Each partner brings lots of personal baggage to their relationships. These are the things that we learned and are stored inside our heads, and form the basis for our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They are what’s underneath the things we believe and how we interpret situations, the kinds of emotions we experience, and the behaviors we display. They have a lot to do with how we interact with our partners, and that has everything to do with the goodness of our marriage.
One form of personal baggage is attachment style—how we connect with other people. These are a set of beliefs that we’ve developed from past relationships, and set the ground rules for future ones. If, for example, when we were young and felt upset, someone made us feel better, we’re prone to regard the people we have a relationship with as a source of comfort and security. But if we felt abandoned or neglected in the past, then we might feel insecure and anxious in our adult relationships.
We’ll focus on three attachment styles that are important for intimate relationships. Note that we’re not usually completely one style or another; rather, we tend to lean toward one style or another to varying degrees, although one might be dominant. Additionally, each partner has their own attachment style, so these have to be considered in combination because some pairings might work better than others.
Of the three, a secure attachment style is the healthiest. Securely attached individuals make intimate and close bonds to others. They’re more likely to treat their partners well because they don’t feel threatened, and their partners tend to treat them better in return. When there are disagreements, they tend to stick to the topic and don’t exaggerate the importance of what they’re fighting about. Consequently, disagreements are less likely to escalate or degenerate into something ugly. Even when times are tough they can feel good about their partner because they don’t over-analyze their relationship.
More troublesome is avoidance attachment. Avoidance attached individuals tend to be uncomfortable with intimacy and keep an emotional distance in their relationships. At the heart of avoidance attachment is a lack of trust and a fear of separation. If we’re married to someone who has an avoidance attachment style, we’re not likely to feel they’re emotionally connected or committed to us, and that makes it hard for us to stay committed to them. They can be particularly tough to deal with when there are conflicts because they tend to withdraw. That’s because they feel most threatened during difficult times or when confronted.
The third and most destructive style is anxiety attachment. This has at its core a fear of rejection or abandonment. Those who have an anxious style are hypervigilant in their relationships. They watch their partners closely and suspiciously, looking for evidence that justifies their insecurity. Their worries lead them to instigate conflicts, and these can be emotionally charged. Not surprisingly, anxiety-attached people are generally unhappy in their relationships and presume their partners feel the same way, which increases their fear of being abandoned. Through their own actions, anxiety-attached individuals unwittingly produce the result they fear most—a damaged and uncertain relationship.
It doesn’t take much to imagine that certain pairings might work better than others. Combining anxiety and avoidance styles could be a nightmare. The emotional detachment of avoidance individuals plays directly into the abandonment fears of their anxiety-attached partners. On the other hand, it’s possible that two avoidance styles might work out. These partners are likely to have a peaceful co-existence, although there’s not likely to be much emotional bonding. It’s also possible that two anxiety styles can work. Although they might drive each other crazy, they probably understand each other’s issues, and so are in a good position to reassure each other when they feel insecure. Of course, a person with a secure style would make a good partner in all relationships. Although an anxiety or avoidance partner may try their patience, a securely attached partner may provide enough stability to make their partners feel safe and protected.
Changing one's attachment style
While attachment styles are somewhat resistant to change, they’re not completely so. In fact, throughout the course of most marriages, couples tend to adopt more secure styles, regardless of where they started out. However, whether or not partners come to feel more secure depends on other aspects of the relationship. If our partner is supportive and committed, our fears of rejection or abandonment should subside over time. But if we continue to feel vulnerable or uncertain about our partner, we’ll probably hold onto our insecure styles. In fact, if we started out with a secure style, a relationship that makes us feel vulnerable or threatened can actually cause us to develop a more insecure style over time.
For some couples who have chronic problems, attachment styles might play a role. Events may serve as triggers, but it may be how partners react to events, rather than the events themselves, that disrupt their relationship.
If we believe our own attachment style is the problem, we can change the way we think and act so that we are not controlled by irrational beliefs and non-adaptive emotions. We can learn to put negative thoughts aside so that we can interpret events more realistically and alter the ways we express our emotions.
On the other hand, if we think our partner is the one with the detrimental attachment style, we can’t make them a different person—trying to do so will only lead to frustration and disappointment. We need to recognize that it’s their choice to change, not ours. If they’re emotionally detached, they might not regard this characteristic as a flaw, and may not feel a need to act or think differently. Furthermore, we ought to consider that it might be our own flaws, our beliefs, and expectations, our own attachment problems, which lead us to blame our partner. Who we are and how we think might lead us to misinterpret situations. So while we’d like to believe the fault lies with our partner, it might in fact lie within our own attachment style.
That’s the problem with relying on self-diagnosis and treatment for such complex issues. You can get it wrong and do it badly. You might find it much more fruitful to work out many such problems through marriage counseling or one-on-one therapy. Trained therapists can be much more effective at determining what’s truly at the heart of our issues, and whether problems result from outside situations or personal characteristics.