How To Overcome Attachment Issues In Your Relationship
Anxious? Avoidant? ‘Buffering’ is the key.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 4, 2022
A new review article published in Nature discusses how problematic romantic attachment styles can drive a wedge in a relationship, and what can be done to overcome their effects.
I recently spoke to psychologist Nickola Overall, the lead author of this research, to understand how to protect against the destructive consequences of attachment insecurities. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What are the two kinds of romantic attachment insecurities? How do each of these affect relationships?
Attachment anxiety and avoidance reflect different forms of romantic attachment insecurity that produce distinct patterns of maladaptive responding in romantic relationships.
- Attachment anxiety is understood to arise from past relationship experiences involving inconsistent care from partners, such as partners responding with love and support when needed, but sometimes responding with anger or rejection. These inconsistent caregiving experiences create fears of rejection along with a strong yearning for love and acceptance. This combination of fear of rejection and strong hunger for love mean people high in attachment anxiety constantly seek reassurance and react with intense distress and feelings of rejection when things go wrong in relationships, making it difficult for people high in anxiety to experience happy, fulfilling relationships.
- Attachment avoidance is understood to arise from consistently experiencing poor caregiving, which generates distrust of close others and beliefs that partners cannot be relied on to be supportive when needed. Highly avoidant individuals are uncomfortable relying on partners for love and support, and try to avoid being dependent on their partners by limiting closeness in their relationships. Avoidant motivations manifest in numerous ways in relationships, such as suppressing negative emotions, withdrawing from partners, and failing to seek or be receptive to a partner's care and support.
Understandably, these types of behaviors reduce the closeness and quality of relationships.
How do attachment insecurities impede constructive couple interactions?
Both attachment anxiety and avoidance generate problematic emotional and behavioral responses during relationship interactions, particularly those that require couples to navigate conflict or support each other during stressful times.
Attachment anxiety tends to undermine constructive responses to events that threaten couple bonds, run the risk of rejection, or leave strong desires for love unfulfilled. For example, highly anxious individuals experience greater distress and anger when they encounter conflict or their partners fail to provide desired support.
These intense affective responses also tend to trigger destructive behavioral strategies, ranging from attempts to induce guilt or pull reassurance from their partners to more hostile responses to punish partners for their perceived lack of care.
These destructive reactions disrupt problem-solving, can create resistance and lower caregiving in their partners, and ultimately damage both partners' relationship satisfaction.
Attachment avoidance, on the other hand, tends to undermine constructive responses to situations that emphasize dependence, threaten autonomy, or require high levels of responsiveness. Because they believe the partner cannot be trusted, highly avoidant individuals disengage rather than seek support from their partners when they are distressed.
Similarly, their distrust of partners and the need to maintain emotional distance also mean that highly avoidant people feel anger and respond with hostility when their partner needs support or expresses dissatisfaction during conflict.
This mix of withdrawal and hostility reduces closeness, limits the care and support both partners receive, derails constructive conflict resolution, and ultimately undermines the satisfaction, commitment, and closeness both couple members feel in their relationship.
What are the factors that perpetuate attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance?
The processes described above tend to perpetuate attachment anxiety and avoidance. The responses associated with attachment anxiety tend to create greater conflict, create growing relationship problems, and undermine their partner's satisfaction and commitment. These destructive outcomes tend to reinforce fears of rejection and thus can sustain attachment anxiety.
Similarly, the responses associated with attachment avoidance impede the degree to which couples can care and support one another or improve relationship problems. Growing conflict and partners' discontent simply reinforce beliefs that close others cannot be trusted and thus can perpetuate attachment avoidance.
What is meant by "buffering processes"? Why is it important to understand these concepts?
Partner buffering processes refer to the qualities and behaviors of partners that temper or prevent the destructive responses associated with attachment anxiety and avoidance, and may even help promote greater attachment security across time.
Buffering processes that help prevent the damaging outcomes associated with attachment anxiety involve partner qualities and behaviors that provide clear evidence or reassurance of the partner's love and continued commitment.
For example, when partners are highly invested in maintaining their relationship, accentuate positive regard, express emotions that convey commitment, or soothe distress via physical touch, anxious individuals show less distress and fewer destructive behaviors during conflict.
Similarly, receiving greater support and gratitude from partners helps highly anxious individuals feel more satisfied and reduces attachment anxiety over time.
