The two most common attachment styles that find themselves together in a relationship are the anxious and the avoidant. Thus, anxious and avoidant are the two most common communication patterns that a therapist will find themselves working with in a relationship. Let’s take a look at what this may look like:
If you are an anxiously attachment partner, you will pursue your partner over something that upset you in a manner that is critical, attacking, or otherwise harsh. Here is an example of what you might say when your partner doesn’t help you with putting the kids to bed and you feel angry: “Why didn’t you help me? I’m always putting the kids to bed by myself. It isn’t fair. Don’t you see how tiring it gets for me?” Assuming your partner has an avoidant style of communication, they will shut down by either staying quiet, appearing disinterested, or by walking away. This will leave you only feeling more upset, leading you to pursue your partner further with criticisms. If you are avoidantly attached to your partner, you may become quiet around them, avoid being around them, or avoid engaging with them the rest of the evening. Assuming your partner has a critical style of communication, they will pursue you wanting to find out why you’re not responding to them or avoiding them, which will only leave you feeling more overwhelmed and wanting to withdraw further. This is a common dance between the anxious and the avoidant in a relationship.
No matter what your style of communication is, you both have a similar internal process, i.e., deep down, you are both hurt. If you are anxiously attached, you express your hurt by attacking your partner. If you are avoidantly attached, you express your hurt by shutting down. If two partners can understand this about themselves and each other, it can facilitate the process of change in communication and eventually the attachment style, leading to a secure attachment in the relationship.
In order for change to take place, you first have to become aware of internal process and understand what is underneath the anger, what core fear of yours is being triggered, and what is your need is in the moment. Once you recognize the vulnerable emotions underneath the anger, you can then communicate more successfully from those softer emotions. Communicating from a vulnerable place is usually the most effective way to be heard and understood. Let’s use the same example from above to demonstrate: you felt angry when you had to put the kids to bed alone. If you take a few moments to self-regulate and calm the nervous system, you can then engage in the process of understanding what it is that is making you angry. You may recognize that you feel exhausted, hurt, and unappreciated. You can then use these vulnerable emotions to communicate with your partner in the form of a complaint instead of criticism. In return, your partner might not feel overwhelmed from your anger and shutdown. Their nervous system can stay calm and engage with you by listening to you, understanding you, and hopefully validating you.
If you are avoidantly attached, you would also need to self-regulate because you are actually shutting down due to your nervous system feeling overwhelmed. Once you regulate yourself, you can then engage in the process of understanding what it is that is making you feel overwhelmed. You may recognize that you feel alone, sad, and unseen. You can then share this with your partner instead of shutting down. It will take time to develop the courage to be vulnerable and engage when your natural response is to avoid – but it is possible, especially with the help of your partner doing their part in responding to you more gently. Remember, if this is something you are struggling to achieve on your own, it may be a good idea to learn to do the work with a couple’s therapist.
One important thing to mention is your patterns can change overtime when you continuously learn that your needs will not be met. For example, if you are typically critical, you might become withdrawn over time because you learn that no matter how much you pursue your partner, you don’t feel heard or understood and don’t have your needs met. If you are typically avoidant, you may start to attack back because you learn over the course of time that no matter how much you withdraw from the relationship, you continue to feel overwhelmed and you just can’t take it anymore. When two partners become withdrawn from each other, it becomes that much harder to re-engage with each other and move towards a secure relationship – but not impossible. It is always best to seek help from a trained professional before you get to this point in your relationship.