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Relationship Attachment Styles & Communication Patterns

by | Mar 7, 2022 | ATTACHMENT, MENTAL HEALTH, RELATIONSHIPS, THERAPY, TRAUMA

Two men laugh tougher, as they examine their relationship attachment styles.

We are all born with an innate psychological need and desire for forming attachments and enduring bonds with our primary caregivers. When we are children, quite literally, our survival and healthy development depend upon it. Our attachment style develops during early childhood and evolve out of experiences with our primary caregivers, and will continue to function as a working model for our intimate relationships in adulthood.

Our “Attachment Style” can inform many aspects of our lives, including the way we view ourselves and how much we trust others in showing up for us and meeting our needs. Attachment patterns also directly impact strategies we employ to self-soothe or manage our emotions when we face relational threats. They also influence our communication patterns in terms of how hesitant, confident, or guarded we may be in expressing our needs. If you’re not sure of your type of attachment style, you can take our Attachment Quiz here.

Your Attachment Style & The Way You Communicate

Attachment Theory was developed by Psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. When our primary caregivers are generally caring, reliable, and responsive in the ways they show up for us, we likely develop a more Secure Attachment Style which means that we feel loved, our needs matter, and other people and relationships are reliable and trustworthy.

When parents fail to show up safely and consistently for whatever reason and the secure attachment is inhibited, the child brilliantly copes by either hyper-activating or turning up their attachment needs or deactivating or turning them down. As a result, we start developing more “Insecure Attachment Styles” which will later on transfer over to our adult relationships. Insecure Attachment Styles include Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style, Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style, or Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style. This process will also influence how anxious or avoidant/emotionally unavailable we get when it comes to dealing with conflict and rupture in romantic relationships.

Our Autonomic Nervous System is wired to ensure our survival, therefore, it is constantly scanning the environment for safety and danger cues. It’s important to note that our nervous system has only the database of past information to determine whether or not an experience is safe or not.

So, if historically being vulnerable was not acceptable or was punished in our family of origin or expressing a different opinion was not a safe experience, later on in adulthood when we are faced with relational threats, we might find it difficult to regulate emotions and our nervous system may resource the Flight or Freeze mode.

Our system then gears down (down-regulates) by deactivating its attachment needs and goes into a more self-reliant mode. When a rupture happens in the relationship, such as a disagreement, misattunement, or an argument, people with predominantly avoidant attachment styles tend to rely on deactivating strategies to cope with the relational threats to feel safe.

That’s when we witness behaviors such as:

  • avoiding proximity or physically distancing oneself from a partner
  • rejecting partner’s attempts to talk about the issue or resolve them
  • avoiding closeness or shutting down
  • being defensive or giving our partner the silent treatment
  • avoiding conflict at all costs and not communicating wants and needs
  • black and white thinking or doubting the relationship altogether

In contrast people with more anxiously attached patterns tend to rely on hyper-activating strategies when facing relational threats, manifesting in behaviors such as:

  • Going to great lengths to ensure their partner is aware of their emotional needs not being met
  • being overly critical
  • multiple attempts to achieve proximity and reassurance
  • Thinking highly of others but struggling to see your own self-worth
  • Placing a lot of value on emotional closeness but lack confidence that your attachment figure will show up for you

Folks with more disorganized attachment styles may vacillate between de-activating and hyper-activating their attachment needs which may look like a lot of push and pull in relationships where one feels torn between wanting to be close to others and wanting to pull away.

Tips for Developing Healthy Communication by Style

In her book, “The Assertiveness Guide for Women”, Dr. Julie De Azevedo Hanks views the topic of assertiveness from a holistic perspective. She defines assertiveness as “treating yourself as an equal with others and taking ownership of your well-being while respecting others’ differences”. She believes that it takes 5 skills to build assertion: Self-reflection, self-awareness, self-soothing, self-expression, and self-expansion (other-awareness).

We are all unique individuals and we are emotionally interconnected with one another. How we navigate the inner conflict between our desire for individuality and our desire for connection through relationships is called differentiation. People with low levels of differentiation will likely have more anxious tendencies and get emotionally flooded in situations where they can’t read their partner or when their partner is angry at them.

While folks with high levels of Differentiation are more securely attached and are more likely to tolerate when their partner is exhibiting or expressing differences or disagree with them and can still be close and supportive of each other without having a full-scale blowup.

Our level of differentiation impacts our ability to maintain our sense of self when we are emotionally and/or physically close to others especially as they become important to us.

Here are some journaling prompts or conversations to have individually or with your partner that may shed light on some of the unconscious patterns you may bring into your relationship.

  • What are some of the messages I learned from my family about being the expression of emotions and vulnerability?
  • How did I know when a parent or parental figure was angry? ž How did you know when a parental figure was sad or afraid?
  • How was conflict handled in my family of origin?
  • How are those patterns being reflected in my/our current relationship?
  • How can I bring myself back into my window of tolerance when I find myself getting triggered in an anxious or avoidant way with my partner/others?
  • What behaviors do I display when I’m in Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn mode?
  • What comes up for my partner when I resource those states? What meaning do they attach to my behavior?
  • Can I ask for help in a way that is tolerable for me?

Effective communication is essential to a secure relationship. Learning to see yourself and your romantic partner through an attachment lens will likely provide helpful information about understanding some of the struggles you may face with drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries, conflict resolution, and communicating more effectively.

Staying curious and reflecting on your internal experiences, needs, and boundaries can provide a lot of helpful information in why we habitually display certain patterns and it helps us with building more conscious relationships.  A mental health professional can assist you and your partner with navigating these conversations in a safe environment.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.

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Author Bio

Elena Behar, LMFT earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from National University (NU) with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). Elena is very passionate about working with individuals and couples who are looking to heal and grow, build a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and reintegrate with their true selves.

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