Most couples who come to see me don’t come in already having figured out how to relate to one another. Most people come to see me because they trigger each other and are unsure of how to navigate to a healthier place.
Working with couples has taught me that there are often two kinds of people in stressed relationships: outwardly emotional people and inwardly emotional people. Those who are outwardly emotional can be seen as intimidating or sensitive. The inward emotional folks are the shutdown, aloof bunch. Outward folks may have fears of abandonment and self-worth issues. Inward people may fear being smothered and struggle with vulnerability. Both people typically struggle with emotion regulation, trust, and healthy boundaries. Both people struggle with insecure attachment styles.
We call those outward folks’ attachment style Ambivalent or Preoccupied, aka “the jungle.” For inward folks, we call their attachment style Dismissive or Avoidant, aka “the desert.” In Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin explains these types as waves (outward/preoccupied) and islands (inward/avoidant). His book is great for a deeper dive into the topic.
When a preoccupied and an avoidant person come together, it can be a bit tricky. The preoccupied person may be too needy, reach out too often, and feel easily rejected or abandoned. Fearing being smothered, the avoidant person may pull back at the first sign of these behaviors to protect themselves, be dismissive of the other person’s feelings, or accuse them of being too sensitive. In turn, the preoccupied person reaches out harder. Then the avoidant retreats further. It’s a bit of a cycle. Too often people try to be heard/seen by getting louder or to show overwhelm with closing down. This cycle leaves both people feeling frustrated and confused.
Fun fact: when a preoccupied person gets overwhelmed their heart rate skyrockets. Inversely, an avoidant person’s heart rate plummets. Makes sense, right?
Lightbulb! Don’t have those attachment styles get together! … if only it were that easy. Preoccupied people are interested in avoidant people because it perpetuates their anxious beliefs about relationships and vice versa. Even when we try not to, we inevitably end up with someone who fills our unconscious expectations. Here’s a great video to illustrate:
“We may describe someone as not sexy or boring when in truth we mean, unlikely to make me suffer in the way I need to suffer in order to feel that love is real.”
Our attachment styles come from how we were parented. To add some fun to the mix, attachment styles can also vary from relationship to relationship and change over time. The good news in this is that attachment styles can be healed.
Once we know our attachment style and the style of our partner, we can work together to heal. The avoidant person works to notice when they get overwhelmed and chooses to lean into the relationship instead of pull away. The preoccupied person works to notice when they get overwhelmed and chooses to lean on themselves first instead of believing their needs can only be met by the other person.
As the video shows, we try to listen to our knee-jerk reaction to learn what is being triggered within us, and then work to respond as our adult self instead of reacting as our younger self. This takes time, patience, and commitment.
Reach out for help if you need it.
Take care out there,