Understanding Hurt Between Partners | Counseling | Therapy

Understanding Hurt Between Partners

Phillip — Intern therapist

Why does my partner hurt me? Why do I hurt my partner?

Okay, so your romantic relationship is totally fricked. Or! It’s been on the fritz lately. Or! It’s going well, but you want it to be going even well…-er!

Good news, there’s hope! In this article, we’ll be discussing one aspect of romantic relationships called “attachment styles.” You’ll learn

  • How psychologists define an “attachment style”

  • How attachment styles develop

  • How attachment styles show up in romantic relationships and

  • What you can do to have less pain and more harmony in your relationships.

You can learn the answer to the following questions. Why does my partner hurt me? Why do I hurt my partner? What can we do to have more harmony? What can we do to feel less pain?

Disclaimer: This article presents the attachment styles in relatively stark terms for the sake of clarity and ease of understanding. However, it's essential to recognize that human nature and behavior are far more intricate and nuanced than such categorical descriptions suggest. While these portrayals serve as a foundational guideline, real-world expressions of these styles exist on a spectrum. Always remember that individuals may not fit neatly into one category, and variations are both natural and expected.

TL;DR Version

Attachment bonds, emotional and behavioral connections between two individuals, exist between children and their caregivers. They also exist between romantic partners. Each individual in the relationship has an attachment style which determines how they relate to the other individual. The attachment style an individual develops in childhood is the one they will use in adult romantic partnerships. There are three primary attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and anxious. Secure individuals openly express and accept emotions, fostering healthy relationships. In contrast, avoidant individuals shun emotional intimacy, often reacting passive-aggressively to negative feelings. Anxious individuals crave constant reassurance, often amplifying emotional reactions due to fears of abandonment. Unaware of these styles, many attribute relational challenges to their partners rather than their own attachment behaviors. Recognizing one's attachment style is crucial for cultivating healthier romantic relationships.

Unabridged Version

The Name’s Bond, Attachment Bond

Basically, there’s more and less skillful ways for romantic partners to relate when they’re having negative emotions towards each other.

The skillful ways leave us feeling like our needs are met. We feel closer to our partner. They leave us feeling our partner understands our needs. Our partner is on the same page as we are. Harmony ensues.

The less skillful ways leave us feeling distant from our partner. They leave us resenting our partner. Or they leave us feeling scared our partners will leave us. They leave us feeling bad that we aren’t a good enough partner. Our partner is not on the same page as we are.

Mama, Where Do Attachment Bonds Come From?

Babies and toddlers can’t meet their needs independent of others. They can’t feed themselves. They can’t clean themselves. They can’t regulate their emotions. For these and other needs, they rely primarily on their mother (or primary caregiver). They communicate their needs by signaling their emotions and urges. They do this by making noises, making faces, making movements, etc. It’s the primary caretaker’s response to these signals that shapes the attachment bond. The way in which the primary caretaker regularly responds to the child’s communication of needs shapes the child’s attachment style. There’s three primary kinds of attachment styles: secure, avoidant and anxious. Here's a breakdown:

Secure Attachment:

Caregiver's Interaction: Caregivers are consistently available, responsive, and sensitive to the child's needs. They provide a secure base from which the child can explore the world and offer comfort when the child is distressed.

Child's Internalized Belief: The world is safe, and if I'm in need, someone will be there for me.

Avoidant Attachment:

Caregiver's Interaction: Caregivers often disregard or dismiss the child's emotional needs. They may value independence over connection, encouraging premature self-reliance.

Child's Internalized Belief: My needs might not get met, so it's better not to rely on others.

Anxious Attachment:

Caregiver's Interaction: Caregivers are inconsistent in their responses. Sometimes they're available and attuned, but other times they're unresponsive or intrusive.

Child's Internalized Belief: I'm unsure if my needs will be met; I must constantly seek attention and assurance.

