The way we react to conflict in a relationship, the way we adjust and give in to our partner’s needs is intricately related to our early life bondings. David Ludden is here to tell us about the way attachment works and the effects it has when we’re relating to others. He is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College, with a master’s degree in psycholinguistics and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Iowa. His blog in Psychology Today is called Talking Apes, in which he covers a variety of topics, focusing in the way language impacts our lives.
1) What is it that you find interesting about relationships and how has your work led you to investigate about them?
My original area of research is in psycholinguistics, or the psychology of language. Traditionally, psycholinguists study how the individual learns and processes language. However, language is a tool for creating social relationships, and so more recently I have become interested in that aspect of language. More specifically, I’m interested in the dynamics of communication within close relationships.
2) You mention in a previous article for Psychology Today that relationships consist of a struggle between two things, our autonomy and our interdependence, and how that generates conflicts. Would you please elaborate?
We all have a need to be autonomous or independent. We don’t like it when other people tell us what to do or constrain us in any way. But we also have a need for relationships with other people. That is, we’re interdependent. However, every relationship we enter into constrains our freedom. You have to negotiate your wishes with those of your partner. So a relationship always involves a tradeoff between what you want to do and what your partner wants you to do. That’s why relationships inevitably generate conflict. You simply can’t avoid conflict in a relationship, but what’s key here is how you deal with that conflict. In strong relationships, couples learn ways to negotiate differences and find solutions that are satisfactory for both couples. In troubled relationships, couples have difficulty negotiating these differences.
3) What is exactly the “Golden Rule”?
The Golden Rule is the basic rule of morality that you find in all religions. The rule basically tells us to treat other people the same way we want to be treated. For example, you don’t like it when your partner lies to you, so you shouldn’t lie to your partner. Generally speaking, the Golden Rule is a reliable guide for how to treat other people. This is because, for the most part, we all have the same needs. But sometimes the Golden Rule fails us. This is because sometimes our needs are unique or individual, and maybe your partner doesn’t have the same needs as you. In this case, treating our partner the way we want to be treated may not meet our partner’s needs. It might even make matters worse.
4) What does attachment mean and how is it relevant for our relationships?
Attachment has to do with a style of relating to others. Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. This first relationship forms a model for all subsequent relationships. If we formed a secure attachment with our primary caregiver, we will likely have secure friendships and intimate relationships as an adult. But if our relationship with our caregiver was insecure, we will have difficulty forming stable and satisfying relationships later in life.
5) Which are the different attachment behaviors? Do they necessarily determine how our romantic relationships will be?
Attachment behaviors are triggered by stress in the relationship. In early childhood, the securely attached infant uses mother as a secure base, exploring the environment when safe and retreating to mom when there’s danger. As adults, they form trusting relationships with friends and lovers. In fact, most people exhibit secure attachment behaviors.
Some people exhibit what are called “avoidant” attachment behaviors. As infants, these people learned to self-soothe because mom wasn’t very responsive to their needs. In adulthood, they retreat at the first sign of conflict in a relationship. That is, they know how to calm themselves down if they can just be alone, but the stress of conflict in a relationship is more that they can handle. The husband who retreats to his man cave at the first sign of conflict is exhibiting avoidant behavior.
Other people exhibit what are called “anxious” attachment behaviors. As infants, they learned they could only get mom’s attention if they were fussy. So as adults they’re also fussy and demanding in their relationships. The wife who calls her husband at work several times a day just to check in is exhibiting anxious attachment behaviors.
In my examples, the man was avoidant and the woman was anxious. This is the more typical case, but of course men can be anxious and women can be avoidant as well.
6) Do they also define the way we unravel in other interactions? Say, for example, with our friends, at our jobs. Do you think attachment may establish a pattern in our relationships?
Attachment behaviors play out in all relationships, including those with friends and co-workers. But they’re especially apparent in intimate relationships, where the likelihood of conflict is so much greater. The idea behind attachment theory is that the relationship we formed with our primary caregiver provides a model for all other relationships later in life. However, attachment style is a learned set of behaviors, and so it’s not set in stone. If you’re unaware of your attachment style, you’re unlikely to change, simply because you assume you’re normal and people different from you are weird. But if you are aware that you have an avoidant or anxious attachment style, you can intentionally -but slowly- change those behavioral patterns over time. You can change old habits and replace them with new ones. It just takes insight and a lot of effort.
7) Do you think it’s easier for people with a secure attachment to form stronger, or even “better”, relationships?
That’s the whole idea behind attachment theory. People who developed secure attachment in infancy are simply better equipped to form strong, healthy relationships in adulthood. It doesn’t mean that they’ll never experience conflicts in their relationships, but it does mean that they’ll have the skills to negotiate those conflicts.
8) How can we help our partner and cope with their way of attachment? How can buffering work as a solution to the problem rather than as a reinforcement of “bad behaviours”?
“Partner buffering” refers to being sensitive to your partner’s relationship needs and finding ways to meet them. If your partner has an avoidant attachment style, you’ll have to give them more alone time than you would want. If your partner has an anxious attachment style, you’ll have to give them more reassurance about your devotion to the relationship than you feel is warranted.
It isn’t helpful to think of attachment styles as “bad behavior.” Rather, buffering is about meeting your partner’s needs. If he needs more reassurance, give it to him. If she needs some time alone, let her have it. Our partners are not rats in a cage whose behavior we can mold to our whims. Rather, a relationship is an arrangement for getting your own needs met while meeting the needs of your partner. If you meet your partner’s needs, usually they’ll be more willing to meet yours.
9) Would it be valuable for us to learn about our own attachment behaviour, not only for improving intimate relationships, but also improving other aspects of our life?
Self-knowledge is key to living a happy and fulfilling life. Many people think they know themselves, but really it’s only on a very superficial level. Self-knowledge only comes from a deep and honest inspection of your behaviors and motives— not how you think you should be but how you really are. The buzzword for this nowadays is “mindfulness.”
Part of self-knowledge is knowing your attachment style. Once you understand that, you can communicate your needs more effectively to your partner. You can also start working on overcoming bad habits that are negatively impacting your relationship. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you need to learn to stay in the conflict and see it through to resolution even though your intuitions tell you to flee. And if you have an anxious attachment style, you have to learn to stop being so needy. You’ve got to learn to trust your partner despite what your intuitions are telling you. Both of these can be hard to accomplish, but you won’t even know how you’re damaging your relationship if you aren’t aware of your attachment style.
10) What’s your advice for those reading that may feel identified with the article, that don’t know how to handle their partner’s ways, or their own ways?
Understanding your attachment style and that of your partner can go a long way to handling conflicts. Instead of being a slave to your passions, you can take steps that will help resolve the issue, even if your partner is oblivious to their own attachment style. Let’s say for example that you know your attachment style is avoidant and your partner’s is anxious. When a conflict occurs, your intuition is to retreat, while your partner’s intuition is to pursue. But because you understand attachment styles, you can stop the vicious cycle. Instead of retreating, you stay put and give your partner multiple reassurances of your commitment to the relationship. You will feel this is totally unnecessary, but you will know it has to be done. Once you’ve met your partner’s relationship needs, you can deal with the conflict at a rational level. More generally speaking, once you understand what motivates you and other people, you gain the upper hand in any interaction.