Positive vs. Negative Attachment

Make negative attachment positive, before attempting to resolve issues.

Posted Jan 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

When couples counseling fails, it’s typically because problems and issues are addressed while the attachment is negative. 

Attachment is the formation and maintenance of emotional bonds. Emotions in one attachment figure have profound effects on the other, such that the well-being of one is intertwined with the well-being of the other. 

We tend to think of attachment as positive, based on love, caring, compassion, trust, support. Indeed, most start out that way. But the stronger attachments tend to be negative – those that have gradually devolved into chronic resentment, anger, blame, and criticism, driven by fear of abandonment. 

Because negative emotions are more important to immediate survival, they get priority processing in the brain and dominate recall. In intimate relationships, John Gottman discovered the “magic ratio” to be 5:1, five or better positive interactions for each negative one. (Research in business has shown that the highest performing teams are closer to 6:1.) 

The emotional mechanisms of attachment:

  • Contagion
  • Attunement 

Emotions are more contagious than any known virus. But contagion, too, has negative bias. We’re more likely to get resentful or angry around a resentful or angry person than to get cheerful around a cheerful person. 

Attunement is more intimate version of contagion, wherein partners automatically tune their emotions to each other. That's why it seems like a switch is thrown inside you when you come home feeling good and find your partner feeling down. Attunement will bring your partner's emotional state up a little and yours down a lot, due to then negative bias of emotions. 

Negative bias sometimes makes us resist attunement altogether: “I can’t let my partner bring me down or make me nervous or angry.”

Repeated broken-attunement creates distance in relationships, which typically fills with resentment and, over time, contempt.

Positive vs. Negative

Positive attachment is reward-driven - you feel better and like yourself better. Negative attachment is driven to reduce vulnerability, avoid abandonment, or feed the ego. It can make some people feel self-righteous but not truly like themselves.

In positive attachment, partners:

  • Feel secure.
  • Maintain interest, compassion, trust, love.
  • Have an attitude of connection.
  • Mutually empower, encourage, reassure..
  • Are cooperative and forgiving of mistakes

In negative attachment. partners:

  • Feel insecure.
  • Diminish interest, compassion, trust, love.
  • Have an attitude of disconnection.
  • Engage in power struggles.
  • Discourage, disregard.
  • Invoke anxiety.
  • See each other as opponents.
  • Carry grudges.

In extreme negative attachment, partners are abusive. Attachment cannot turn positive until abuse has stopped for some time (usually a year or so). Abusive behavior must cease before there can be negotiation about issues or problems in the relationship.  

The Road to Negative Attachment

Disputes over issues, problems, or conflicts of attachment styles do not in themselves veer attachment toward the negative. Rather, negative attachment results from repeated failure of compassion, particularly compassionate assertiveness.

In compassionate assertiveness, partners stand up for their rights, privileges, preferences, tastes, and opinions in ways that respect the rights, privileges, preferences, tastes, opinions, sensitivity, and vulnerability of each other.

Increasing Positive Attachment

Failure of compassion turns attachments negative. Reinstatement of compassion will turn them back.

Relationships become insecure when there are threats of abandonment: “You do what I want or I’m out of here.”

Unless there is abuse, there should never be threats of abandonment. The attitude in positive attachment is: “We’ll overcome disagreements and solve problems with value and respect for each other. Our bond is more important than problems and issues.”

Attitude of Connection

Connection is choice. We choose to feel connected, and we choose to feel disconnected. In general, people like themselves better when they choose to feel connected and like themselves less when they choose to feel disconnected.

In an attitude of connection, partners regard themselves as connected, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, whether pleased or disappointed by each other’s behavior. They behave as if they’re connected. They make small connecting gestures throughout the day - brief touch, gentle eye-contact, smiles, embraces. They think and speak in terms of “We,” “Us,” “Our,” "Ours."

Attitude of disconnection: partners think and speak in terms of “Me,” “I,” “You,” “Mine,” “Yours.”

Working “we, us, our, ours” into everyday vocabulary strengthens relationships. Try writing this sentence a couple of times to see how it feels: “We want our relationship to bring us the safety, security, love, and happiness we deserve.”

The hackneyed communication advice to convert “you-statements” into “I-statements” cannot turn negative attachments positive. But replacing “I-statements” with “we-statements” can. “We-statements” tend to invoke common values, such as compassion and caring.

Overtime, feelings of connection should be mutual, but they won’t be all the time. At any given moment, one partner will be stronger than the other. Maintaining unilateral feelings of connection gives the stressed partner time to recover. Reactive disconnection makes everything worse.

Bond Over Problems and Mistakes

The maintenance of interest, compassion, trust, and love must be more important than issues and problems. To the extent that partners are able to adhere to those priorities, problems bring them closer together. They're teammates. They cooperate in solutions that both feel okay about, with neither feeling disregarded, put upon, or treated unfairly.

The cooperation formula: the valued self cooperates, the devalued self resists. If you want cooperation, show value. 

Partners with positive attachment make mistakes. They apologize sincerely and sincere apologies are accepted. But forgiveness is a byproduct of sustained compassion. Focus on compassion, and forgiveness will occur naturally.

Resolving issues and problems doesn’t turn negative attachments positive. Turning negative attachments positive resolves issues and problems.