Getting Unstuck in Unhappy Relationships: Part 2

Part 2 of this series on Getting unstuck in Unhappy Relationships talks about the two types of insecure attachment- the anxious and avoidant styles. Read part 1 here.


Studies have shown that while the majority of people (over 50%) find warm and mutually loving relationships come naturally to them, around 20% have an anxious attachment style and 25% have an avoidant attachment style. The remaining 5% have what is considered a combination of the two- a fearful style of attachment.

What all 3 insecure types of attachment styles have in common are underlying beliefs which activate certain behaviours in those individuals. These behaviours might feel like the right course of action to take in the moment but it is important to understand that because they are driven by mistaken beliefs about intimacy and security, there is often a mismatch between the intended and actual outcome. The disappointment and pain that results, brings us into even more desperate behaviours and so, the vicious cycle of getting stuck in unhappy relationship is completed and repeats itself. Below are some of the most common beliefs people fall into depending on their primary style of attachment:

Attachment-beliefs-1

These mistaken beliefs may have been developed from the need to protect ourselves from past relationships which were hurtful. For the anxiously attached, their need lies in more intimacy; for the avoidantly attached, the need for distance or detachment due to despair. However, in meaning to protect ourselves from feeling hurt or vulnerable in the moment, we end up unknowingly acting in ways that further hurt ourselves, our partner, and our current relationship. These behaviours are driven from a place of fear that certain attachment needs are not met and are in protest to a specific situation.

Some common behaviours associated with anxious attachment beliefs include:

  • Compulsively seeking contact: Calling, texting, or e-mailing many times, waiting for a phone call, loitering by your partner’s workplace in hopes of running into him/her.
  • Withdrawing: Giving your partner the ‘silent treatment’.
  • Keeping score: Paying attention to how long it took them to return your phone call and waiting just as long to return theirs; waiting for them to make the first “make-up” move and acting distant until such time.
  • Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes when they speak, looking away, getting up and leaving the room while they’re talking.
  • Threatening to leave: Making threats—“ We’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” “I knew we weren’t really right for each other,” “I’ll be better off without you”—all the while hoping the other will stop you from leaving.
  • Manipulations: Acting busy or unapproachable. Ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.
  • Making him/ her feel jealous: Making plans to get together with an ex for lunch, going out with friends to a singles bar, telling your partner about someone who hit on you today.

While some common behaviours associated with avoidant beliefs are:

  • Distancing: Pulling away when things are going well (e.g. not calling for days after an intimate date) or “checking out” mentally when your partner is engaging with you.
  • Finding fault or flaws: Focusing on small imperfections in your partner and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
  • Idealising past relationships: Pining after an ex and reminiscing about them.
  • Flirting with others: Introducing insecurity into the relationship through intentional flirtatious behaviour with other people.
  • Avoiding physical or emotional closeness: Not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking ahead of your partner; keeping secrets, leaving things unclear- all to maintain your sense of independence.
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future: E.g. with someone who is married.

Interestingly, there is a tendency for anxious and avoidantly attached individuals to enter into relationships with one another. These situations confirm each partner’s own beliefs about intimacy and relationships. While one partner wants intimacy and is willing to give up everything to get close to their partner, the other feels uncomfortable with too much intimacy and constantly looks for more space and independence. This anxious-avoidant trap is the perfect storm for two people who have colliding intimacy needs and is another reason why people find themselves caught in vicious cycles of unhappy relationships.

Being in a healthy, fulfilling relationships takes effort. The effort mostly lies in actively choosing the unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) path which can lead to more security in relationships. Repeating our old patterns in order to protect ourselves is a little like getting carried unwillingly by a strong current while holding onto a log to keep afloat. It’s easy to continue clinging on to that log because it gives you temporary security but it’s not a replacement for making a carefully thought out plan to get yourself out of the water to safety.

The first step in making that plan is to observe and reflect on what mistaken beliefs and corresponding behaviours you engage in which might be contributing to your relationship patterns. You might like to try this exercise for yourself:

  1. Think back and list out your current and past relationships in one column.
  2. In the second column, write down what thoughts dominate/dominated those relationships and what mistaken beliefs (see above) you might have/have had about them.
  3. In the third column, recall and list out the corresponding behaviours you engaged in as a result.
  4. What patterns do you notice? What are the beliefs and behaviours that seem to be constant factors in all your relationships?

Most of us want to be in loving relationships. Sometimes, the patterns holding us back have nothing to do with our partners but rather the inner fears that we all have. It is our job and responsibility to cast away whatever is providing us a false sense of security and discover ways of being that will bring us to a more secure and loving place in our intimate relationships.

The third and final part of this series on Getting Unstuck in Unhappy Relationships will talk about what secure attachments in relationships look like and the ways in which you can work towards that.


References and other interesting reading on this topic:

Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

Hold me tight by Sue Johnson

Insecure in Love by Leslie Becker Phelps