Getting unstuck in unhappy relationships: Part 1

One reason why therapy sessions sometimes look back to the past is because much of how we are as adults is grounded in the lessons we learned as children. The way we are in romantic relationships is no exception.

Perhaps you find yourself always losing interest in someone and feeling trapped after a few weeks, or maybe you find yourself obsessively checking up on your partner because you suspect that they are not be faithful to you. No matter how different the person seems to be from your past partners or how many new relationships you’ve begun, there are patterns that seem to repeat itself.

If we want to better understand why we fall into the same (often upsetting and painful) patterns over and over again, it is helpful to look back at our first relationships, that is, the relationship we have with our parents. How those relationships developed and how they are still, can give us a lot of information about the way we engage in relationships as adults.

To begin with, attachment theory posits that generally, there are 4 ways people relate to others in intimate relationships. While these attachment patterns were first observed between the infant-caregiver relationship, over time, researchers have established that the same attachment style will manifest itself in adulthood within the context of romantic relationships. Those attachment styles appear in adulthood in these 4 different ways:

Secure: Being warm and loving in a relationship comes naturally to you. You enjoy being intimate without becoming overly worried about your relationships. You take things in stride when it comes to romance and don’t get easily upset over relationship matters. You effectively communicate your needs and feelings to your partner and are strong at reading your partner’s emotional cues and responding to them you share your successes and problems with your mate, and are able to be there for them in times of need.

Anxious: You love to be very close to your romantic partners and have the capacity for great intimacy. You often fear, however, that your partner does not wish to be as close as you would like them to be. Relationships tend to consume a large part of your emotional energy. You tend to be very sensitive to small fluctuations in your partner’s moods and actions, and although your senses are often accurate, you take your partner’s behaviours too personally. You experience a lot of negative emotions within the relationship and get easily upset. As a result, you tend to act out and say things you later regret. If the other person provides a lot of security and reassurance, however you are able to shed much of your preoccupation and feel contented.

Avoidant: It is very important for you to maintain your independence and self-sufficiency and you often prefer autonomy to intimate relationships. Even though you do want to be close to others, you feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and tend to keep your partner at arm’s length. You don’t spend much time worrying about your romantic relationships or about being rejected. you  tend not to open up to your partners and they often complain that you are emotionally distant. In relationships, you are often on high alert for any signs of control or impingement on your territory by your partner.

Fearful: You feel both uncomfortable with intimacy and very concerned about your partner’s availability. You may wish to become close to romantic partners but become fearful in getting too close, rejected, or hurt.  The way you relate to romantic partners vacillates between being anxiously attached and avoidantly attached.

The descriptions above may already give you an idea about which style you have but this online questionnaire can also help you clarify your own attachment style. It can be used to give you a basic understanding of why and how your relationships often end up in the same way.

The attachment style of your partner can also bring out different degrees of insecure attachment within us. So while it is important to do the work and understand yourself, you can also use this understanding of attachment styles to make sure you end up choosing your partner wisely. For example, if you know you tend to be anxiously attached, then it would be wise to be with someone who is more securely attached as they would most likely be able to respond sensitively to your needs. To pick someone who is avoidantly attached and needs a lot more space and independence would serve to create more anxiety and worry in you.

Even though our early parental relationships play a large role in determining our attachment style, it is probably too simplistic to say that we are determined to always have a certain style of attachment, A more helpful way to think about attachment styles is that they are stable but also changeable. Just as bad habits can endure and stay with us for a long time, even if it isn’t ‘good’ for us, they can also be broken and new habits can be developed. Whether it is an avoidant or anxious style of attachment, we sometimes unknowingly end up engaging in behaviours that are unhelpful and sometimes even self-defeating. These are the patterns that keep us stuck in unfulfilling or unhappy relationships.

Understanding the ‘traps’ of your insecure attachment style and learning to engage more securely can help you move towards more fulfilling romantic relationships.

Find out more in Part 2 of this series on Attachment in Romantic Relationships.