It is important to note, secure attachments aren't forged by perfect parents. Every parent will, at times, miss or misinterpret their baby's cues; it's only human. The key is consistency. Research indicates that for a secure attachment to form, a child needs to have their needs met more often than not—say, 75% of the time. This allows parents the latitude to be human and occasionally falter.

Jealous Jasmine, Absent-minded Adam

Diving into the realm of attachment styles, it's crucial to understand their real-world implications in our romantic relationships. To illuminate these intricate dynamics, let's explore a relatable scenario that showcases how each style—avoidant, secure, and anxious—responds to relationship challenges.

Scenario

Jasmine and Adam have been in a relationship for over a year. Adam has to leave town for a two-week business trip, and it's the longest they've been apart since they started dating. Before he leaves, Adam forgets to mention to Jasmine about an informal dinner with a group of friends from that city. That friend group includes an ex-girlfriend whom he dated for four years. Jasmine finds out about the dinner through a social media post by one of Adam's friends and sees Adam and his ex laughing together in a picture. Jasmine feels jealous.

Secure Attachment

People with a secure attachment style are more welcoming of the emotions of their partner no matter whether they are positive or negative. They also feel more comfortable expressing their own emotions to their partner no matter whether they are positive or negative. Secure attachment bonds are generally considered the healthiest and have been linked to positive emotions and relationship longevity.

Secure Attachment Response: (Jasmine's Response)

Jasmine recognizes her feelings and decides to talk to Adam about it. She calls him and says, "Hey, I saw the post about the dinner. I felt a bit out of the loop not knowing your ex would be there. Can we talk about it?" They engage in a constructive conversation where Jasmine expresses her feelings, Adam apologizes for the oversight, and they both understand each other's perspective.

Avoidant Attachment

People with an avoidant attachment style act differently. They discourage their partners from expressing negative emotions with them (or sometimes all emotions) because it makes them uncomfortable. In addition, they don’t share their negative emotions with their partner because it makes them uncomfortable. And one more thing, avoidant attachment bonders will punish their partner for making them feel a negative emotion, usually in a passive aggressive way. Because of all this, people with an avoidant attachment style avoid emotional intimacy with their partner.

Avoidant Attachment Response (Jasmine's Response)

Jasmine feels hurt and upset but doesn't communicate her feelings to Adam. Instead, she distances herself, giving Adam the cold shoulder and being curt in her replies. When Adam asks if something's wrong, she dismisses saying, "Nothing," or changing the topic. She might even decide to make plans of her own with her ex-boyfriend and not inform Adam, as a sort of 'revenge'.

Anxious Attachment

People with an anxious attachment style have their own patterns. Anxious attachment bonders are in constant fear that their partner will abandon them (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously). Because of this, they demand their partner meet their needs immediately. Unconsciously or consciously, they’re trying to get their partner to prove to them that they’ll stay. They seek constant emotional intimacy and fear independence in them and their partner. They express negative emotions to their partner, but in an overly frenetic way. This is because their negative emotions are often accompanied by a deep anxiety that their relationship is in jeopardy. Anxious attachment bonders struggle to hear negative emotions from their partner because it makes them scared they will lose their partner. They blow emotions out of proportion and go into shame and despair cycles in response.

Anxious Attachment Response (Jasmine's Response)

Jasmine becomes extremely worried upon seeing the post. Her mind races with thoughts like "Why didn't he tell me?" or "Is he trying to hide something?". She immediately bombards Adam with a flurry of texts, voicemails, or calls, demanding an explanation, making accusations and hoping for reassurance. Her anxiety might lead her to think that Adam is drifting away or that their relationship is in jeopardy, based on this one oversight.

Know Thyself

Most people are unaware of their attachment styles in romantic relationships. Because they’re unaware of attachment styles, they often think they’re acting appropriately. They usually also believe their partner is acting inappropriately. People with an avoidant attachment style think people with an anxious style are neurotic and demand too much of them. People with an anxious attachment style think people with an avoidant style are withdrawn, cold and even hateful.

