As humans we are wired to be in bonding relationships with others throughout our lifetime. These are referred to as attachment bonds. You might be most familiar with this in regard to parent-child relationships, but they also occur in our other significant relationships (family, significant others, close friends). When our attachment needs are being threatened, separation distress occurs. This is when people typically get sucked into that negative cycle - the conflict.
What do you think of when you hear the word “attachment” or “attached”? For some, this word has positive connotations and reminds them of the bond between parent and child. For others, this word has negative undertones and may carry with it the belief that being “attached” to another person is unhealthy (e.g., “codependent”). Although it is true that the concept of attachment is connected to the parent-child relationship, what is also true is that this attachment concept extends into our adult relationships. John Bowlby originally described attachment as a theory of survival, where the bond that develops between parent and child contributes to the child’s internal sense of safety and security, outward relationships with others, and overall survival in this world. When the parent-child bond is secure, the parent functions as a secure base from which the child can go out and explore the world and a safe haven where the child can receive comfort when facing difficulties. When this bond is threatened or when the child senses a lack of emotional response from the parent, a child will use various strategies to get their parent’s attention and reestablish connection. The famous “Still Face Experiment” demonstrates this (you can watch it here), and also shows how having a secure bond can help the parent and child repair these ruptures.
You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with me as an adult?” Well, over the past 30 years, attachment theory has been shown to also apply to adult relationships. According to attachment theory, we as humans are wired to be in bonding relationships with others throughout our lifetime, not just as a child. These attachment bonds occur primarily within our significant relationships (e.g., family, significant others, close friends). Attachment needs, such as the need for closeness, comfort, connection, and knowing that we matter and are important to the other person, often drive our behavior within these close relationships. When these attachment needs and relationship bonds are threatened, separation distress occurs.
Now you might be asking, what does attachment have to do with conflict? Actually, everything! As I mentioned in my previous blog post, arguments and conflicts in relationships often tend to occur in patterns and cycles. These patterns are often so predictable that, when you hear a certain tone of voice from your partner or hear a certain topic being brought up, you can almost predict exactly how an argument will play out. However, rarely is an argument only about the topic at hand. Sure, there are plenty of important conversations in a relationship that may spark a heated discussion, particularly on issues with strong ties to one’s values, but if we look below the surface, we typically find that arguments happen when one’s attachment needs have been triggered. For example, how often have you and your partner argued about taking out the trash or doing the laundry or spending more quality time together? If we look below the surface of these arguments, we may find that not taking out the trash is a problem because you feel like you don’t matter to your partner, or that the lack of quality time together leaves you feeling unloved and disconnected from your partner.
So what happens, then, when these attachment needs are triggered? Relationship distress combined with trying to get our relational needs met. What might this look like? Enter your negative cycle. Separation and attachment-related distress are commonly accompanied by a very predictable pattern as a way to try to reestablish safety and security within ourselves and the relationship. From an attachment perspective, there are three common relationship patterns that happen when trying to get our needs met – pursue-withdraw, pursue-pursue, withdraw-withdraw. In the previous blog post, I talked about the pursue-withdraw pattern specifically. But, maybe you read that post and found that the pattern described did not seem to really fit your relationship. Below, let’s look at each of these patterns in a bit more detail, and think about what attachment needs may be driving each cycle.
With this pattern, when attachment-related distress is activated, one partner may engage in pursuing behavior and the other partner may engage in withdrawing behavior. This cycle may look like this: The more one partner pursues, the more the other partner withdraws, and the more that this partner withdraws, the more the other partner pursues. Both of these moves are protective with the intention of either protecting the relationship, oneself or one’s partner, or both. This cycle often ends with both partners feeling upset, hurt, and disconnected from each other.
What attachment needs may have been triggered? For the pursuing partner, there may be the need for reassurance or the need to know that they matter to their partner or the need for emotional closeness. For the withdrawing partner, there might be the need for safety or the need for emotional regulation.
Often this pattern is a variation of “Pursue-Withdraw”. What may happen is that the partner who typically withdraws may do so up to a certain point. This point may be different for everyone. At this point, the withdrawer then also begins pursuing. This type of cycle often gets loud, and may end with name calling and yelling.
What attachment needs may have been triggered here? For both partners, there is likely the need to feel heard by the other person or the need to reestablish safety within the relationship. There could also be a sense of needing to protect oneself.
Although the “Withdraw-Withdraw” pattern does happen as the default cycle in relationships, it often results from one of the following situations. For some couples, their cycle may have started out as a “Pursue-Withdraw” but over time, the pursuing partner may have begun to withdraw out of protection for themselves because they may have found that every time they reached out to their partner, they were unable to reach them. This partner would more accurately be called a “burnt-out pursuer.” At this point, the original withdrawer may feel like the relationship is getting better because arguments may have stopped, but the burnt-out pursuer may actually be withdrawing to avoid being hurt or let down. It is possible that both partners may have come into the relationship with more withdrawing tendencies, though this is more rare.
What may be happening here from an attachment perspective? Both partners are in protection mode. One or both partners may have experienced times when they tried to reach out to the other person to get their attachment needs met, but ended up hurt or disappointed. Over time, they became more protective of themselves to avoid getting hurt or disappointed.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these three patterns. Often we learned how to get our needs met in relationships and how to deal with conflict based on what was modeled for us growing up. What may have worked in your family growing up may not work as well in your adult relationships. If you find that you are feeling stuck in your relationship pattern and as though your connection with your partner is not quite where you would like it to be, we have several therapists who work from an attachment-perspective, and can help you and your partner discover how to be more accessible and responsive to each other and engaged on a more emotional level. Give us a call today!
Article by Heather Frick, AMFT#116509 (supervised by Jennine Estes, LMFT#47653)
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. The British Journal of
Psychiatry, 130(5), 421–431. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.130.5.421
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human
development. Basic Books.
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy
(EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press.
UMass Boston. (2009, November 30). Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick
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