Attachment Primer

This is a primer on attachment style.

Attachment style is the basic relational state of mind to which we revert once the initial infatuation phase of the relationship is over.

I want to discuss the basic fears and antidotes to those fears for two prominent attachment styles.

attachment continuum

On the left of the continuum we have what researchers have termed the avoidant style, or what in PACT we call an island. On the right we have the anxious-ambivalent style, or wave.

How do you know where you are on the continuum? You may already have a sense, but this relationship quiz can help you get more insight.

An island’s fear is losing their self, self-determination, or autonomy.

This person may have a fear of too much intimacy and have a tendency to avoid conflict. In conflict, they may shut down or walk away.

If your partner is an island, an antidote to their fear is active empathy. Convey that you see them, are interested in them, and are flexible enough to give them options and space (but not too much space; they need to still be relational). Know what uplifts your partner and remember to do it. For example, “I’m taking you to your favorite restaurant tonight!”

If in conflict with your island partner say and mean:

“I’m trying to see it from your perspective.”

This can be a huge relief for an island – or anybody for that matter – as they are used to not being seen, and that is where their fears originate. Give them options while conveying you have empathy for their state of mind: “I know this is difficult for you now. Let’s take five minutes and then come back and talk.” Give them space; but don’t give them too much, or you may end up feeling forgotten, as they are experts on taking space.

A wave’s fear is losing connection.

This person fears abandonment, emotional deprivation, and being a burden. A wave values connection so much that they would rather have an argument than no interaction at all.

If your partner is a wave, an antidote to their fear may be to actively text them during the day: “Thinking of you.” “Looking forward to our evening together.” Such small actions can go a long way.

When in conflict with your wave partner, turn towards them! Connect with them, even if your instinct is to do otherwise. Shutting down, or leaving them high and dry, will reignite their fear and thus create more problems. Connect with them through the eyes, touch them lovely if appropriate, and remind them:

“We are in this together, this is our problem, and we’re going to figure it out.”

Understanding where your partner is on the continuum will help you have empathy for their relational state of mind. Also, know that their state of mind originated from what they learned from their first relationship school – their relationship with their parents.

Once we know our partner’s relational state of mind, we can do something when their fear is triggered.

When our partner is in a raw spot, it usually has to do with a variant of the above fears. Understanding this, and knowing how to apply the antidote, you and your partner can both experience greater relationship health.

marriage counseling

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