This article was originally published on Healing Moments Counseling. Emotional security is at the heart of every successful relationship. However, it is not something that happens naturally or effortlessly. Building emotional security requires conscious effort and intention from both partners. When seeking comfort and support from a partner, feelings of loneliness, fear, hurt, or anger can arise if they are not responsive. Ignored or dismissed doubts can escalate into deeper fears and insecurities, impacting the overall well-being of the relationship.
Insecure attachments in relationships can trigger deep-seated fears, such as fear of rejection, abandonment, failure, not being accepted or valued, and fear of being controlled. These fears are legitimate and often stem from past experiences in current or previous close relationships. The effects of these insecurities are evident in statements such as „They just don’t care about me,“ „I feel invisible in this relationship,“ „My opinion doesn’t carry much weight,“ „I can never do anything right,“ „I don’t want to rock the boat, it only makes things worse,“ and „It doesn’t matter what I do. I can scream and scream, I can’t connect [partner].“
The distress that arises from these insecurities becomes a pressure cooker when individuals do not feel able to openly acknowledge their fears and receive comforting responses from their partners. When partners are not there for each other in critical times, such as a serious illness, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one, the feeling of insecurity in the relationship intensifies. This perception leads to the belief that the relationship cannot provide the necessary support, causing partners to feel emotionally disconnected and desperate.
It is important to recognize and address these feelings of strain in a relationship. This is why repair in intimate relationships is crucial. Attachment stress: Clues are in the response In response to the feeling of insecurity, challenging emotions such as hurt, anger, fear, sadness, or shame may surface. This is our attachment system’s way of trying to change this feeling of insecurity. These emotions often manifest as protests against the threat to the core need for security in the bond. The intensity of these protests reflects the significance of the relationship to the individuals involved. The challenge is that partners often express their attachment issues or insecurities in ways that prevent us from getting the confirmation and security we long for.
Professor John Gottman, a renowned researcher on couple relationships, emphasizes that distressed couples are overwhelmed by negative emotions and are trapped in repeating interaction cycles. „During a conflict, most couples repeatedly try to repair a conversation that has turned negative. In the NEGATIVE ABSORBING MARKOV STATE, these attempts at repair tend to fail…What John found [in his observational research] was that most conflicts are the result of a lack of emotional connection“ – Dr. John and Julie Gottman – The Science of Couple and Family Therapy: Behind the Scenes of the „Love Lab“
This trapped state can lead partners experiencing attachment issues to feel discouraged and frustrated. We become hopeless and overwhelmed by the blockade. Negative cycles are interaction patterns that frequently reoccur during conflicts or difficult conversations between partners. These cycles tend to follow a familiar, repeating pattern, regardless of the specific topic being discussed, such as household chores, finances, or decisions. Even if the trigger of these cycles may not be immediately recognizable, the way the conversations turn negative indicates that they are emotionally charged. The focus in couples therapy is not on the specific conversation topic, but on the course of the interaction and the emotional chain reactions that occur between the partners. These emotional dynamics are crucial to understanding and resolving the conflict. The way partners respond to each other in these moments may be their best attempt to deal with the situation, but can unintentionally drive them further apart.
„Negative cycles feed themselves: how I cope with my difficult emotions is a REACTION to a threat [to our bond] and a new TRIGGER for my partner“ – Veronica Kallos-Lilly & Jennifer Fitzgerald – An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: We 2 (2nd ed.)
The negative cycle often leads to unsatisfactory interactions where conversations take a negative turn, become unstable, and leave partners feeling unresolved and distanced. The key to managing and changing this negative cycle lies in identifying the repeated movements each partner makes within this pattern. By recognizing and understanding the pattern that leads their relationship into a downward spiral, partners can take the first step in changing the pattern and easing attachment issues.
Relationship experts in emotionally focused couples therapy have described three common patterns or emotional „dances“ attributed to strained relationships. These patterns are likely to occur in different combinations and intensities:
Pursue-Withdraw Cycle: In this pattern, one partner becomes anxious or desperate and tends to pursue the other with demanding, critical, or controlling strategies in search of closeness, affirmation, or resolution. The other partner, feeling overwhelmed by the strategies, withdraws and shuts down emotionally as their strategy for coping with the pressure. This further reinforces the protective pursuing and withdrawing behaviors and creates a cycle of increasing emotional distance.
Criticism-Defensiveness Cycle: In this pattern, one partner expresses criticism rather than longings, to which the other partner responds defensively because they feel attacked or blamed. The defensive reaction escalates the criticism, leading to back-and-forth negative exchanges that continue to evoke separation and loneliness in both partners.
Withdrawal-Withdrawal Cycle: This pattern occurs when both partners respond to tension and separation in the relationship by withdrawing and emotionally distancing from each other. This can lead to emotional disengagement and a lack of meaningful communication, exacerbating the separation in the relationship.
Recognizing and acknowledging attachment issues within these patterns is the first step towards healing and creating emotional security in the relationship. Partners must be willing to understand each other’s fears and insecurities and work together to build a secure and supportive bond. Seeing the fears as longings for connection and closeness rather than blame or personal failure creates a space for new ways to connect and stop the repetition of the negative pattern. It may be necessary to seek professional help, such as couples therapy, to explore and address deep-seated emotional issues in order to reach this place of security.
Emotional security is not guaranteed in any relationship. It requires active effort, compassion, and understanding from both partners. Vulnerable communication plays a crucial role in managing attachment issues. Couples must listen openly to each other, affirm one another, and express themselves gently and honestly. Emotionally focused couples therapy aims to help partners recognize and understand their negative cycles, allowing them to develop healthier communication patterns and emotional reactions. By recognizing these patterns and learning to express emotions and needs more effectively, couples can restore trust, connection, and intimacy in their relationship.
By recognizing and addressing attachment issues and the resulting patterns, couples can build a healthier and more secure emotional bond, creating a foundation of love and support that withstands the tests of time. Relationships thrive when partners are willing to consider each other’s emotional needs and create a space where partners feel seen, heard, and valued.
References: (The original code was removed, but you can include the website or author’s or source’s details here.)