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Couples 101: The Emotional Dance of Intimacy

Get to the basics of what really keeps negative relationship patterns going

You meet that special person, commit to the relationship, and maybe even move in together or get married. There will be no more lonely nights or figuring out where to meet people for you. It’s all love, joy, and romance. So, how did it come to pass that you are so miserable, have a negative dialogue about your partner running through your head, and have to continually bite your tongue lest you get into another argument? After all, you’re still a good person aren’t you? And, how could you have been so wrong about your partner? Were you really that blind to all his or her negative characteristics?

They say love is blind, and I do believe this to be true…at least early in the relationship. This is because in the early phase of a relationship, you are seeking to gain something. You are pursuing “approach goals.” When you achieve approach goals, you experience pleasure and positive emotions. You are focused on the positive and are looking at those things that you like in the other person. For many people, however, this changes once the relationship becomes committed.

Now that you “have” the other person, the goal changes to keeping their affection and avoiding losing them. This is called an “avoidance goal.” Avoidance goals are not psychologically rewarding, because when you achieve them nothing is gained. Moreover, you never can know when the goal has actually been achieved. How can you tell that you have achieved the goal of keeping your partner’s love and commitment? The answer is that you never can. All you would be doing is forever monitoring and asking for reassurance...a thankless and very disempowered position to be in; it feels really bad and it makes it even more likely that your partner will back away from you.

Point #1. Once you enter a committed relationship, set new goals that you can move toward together. Give up trying to hold on to what you had.

So, here is where your personality comes into the picture. To make the most of the present material, it will be important to understand your attachment style and that of your partner. You may have a Secure, Preoccupied, Dismissing, or Fearful style. If you haven’t read my earlier posts, you can click on the links in the preceding sentence to see descriptions of the styles and how they impact relationships. Alternately, you can pick one of the styles from this online assessment (description #1=secure, 2=fearful, 3=preoccupied, 4=dismissing) and pick which styles fit you and your partner best.

Attachment styles are personality traits formed in childhood that persist across the lifespan. They are perceptual (what you see and how you see it), cognitive (ways of thinking), emotional, and behavioral systems designed to keep you in close proximity to your childhood secure base (i.e., the parent). As we transition into adulthood and become involved in our own close relationships, we transfer the secure-base function away from our parents and onto our romantic partners (or close friends if you are not in a romantic relationship). When someone is acting as a secure base, that person will be consistently warm, available, and responsive to you when you seek support in times of need or emotional distress. Knowing that you have a secure base will enable you to confidently go out into the world to explore and try new things, safe in the knowledge that someone is there to catch you if you fall on your proverbial face.

When difficulties surface early in a committed relationship, it is often because one person assumes that the other person is there to provide the secure base function, whereas the other person has no idea that this was part of the deal. People with dismissing styles, in particular, are not likely to understand that this is an implied expectation. Quite the opposite, they often expect their partner to fend for themselves emotionally while they go off to pursue their own achievement-oriented (work, school, sports) goals. People with preoccupied styles, in contrast, fully expect the secure base to be available and will become relatively panicked, demanding, and accusatory when their expectations for security are not being met. The preoccupied person will want to provide their partner with a secure base, but may get too absorbed in their own needs and negative feelings to truly be available for their partner.

Those with fearful styles may actually become more disregulated emotionally (at least early in the relationship, before they are done with the “testing” phase) when a partner is providing a secure base. This is because (childhood) experience has taught them that this “base” person is likely to betray their trust and harm them. They will have difficulty acting as secure bases because their own fear may lead them to prematurely terminate the relationship or engage in some other behavior to make themselves feel better that ends up sabotaging the relationship.

Point #2. Do not assume that your romantic partner or close friend has agreed or is able to act as your secure base until you openly discuss it with them.

Point #3. Learn about your own attachment style so that you can see what interferes with your ability to act as a secure base.

I realize that such direct communication is not how society teaches us to behave in our relationships and that such a discussion may seem awkward. But, it is the best way to have a healthy relationship. People with secure styles know this naturally and automatically understand both how to use and how to provide the secure base function. Secure people also will be less shy about discussing difficult material openly.

Harkening back to my point #1, when the secure base is working properly, people are free to explore the world and pursue new goals. And, each of the attachment styles will differentially relate to what types of goals are chosen. People with secure attachment styles are likely to set new relationship goals (even new ways of being sexual or having fun) because they feel secure and confident enough to risk finding new ways of doing things. They don’t focus too much on the partner (i.e., they aren’t looking for threats or things that might go wrong). Because they expect others to be available and supportive in times of need, they allow the partner to remain relatively free of needing to give reassurances or avoiding upsetting anyone. By extension, the partner is more likely to want to be there for them.

Those with dismissing styles, in contrast, will tend to focus on achievement goals and distance themselves from setting or working on new goals in the relationship. To compound the situation, the more distress there is, and the more demands are placed on them, the more they turn away toward goals outside of the relationship. Those with preoccupied styles, on the other hand, are likely to give up pursuing new goals because they do not trust that the secure base will always be there. Thus, they will tend to focus on the aforementioned avoidance goals and try to hold onto the infatuation and more intense romantic phase of the relationship. The more they see threats and loss of this ideal relationship state, the more they will become demanding and asking of reassurance. This, in turn, acts as a self-fulfilling prophesy that actually serves to drive the other person away.

The simple patterns I have just reviewed are common among the couples I see in my practice. With some basic education on the attachment styles and how they work, most couples are able to calibrate their expectations for their partner and to not take their “negative” or “defensive” behaviors too personally. This is because they come to understand that the partner is merely regulating emotions and behaving in a way that is consistent with that person’s attachment style…it isn’t usually a matter of whether their partner loves them or not.

Sometimes I see couples who have grown to despise one another after a long history of betrayal and woundedness. In this case, the damage has reached a point where at least one partner is already exiting the relationship. Typically when we examine the relationship history, we can see that the relationship rift started in some simple patterns such as the exemplars I have presented here. I often observe two wonderful (but wounded) people who, if they had learned to work with their patterns and communicate about them openly, could have gone on to experience a healthy relationship.

Point #4. Become aware of what types of threats activate your partner’s (attachment-based) defensive systems and lead him or her to display behaviors that bother you. Then you can decide consciously if you want to activate your partner, and you will be able to anticipate the response you are likely to get.

Point #5. Learn how to read your partner’s emotional cues and how to ask openly about what they need from you to feel more secure in the relationship. Often, you will know that they have been activated before they say anything and you can adjust your behavior accordingly…if you choose to.

Point #6. Most importantly, if your emotional reactions are too intense or your partner cannot meet your need for security, you will need to either (a) find a new secure base, or (b) learn to be your own secure base and take care of at least a portion of your own emotional needs and desire for security.

Tune in next month to find out how to make these internal changes and internalize your own secure base.