Compassion Matters

How to save a life

One Surprising Reason We Sabotage Love

How Your Attachment Style May Be Hurting Your Love Life

In a previous blog, I talked about how studies are now showing that it is possible for people to stay in love long-term. Yet, it’s been said that over 85 percent of couples will call it quits. According to data collected by WotWentWrong, an app that tracks why people break up, the most common reason for splits in couples who’d  dated longer than six months was “too much fighting.” But what is causing all this conflict? How does the same person we thought we’d love forever become someone we can’t stand for a minute? Could we be sabotaging our own happiness? While we should be the biggest champions of our own love lives, the reality is we do a lot to get in our own way. True love alone might stand the test of time, but can it survive us?

Before we get too demoralized or start blaming ourselves for everything, it’s important to note that what we bring to a relationship has a lot to do with our past. We come by our shortcomings honestly, and it is ALWAYS possible to change. However, if we really want to evolve in ourselves, becoming the partners we want to be and enjoying the relationships we want to have, we have to be willing to dig deep. We can gain an enormous amount of ground by looking at our most engrained influences and being willing to challenge our oldest defenses. One of these influences is our attachment style.

Our attachment style forms in our earliest relationships, from the moment we are born and stare into our parent’s eyes. Growing up, we need to feel attached to someone else in order to feel secure within ourselves. The attachments we form in childhood shape our ideas about people and relationships. They become, in effect, an “active working model” for how we relate in the world. If we were rejected or overlooked as children, we may develop an unhealthy attachment style that we carry into our adult relationships. The same goes for if we felt intruded on or experienced great inconsistencies in our upbringing, a concept I explain in greater detail in my blog “How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationships.”

Because our attachment styles are based in large part on how we adapted in order to get our needs met as kids, we may later act especially needy, insecure, aloof or afraid in our romantic relationships. In my upcoming free online presentation, “Is Your Attachment Style Shaping Your Life?” I will illustrate how by learning your early attachment style, you gain insight into actions you can take to improve your close relationships. You can come to understand adaptations you made in order to get by as a child in your household, while also understanding how those adaptations may limit you in your current life.

For example, a woman I’ve worked with noticed that every time she felt close to her partner, she would start to experience an overwhelming fear that he was cheating on her. While her boyfriend seemed honest and trustworthy, she’d drive herself crazy wondering where he was and who he might be with. She found herself feeling desperate toward him, calling, texting and “checking in” at all hours. The more insecure she became, the more her boyfriend would clam up and become distant, which would exacerbate her fears.  Fights started with her frantically interrogating him and ended with him leaving for days, staying at a friend’s house. They spoke often about breaking up.

It was only after looking into her own history that the woman realized she had an anxious preoccupied attachment style. Growing up, her mother and primary caretaker was absentminded, often forgetting to make dinner or pick her up from school. As a result, she often felt panicked about getting her needs met and anxious that she’d be left behind. Her boyfriend had the opposite way of relating. His dismissive avoidant attachment style drove him to keep a safe distance, avoiding closeness and potential conflict. Thus, the more she clung to him, the further he’d distance himself.

As this dynamic played out, the woman was bombarded with destructive thoughts or “critical inner voices” that warned her: You can’t trust him. No one will could ever love YOU. He is going to meet someone else, someone more interesting and attractive. He is too good for you. Don’t let him get away. You’ll never find anyone better. You’re going to be alone.

In the meantime, her boyfriend had his own inner critic at work, filling his head with thoughts like: You have to get out of here. You can’t let anyone get too close. They’ll only hurt you. She is just trying to control you. You don’t need her. You don’t need anyone. You can take care of yourself. You’re better off on your own.

This internal dialogue and the dynamics that ensue are common among couples. People even unconsciously seek partners with attachment styles that negatively complement their own. You can change your attachment style as an adult by forming a relationship with someone with a healthier attachment style. You can also make great strides simply by understanding how your past influences your present, for example, how your critical inner voice is controlling your behavior.

Just recognizing where her self-critical thoughts originated allowed the woman to take a step back and gain insight into her anxieties and actions. She then made a conscious effort to stop acting jealous. Instead of sitting at home when her boyfriend was on a business trip or out with friends, she would distract herself, focusing on her own life and interests, going out to a movie or writing in her journal.  She dealt with her anxiety by learning to meditate and talking to friends. This helped her to feel more rational and to remain in her real point of view.

 Immediately, her relationship improved. With the shared goal of getting close, her boyfriend stopped reacting as much to her worries. Instead, he vocalized times when he was feeling intruded on. He made conscious choices to stick in there even when a voice in his head was telling him he’d better stay away and keep himself protected. Even though they both experienced a level of anxiety, as they challenged their defenses and stopped acting on their instinctive adaptations, they also felt exhilarated and excited from the closeness and trust they were building in each other. These conditions were only made possible by the understanding they’d each gained of their history and their attachments styles.

This understanding is possible for every one of us. We can learn what drives contemporary behavior by shining a spotlight on our past. In doing so, we’re not dwelling on what happened to us or letting it rule our lives. Rather, we are taking control of our present. When it comes to our personal development, knowledge is power. Once we better know ourselves and our attachment styles, we can learn actual techniques to challenge areas in which we may feel limited and even form an “earned secure attachment” as an adult.

Learn more by joining me for the June 3 Webinar, “Is Your Attachment Style Shaping Your Life?

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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