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Primary Relationships should be a Primary Priority

Competing attachments can create real threats to relationship satisfaction.

In an eye-opening report, Anabelle Bugatti (August 2020) described the construct of competing attachments within a relationship. When most of us think of “cheating partners,” our minds snap onto romantic rivals who are either enticing our partners or are being pursued by our partners. However, there are a lot more rivals to a partner’s attention and commitment than we might have considered.

Jealousy is a pretty basic and instinctual reaction when we fear someone is getting something we want or a bigger share of a scarce resource. Sometimes jealousy is just a vague undertow of dissatisfaction, like when a colleague seems to get more attention from the boss than you do, or when you feel that it’s your sibling who’s the “favorite child” more often than you are. The jealousy between siblings is where a lot of people first experience that particular emotion. Jealousy, though, can also be a raging inferno when the object of your jealousy is a potential rival for your partner.

Relationship Insecurity Adds to the Fire

When we identify a rival for our partner’s attention or fidelity, it can stir up some primal emotions that can lead us to engage in surprisingly passionate or even nefarious behaviors. When we feel that a relationship is secure, we’re less likely to feel threatened by rivals for our partners’ time or devotion. However, when we see signs that something is claiming more of a partner’s time than in the past, or our partner displays increasing enthusiasm for a rival person or activity, or our partner is making choices that don’t prioritize the relationship or our desires or needs, the security of the attachment may begin to come undone.

Unfortunately, as insecurity in our attachment to a partner increases, we’re probably more likely to be willing to explore competing attachments. Relationships are designed to provide support and security, so when these are compromised, our satisfaction with the relationship deteriorates, which can further influence a person’s desire to fill their time with more rewarding—satisfying—activities, whether they are particularly healthy or not.

Romantic Rivals

These are the type of competitor with whom you might be more familiar—someone you might feel your partner spends too much time being around, someone who is intentionally trying to come between you and your partner, or just those who might be a little too flirty for your comfort with your partner. If your partner isn’t interested, then these kinds of competing attachments tend to fade away once the rival gets the message—from your partner or you, directly or indirectly.

However, other types of attachments may not originally seem to be true rivals for your partner—until they become a problem. Clients often ask their counselors, “Is this feeling/behavior/thought a problem?” Counselors typically respond, “When it interferes with your normal life, then it may have become/or is becoming a ‘problem.’” According to Bugatti’s study, here are some of the more common and troubling competitors for a partner’s attention:

Addictions, Including Substance Use, Video Gaming, Gambling

Unfortunately, addictions can span a variety of types that involve chemical addictions, behavior addictions, process addictions, and so on. Researchers are beginning to tease out the relationship between attachment styles and the likelihood of addictive behaviors.

Technology Attachments

Similar to addictions, technology attachments can include the overuse of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other apps. When partners spend more time engaging—even asynchronously—with the lives of others, this can definitely leave a partner feeling left out. Technology can include online games, too much internet time, texting, and so on.


While some partners do not perceive a partner’s engagement with pornography as a threat or substitute attachment for the partner, it can be a threatening rival for some couples. When attachment to pornography takes the place of intimacy between two partners, it drives a wedge into the relationship and can damage not just the relationship, but a partner's self-esteem and sense of self.

Work/Social/Community Relationships

When partners spend too much time talking to or talking about other people, whether they are potential romantic interests or not, it can generate a great deal of insecurity and jealousy. Primary romantic relationships, for most partners, should be the primary relationship that is given primary priority.

If you feel your partner's competing attachments are threatening the relationship and your security within the relationship:

1. Step back and try to observe the situation from an objective perspective and maybe do a “reality check” with an intimate and objective friend. Sometimes we magnify problems when we focus on them too narrowly.

2. If, after objective assessment and reflection, you still feel it to be a problem, make a date to have a discussion about your concerns with your partner.

3. Write down the key points you want to make and frame things in “I statements” that don’t leave your partner feeling so trapped and cornered that the conversation blows up before getting started.

4. Share your observations and let your partner know how their engagement with the extra-relational activity makes you feel—whether it is abandoned, ignored, disrespected, avoided, insecure, lonely, betrayed, jealous, angry, or hurt.

5. Listen. Listen. Listen. Give your partner room to speak as they process what you’re sharing. Too often, people don’t realize the effect their own behaviors have on those for whom they care—they may be too wrapped up in their own lives; they may be oblivious to the subtle hints a partner may be giving them; they may not be emotionally mature enough to understand what it takes to maintain a healthy adult relationship.

6. Healthy relationships require healthy respect and emotional investments from each person—no one can maintain a relationship on their own. Know your limits and your tolerance level, and communicate these clearly. This will minimize excuses related to “not knowing” their behavior was a problem.

7. Determine whether or not you both feel that behavior changes are necessary, and if the relationship is a high enough priority to warrant these changes.

8. If the relationship is worth saving, set limits on time spent with the competing attachments. If your partner was involved in an affair, they must agree to stop all contact with that person and be willing to allow you access to their phone/texts/emails to show evidence of their willingness to break it off. Seek group support (for your partner or yourself) if addiction is too strong to manage on your own.

9. Seek out support from a relationship counselor if necessary. Some issues are too volatile or “risky” to handle easily on your own.

10. Recognize that change is seldom easy and that lasting changes take time. You can’t force your partner to change their behavior, but you can be totally supportive of their efforts to change if changing is what they want to do.


Bugatti, A. (August, 2020). Identifying and addressing competing attachments with couples. Counseling Today.…

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