In Part 1 of this post I talked about secure and insecure relationship styles and perception. In this post I would like to try to bring the two things together and give some examples of how these concepts actually play out in relationships.
Sue Johnson, author and developer of ‘Emotion Focused Couple Therapy’, describes relationships as a dance, a pattern of interacting between couples where both intimately know the steps and follow and respond to the others’ steps. She likens couple therapy to changing the music, learning a new dance.
One of the most common patterns, among others, in this emotional dance is the combination of the pursuer style and the withdrawer style.
Each of these two styles of relating represent insecure patterns of attachment. Although the two styles look very different, as far as outward behaviour goes, the common denominator underlying each is FEAR – fear of abandonment, fear of loss, fear of not being loveable, fear of not ever being good enough.
The pursuer is motivated by the intention of getting closer to his or her partner, feeling closer, feeling loved and heard and important, feeling like he or she matters. The withdrawer feels overwhelmed and afraid of emotional closeness. He or she responds to the pursuer’s attempts at closeness by shutting down emotionally and withdrawing, not responding, refusing to answer the pursuer’s attempts to ‘get closer’. The withdrawer feels frustrated and angry, as if nothing he or she does to prove their love is recognized, nothing is ever enough. As you can imagine, this interactional style leads to pain, frustration and anger on both parts. Neither partner feels their needs are being met, both feel alone, rejected and in pain.
Now, we have to add perception into the story again. If one has the relational style of the pursuer, there are many experiences and emotional reactions that have influenced the development of this over the person’s life, BUT, oftentimes, the pursuer has no idea of what is contributing to the way he or she feels in the context of a relationship. He or she is living the paradoxical experience of simultaneously believing, on the one hand, that the partner is responsible for the intense feelings experienced, If only he or she would respond this way or that way then this relationship would be perfect. On the other hand, the pursuer feels like it is all their fault, if only they could be perfect then surely their partner would love and respond to them differently.
This whole scenario may play out this way in a relationship: our characters in this little story are Sarah and Chris. Let’s say that both are in their mid-forties, that Sarah has a pursuer style and Chris has a withdrawer style. Sarah says that Chris doesn’t listen to her, she feels very distant from him, and he doesn’t spend much time with her. She feels hurt and angry and lonely. Sometimes when he is out, Sarah feels panicky and tries to call and see if he is okay. Sometimes he doesn’t answer the phone and Sarah feels anxiety that he is going to leave her or that he might be seeing someone else. When Chris gets home, Sarah is all over him and he shakes her off. Sarah feels a lot of anger and begins bringing up previous times this has happened. Chris yells at her to leave him alone and stomps into the bedroom and slams the door. Sarah cries.
So, what might be going on here? Sarah has an insecure attachment style and a deep fear of abandonment. She loves Chris and tries to get assurances from him that he loves her. Here is the crux of the issue. Chris loves Sarah too but due to his insecure attachment and fears of being hurt and abandoned, he is terrified of emotional intimacy, which is what Sarah is after. Emotional intimacy is fueled by a deep sense of trust in the other and a deep sense of trust in the self. Chris perceives Sarah’s longing for his affection and at some level if fills him with fear. He hears the accusation in her voice and he perceives that he is not good enough, that he tries but he can’t meet her expectations. In a defensive move, Chris puts up his great wall and withdraws to perceived safety behind it. Sarah, on the other hand, sees his withdrawal not as his fear, but as some kind of proof that all her fears are true, that he doesn’t love her, that she is not meeting his expectations or surely he would have seen her pain and addressed it. Another aspect to this issue is that when Chris does tell Sarah he loves her and wants to be with her, it is difficult for Sarah to perceive the truth in the statement, due to the internal patterns that tell her this can’t possibly be true. This unsatisfying feeling leads Sarah to require constant feedback which is perceived by Chris as the sense that what he says and does is never enough, that he himself is not good enough.
Obviously this is a somewhat simplified, but common scenario, one of an infinite number of different situations. The point is that in relationships where both partners have an insecure attachment style, the real message is neither being spoken, nor heard. The pattern that each partner is stuck in is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding. These patterns can be very deep rooted and it takes hard work, willingness to grow, courage, and the ability to open oneself and be vulnerable, to reset the music. These patterns cycle and each partner is triggered by his or her own internal music (attachment style) and by his or her perception of what the partner is saying.
I will stop here, this post has gotten quite long. I will return to this topic in the near future, with a Part 3. Please, as always, feel free to comment or ask questions.