Many people come to therapy wondering why their relationship feels more difficult than they think is normal. They say things like:
- “I can’t seem to keep things even.”
- “I love them so much and I know they love me, but they make it so difficult for me.”
- “How do I get them to see things from my perspective?”
- “I’m dying for this relationship to work, but I feel like the emotional cost is too high.”
Feeling this way can mean many things. Seeking support from a psychologist can help you identify and address underlying issues.
One possible explanation is that your partner has certain personality traits that make it difficult for you (or anyone else) to maintain a healthy intimate relationship with them.
In this article, I will address two of those traits and offer advice on how not to let these traits become an obstacle to your love for one another.
Step 1: Identify the type of attachment insecurity that might be responsible for the fluctuations in the relationship
Psychological research suggests that when it comes to our close relationships, people generally fall into one of three categories of “attachment styles”:
- Secure. People with secure attachment styles find it relatively easy to form and maintain healthy, close relationships (most likely because they experienced healthy and stable interpersonal relationships during childhood).
- Scared. Anxious attachment styles tend to have a negative self-image and require a high level of contact and validation from a caregiver. Their fear typically stems from previous experiences, often childhood experiences, where they received inconsistent care from people they depended on.
- avoidant. Individuals with avoidant attachment styles often distance themselves from people to avoid vulnerability and the potential for rejection. This style stems from previous experiences of consistently poor or no maintenance.
Not surprisingly, it is the second two attachment styles, fearful and avoidant, that create problems for healthy romantic relationships. However, they do this in different ways.
It’s important to first find out what type of insecure attachment style your partner possesses so that you can take the right steps to address it. This leads to the next point:
Step 2: Behave in a way that protects your partner’s attachment style from “spillover” effects in the relationship
Even people with attachment issues can learn to have healthy, productive intimate relationships. It’s just a little more work.
Some of that work needs to be done by your partner, perhaps by undergoing psychotherapy to understand where their problems are coming from and how not to allow their close relationships to be eroded by destructive tendencies.
Another part of this work can be done by you. Once you identify the nature of attachment insecurity (anxious versus avoidant), you can learn to act in ways that mitigate its negative effects.
A new review article appeared in Nature suggests that:
- In case of a fearful attachment style, Partners should clearly affirm their unconditional love and ongoing commitment to the relationship. This can take the form of emphasizing positive regard, expressing emotions that convey engagement, or relieving stress through physical touch. “Getting more support and gratitude from partners can help highly anxious individuals feel happier and reduce attachment anxiety over time,” says lead author Nickola Overall.
- In case of a avoidant attachment style, partners should strive to demonstrate their trustworthiness and respect the autonomy of avoiders. Downplaying the severity of the problem, validating avoiders’ points of view, or acknowledging their victims can reduce avoiders’ anger and withdrawal patterns during arguments or conflicts. “Caregiving regimens that clearly demonstrate that their partners are trustworthy and respect the personal autonomy of avoiders tend to reduce anger and withdrawal when avoiders need support,” says Overall. “This helps avoidant individuals feel more committed to their relationships and experience a reduction in attachment avoidance over time.”
There are many reasons why you feel like it’s impossible to have a healthy and constructive relationship with someone you love. It could have to do with your partner’s personality and attachment style, as discussed above. There may be another flaw in your relationship that needs to be addressed before things can get better. You or your partner (or both of you) may have unrealistic expectations of the relationship. There may be a nagging communication problem. In all of these cases, individual and couples therapy is a good place to go for help.