimately, we are not worthy, do not matter or are unimportant.
These negative beliefs and assumptions about our partner’s reliability and responsiveness create a pattern that makes it challenging for our partner to meet their self needs within the relationship without it creating significant relational distress. If we are anxiously attached, experiencing these moments of disconnect motivates us to pursue connection with our partner. If we can get connection back in place, we will feel safe again. So we go after our partner, challenging their withdrawal, diminishing their self needs and over-emphasizing the relational needs so that we can assuage our anxiety and get back to feeling OK about our partner and ourselves.
Now, what if our partner is also insecurely attached? But what if they cope with their relational insecurity by withdrawing from the relationship instead of pursuing connection? On this side of the insecure attachment coin are the partners who manager their uncertainty about relational safety through overemphasizing their self needs within a relationship.
Avoidant attachers learn to cope with unpredictability or abandonment by their caregivers by dissociating from their relational needs. Rather than feel the primal panic that being left alone for too long or being abused creates, they learned to suppress these unbearable feelings to survive. They learned to turn to the self in what John Bowlby so aptly described as “compulsive self-reliance”.
The rigid assumptions that guide the beliefs about self and others move avoidant attachers to assume that closeness will create danger or discomfort. Relational connection will result in some form of relational pain, conflict or distress. They will lose their sense of self if they move too close. This conflict will lead to feelings of inadequacy, deficiency, futility and despair.
To cope with these negative assumptions, avoidant attachers will maintain relational distance and focus on their self needs within a relationship, diminishing the importance of relational connection. This is easy to do because avoidant attachers learned in childhood to repress their relational needs. As a result, the loss of relational connection can go unfelt and remain outside of conscious awareness.
As you can imagine, when two rigid patterns enter a relationship with one another, more rigidity happens. The anxious partner’s need for relational assurance is foreign to the avoidant partner’s need for self-reliance and vice versa. As these needs clash, each partner is driven further into their rigid coping strategies of relational pursuit or withdrawal to try to manage the core shame and desperation that each is triggering in the other. This makes it a challenge to get either set of needs – for connection and for independence – fully met.
Next week we are going to look at the way in which these attachment styles and how we are handling our needs for connection and sense of self play out in the relational and sexual patterns in our relationships.