In part 1 of this series, we decoded the origin of attachment styles and in part 2, described common attachment patterns and what they mean. Here, we’ll dive deeper into the dance between attachment systems and the resulting relationship dynamics.
Noting the interplay of attachment styles provides fascinating insight into your possible relationship dynamics. While most people have a tendency to exhibit one of these three styles more often than not, it isn’t entirely uncommon for attachment styles to shift due to circumstances, involvement in therapy (Sroufe, 1996), learning, the approach of your partner, and other environmental factors (Brogaard, 2015).
Secure + Secure
The relationship that is most likely to endure and result in the healthiest dynamics is one between two “secure” individuals. They could date or not date, and are relatively good at weeding out partners who do not make good attachment matches for them. The mutual sense of security and support, yet freedom and individuality, leads to long-term relationship satisfaction. Intimacy needs are mutually met. It’s often possible too that when one insecure individual partners with a secure partner, the person with the alternate attachment style can more easily become secure, and the relationship endures (Brogaard, 2015).
Secure + Avoidant
Secure partners are capable of utilizing patience and space for an avoidant partner to come around to closeness that is more familiar to a secure partner. Secure partner’s tendency towards collaboration and mutuality is attractive to the avoidant partner, and may be helpful for them to grow close in the initial dating stages. The secure partner’s patience may also help avoidants heal from past wounds that have made withdrawal and distance their go-to strategies and comfort zones. However, after so long, the secure partner may grow tired and impatient with the avoidant partner’s withdrawal and overly independent ways, and seek a more engaged partner. (Tatkin, 2016)
Secure + Anxious
Similar to secure + avoidant couples, secure partners bring the security and consistency to the relationship with an anxious partner. As anxious partners are likely to display ambivalent behaviors around closeness, the secure partner can avoid playing into that push-pull dynamic by speaking directly and honestly about the relationship, neither over-promising on the outlook of the relationship, nor pulling away immediately. They are also emotionally present and capable enough to handle the stronger emotions typical of an anxious partner, and it’s essential for the secure partner to maintain appropriate boundaries. (Tatkin, 2016)
Anxious + Avoidant
When intimacy needs are different, two individuals with varying attachment styles can encounter tumultuous relationship conditions. The union of anxious and avoidant attachment systems often leads to a roller-coaster of emotions that reinforce each individual’s insecurities, which makes it difficult to leave such a relationship. When one partner wants intimacy and the other gets uncomfortable when their partner is too close, this can result in a game of push and pull.
Anxious styles are “activated” by a partner pulling away while avoidant partners are “deactivated” when an anxious partner requires closeness (pushing). When both partners feel threatened in this way, it’s difficult to move towards a secure relationship. Instead, they both continue to exacerbate each other’s default attachment system, which can be a comfortable, yet destructive, relationship environment (Levine & Heller, 2010).
The answer to this relationship conundrum, and most others, is becoming aware of the dynamics, having respect for each other’s style and a willingness to change. Compromise around communication and proactively addressing validation needs can lead anxious/avoidant partnerships to more secure dynamics.
Unresolved relationships are less studied and most look directly to the primary status of either insecure - anxious or avoidant to understand relationships with an unresolved. However, if you are unresolved, you may find yourself simultaneously activated and wanting to deactivate the feelings and experiences within your new relationship. You may find yourself under or over-reacting to experiences in the present, or your reactions may seem unrelated to the present experience. That is because you are likely responding to the past in the present. Unresolved individuals will greatly benefit from doing some intensive therapeutic work around healing first.
If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is unresolved, you may get the sense that they are not really responding to the present moment or relationship. This is likely a sign that they are trapped in traumas of the past and need more time before they can be in a healthy, mutual relationship.
Want to learn more about the way your attachment style impacts your relationship satisfaction and happiness? Contact Dr. Hick, Psy.D. to learn how you can use this information to develop healthier partnerships moving forward.
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Brogaard, Berit. (2015) How to Change Your Attachment Style. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-change-your-attachment-style.
Levine, A., Heller, R. (2010). Attached. New York: The Penguin Group.
Shorey, H. 2015, 26 5. Come Here-Go Away; the Dynamics of Fearful Attachment retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment
Tatkin, S, (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style can help you find your ideal mate. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.