Anxious and Avoidant Couples

Romantic relationships often crop up between anxious attachment bonders and avoidant attachment bonders because at first, to each other, they seem good together. But over time, they realize what they thought they admired in each other turns out to be what hurts them most.

The first step to working with your attachment style more skillfully is to become aware of it. Become aware of what your attachment style is and then work to give your partner what they need in more and more secure ways. This is the answer to the following questions. Why does my partner hurt me? Why do I hurt my partner? And how do I fix it?

It’s a Spectrum

Some people are very avoidant. In almost every situation, they mask their emotions and attempt to meet their own needs. Others are only a little avoidant, or avoidant only about certain emotions or situations. This likely correlates to the level their mother accepted their emotions or which emotions they could accept in a variety of situations. The same is true of people with an anxious style. Why does my partner hurt me? Why do I hurt my partner?

So… What Do I Do?

The number one thing to do if this is your first time learning of attachment bonding is to figure out your attachment style. You can figure out your attachment style through introspection: reflecting on how you’ve dealt with relational emotions in the past, reflecting on how you and your parents relate emotionally or monitoring your future interactions with your partner or parent and seeing which category you fall into. You can use the guided reflections at the end of this article as a template.

The number two thing to do is to have a conversation with your partner about their attachment style. You could get the ball rolling by recommending this article. And together you two can discuss each other’s styles by thinking about previous emotional issues you’ve had together.

CAUTION: If your partner is anxious or avoidant, pushing them to read this article and do heavy reflection might be difficult. Ease them into it. Perhaps asking if they’d be interested in reading about this on one day. Then waiting some time and eventually sending it to them along with some qualifiers. Take it slow. Be skillful.

Many couples will be tempted to try to immediately relate securely. This would be great if it were consistently effective, but it usually isn't. You’ve spent your whole life relating in one way. If you try to switch on a dime to something else you will likely be emotionally overwhelmed quickly. No, the third key in relating in healthier and healthier ways is to work with what you have. Begin by recognizing what you and your partner need in difficult emotional situations and attempt to give it to each other. Avoidant bonders almost always need space (physical and emotional). And anxious bonders almost always need assurance that they are loved. By recognizing these needs and both attempting to meet them, we begin to secure our bonds. Once that’s established, both partners can work to slowly communicate their needs more and more directly.

Reflection on Past Relationships

Think about your past relationships. Did you often feel that you were "too much" or "too needy"?

Did you consistently maintain an emotional distance, feeling safer when your partner was at arm's length? Were you typically relaxed about your partner's actions and trusted in the bond you shared? Remember, while these questions can provide insights, attachment styles can be nuanced and might change over time or across different relationships. Consulting with a therapist or relationship expert can offer a more comprehensive understanding of one's attachment patterns. If you want to schedule a session, you can do so by calling the Center for Growth or booking an appointment online! Wishing you, your parents and your partners peace and harmony.

To help determine one's attachment style, here are some reflective questions to consider:

General Attachment Questions:

  • How would you describe your typical response to conflict in a relationship?

  • Do you find it easy to rely on others and be relied upon in return?

  • How comfortable are you with intimacy and closeness?

Secure Attachment:

  • Do you feel at ease getting close to others and trust they'll be there for you?

  • Are you often comfortable depending on romantic partners and having them depend on you?

  • Can you readily accept your partner's imperfections without fearing loss or rejection?

Avoidant Attachment:

  • Do you often feel discomfort when a partner gets too close?

  • Do you find yourself wanting to escape or create distance when things become too intimate?

  • Do you pride yourself on being self-reliant and prefer not to depend on others?

Anxious Attachment:

  • Do you often worry that your partner doesn't truly love you or won't stay with you?

  • Do you seek constant reassurance and validation from your partner?

  • Do you fear that slight disagreements or conflicts might lead to a breakup or abandonment?

Further Reading

For more in-depth reading, check out the book Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson.

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