Buffering processes that help prevent the damaging outcomes associated with attachment avoidance involve partner qualities and behaviors that demonstrate partners are trustworthy and respect avoidant individuals' autonomy.
For example, 'soft' indirect influence attempts that downplay problem severity, validate avoidant individuals' point of view, or give credit for their sacrifices and cooperation tend to reduce avoidant individuals' anger and withdrawal during conflict.
Forms of caregiving that clearly demonstrate that their partners are trustworthy and respect avoidant individuals' personal autonomy also typically reduce anger and disengagement when avoidant individuals need support.
These buffering processes also help avoidant individuals feel more committed to their relationships, and experience reductions in attachment avoidance across time.
What is meant by 'spillover processes'?
Spillover processes characterize the ways in which the emotional and behavioral responses associated with attachment insecurities spill over to shape functioning across different contexts.
To illustrate, think about when couples experience conflict and then later interact to share dinner or parent their children. The ability for couples to recover and build positive experiences within their family depends on whether they can move on from prior conflictual experiences or whether their hurt feelings and hostility spill over to damage other relationship interactions.
For attachment anxiety, ineffective emotion regulation and poor problem-solving during conflict carries over to create negativity in subsequent couple interactions that could offer the opportunity to rebuild or repair positive connections, such as discussing relationship strengths or areas of agreement.
Preoccupation with love from the partner and the distress and poor emotion regulation within challenging interactions also spills over to generate more hostility within couples' interactions with their child as well as poorer caregiving and harsher behavior toward children.
For attachment avoidance, disengagement and withdrawal when couples face challenges tend to ignite more hostile responses in their partners, and this mix of withdrawal and partner hostility tend to bleed over to subsequent couple and co-parenting interactions.
The motivation to minimize closeness and sustain autonomy within romantic relationships also spills over to produce less investment and poorer caregiving in parent-child relationships, leading to less positive, meaningful, and supportive interactions with children.
In short, insecurities, destructive responses, and poor outcomes in couples' relationships often spill over beyond couples' interactions to impede couple and family functioning in other contexts.
These spillover processes are likely central to how attachment insecurity produces long-term damage in both couple and family relationships, as well as poorer child health and well-being.
What are some strategies that partners can jointly employ to buffer the spillover effects of attachment insecurity that impact couples', family and child well-being?
No research has yet identified specific partner behaviors that might mitigate these spillover effects. However, the partner qualities and behaviors shown to buffer damaging outcomes within couple relationships also may help to prevent attachment insecurities from spilling over to damage both couple, family, and child well-being.
For attachment anxiety, partners who continually express commitment, affection, support and gratitude as well as help repair and recover from conflict may help prevent anxious concerns and destructive responses from spilling over to family interaction and infiltrating parent-child relationships.
For attachment avoidance, partners who use soft/indirect forms of influence, recognition and gratitude for sacrifices, and clear consistent caregiving during couple and family interactions may reduce avoidant parents from disengaging from their children and help promote more responsive caregiving across couple and family contexts.
What are the environmental and person level factors that are likely to alter the effectiveness of and need for partner buffering?
More work needs to be done to understand what can buffer the effects of attachment insecurity on family and child well-being. The effects of attachment insecurity on couple and family functioning, and need for partner buffering, are likely magnified when stressful life circumstances create additional strain within the family system.
Yet, buffering of spillover processes are also likely to be more difficult in contexts involving chronic stress, such as mental or physical illness, addiction, and children's behavioral difficulties, or external adversities, such as economic deprivation, job stress, and discrimination.
Similarly, at extremely high levels, attachment insecurity might be impervious to partner buffering attempts. Future investigations are needed to understand broader contextual factors modify the operation of attachment, buffering, and spillover processes.
How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve relationships?
Attachment-based therapies indicate that people's own understanding and efforts to address their insecurities can improve couple functioning. Thus, helping people become more aware of their insecurities as well as building up capacity to regulate insecure responses may reduce the detrimental effects and spillover of attachment insecurity.
However, our review underscores that addressing attachment insecurity requires understanding the broader impact of romantic attachment insecurity beyond the couple.
The importance and effectiveness of partner buffering emphasizes that both couple members are key in helping attachment insecurities from damaging couple relationships as well as spilling over to undermining parent-child relationships and family functioning.
Helping partners learn and effectively enact buffering behaviors in unintrusive ways that are sensitive to the needs of each couple and family should help improve couple and family relationships as well as foster greater security and well-being in parents and their children.