Humans are naturally social creatures, both craving and needing relationships of all types. Our relationships are a fundamental part of who we are, yet we get no formal training on them. Instead we learn about them through a combination of observation and trial and error. Unfortunately, there is often a great emphasis on error.
Some of us are able to form healthy attachments and go on to have largely happy romantic relationships. Others form relationship that are toxic to one or both parties, and others end up largely alone. However I think the vast majority of us have relationships that are good, containing a reasonable degree of happiness – but they could be better. So how do we improve them?
People talk about chemistry, and incompatibilities between personalities. But increasingly I am convinced that the success of someone’s personal relationships is more a reflection on them, and how they have learned to form emotional attachments.
In a recent post I talked about how emotional intimacy is built and emotional attachments are formed. Emotional attachment is a funny thing though. Although it is hard wired into our DNA it’s safe to say we don’t all form healthy emotional attachments.
How it Starts
According to Attachment Theory, your ability to form emotional attachments is significantly impacted by your first emotional attachments when you were a baby. From Wikipedia:
The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings.
Let’s take a look at two diagrams:
Attachment starts with need. As infants we have needs that our primary caregiver tries to meet. When they are met we are content. When they are consistently met we start to form trust and attachment. But our needs aren’t always met, and when they aren’t it results in fear, anxiety and stress.
With healthy attachment we learn that our needs not being met doesn’t indicate a lack of care or love. Further, we learn that not all needs will be met, and that’s alright. In unhealthy attachment however, not having our needs met continues to results in stress, anxiety and fear.
Neglecting your child is the fastest path to damaging their ability to make healthy attachments. If their needs are never met, they will not be able to develop trust and care. But attachment theory says it is boundaries that allow a child to develop attachment in a healthy way.
At the other end of the spectrum is spoiling them. If they are used to having their needs always met (or met at an unrealistic level) it can create a sense of expectation and entitlement, also harming their ability to form healthy attachments.
As parents we often want to provide everything for our children. But as this illustrates, when we do too much we risk doing more harm than good. We need to set boundaries, and allow our children to develop independence in order for them to develop in a healthy fashion.
In attachment theory, the two most damaging traits for forming healthy attachments are anxiety and avoidance.
Anxiety is often seen as the fear of the unknown. It is a fear of what “could” happen, and is largely an overreaction of the fear instinct. Anxious people are often expecting the worst case scenario to happen in any situation. Avoidance is keeping away or withdrawing from something, often due to a fear of a perceived negative result.
Both traits are very damaging to relationships. Relationships are based on trust and security, which requires communication. Avoidance leads to poor communication and an inability to address the regular issues that a relationship will face. Anxiety is also very destructive to relationships. For a great summary on how it can impact love check this article. But at a high level anxiety can erode empathy and damage trust.
Attachment Theory has identified a number of attachment styles related to people’s levels of anxiety and avoidance. I’ve seen different versions of the styles, but the following chart outlines a few with some of their characteristics:
Looking at this chart, it’s obvious that secure attachment is the “healthy” form of attachment. As noted however, we don’t all develop in a healthy fashion.
Avoidant Attachment is the most common unhealthy attachment. People with high levels of avoidance tend to have issues with intimacy in close relationships, and do not invest themselves emotionally. Interestingly, they often crave closeness and intimacy, but they need to be in control. Once people start to get too close they start to shut them out.
This often leads to a feeling of instability in relationships. The avoidant person wants closeness, but it makes them feel overwhelmed leading them to withdraw. When they feel more secure they will look for closeness again, but they look for it on their terms.
Ambivalent Attachment is less common. Here people are reluctant to get close to others due to fear that their partner doesn’t feel the same way about them.
It’s important to note that these styles and their tendencies are not absolutes. We all have some level of avoidance and anxiety, and your levels determines where you fall on these spectrums. For example, I would like to think that I have a fairly secure attachment style (wishful thinking perhaps). But while I generally have low anxiety levels, I know I lean slightly towards avoidance when it comes to dealing with conflict.
You may be a certain way, and behavioral psychologists believe that your “go to” style is largely a result of your early years. So if you think you’re a bit messed up and you want to blame your parents? Yeah, it probably is actually their fault.
But one important thing is it is possible to change the mindsets that lead to unhealthy attachment and move more towards secure forms of attachment. Your attachment style CAN change. So even if you do want to blame mommy and daddy for who you are today, it’s up to you who you want to be tomorrow.
When you look at attachment one of the things that stands out to me is in both healthy and unhealthy emotional attachment, it’s all about you and your needs. What about other people?
Somewhere along the way we have to learn that we aren’t the only ones who matter. We need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around us. In order to have successful relationships, the needs of the other person also need to matter to us. A world of “me” needs to become a world of “we”. Learning to value the needs of others and place them at a level at or near our own is one of the characteristics of empathy.
When we aren’t being empathetic or we are focusing primarily on ourselves and our needs, we are exhibiting narcissistic behavior.
Lack of empathy is the most notable characteristic of narcissism. Additional characteristics include a sense of entitlement, a focus on how things appear to other people (things need to be perfect) and a need for admiration or external validation.
For narcissists, relationships are vehicles for them and their needs. They will put effort into the relationship as long as their own needs are met, but it is never an equal exchange, and it is never done out of genuine care and concern for the other person.
Noted researcher (and sufferer) on Narcissism Sam Vaknin writes:
I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities – but I simply can’t seem to “get it into my mind.” There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of Mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate.
To me, all people are cardboard cut-outs, sophisticated motor contraptions, ersatz and robotic. I know how I should feel because I am well-read–but I cannot seem to bring myself to emote and to sympathize.
Over the years, I have deciphered the code. I have learned to imitate and emulate expertly the more common affect and expressions of one’s inner landscape. But this veneer is easily breached when I am frustrated or humiliated: the mask slips and the real Me is out: a predator on the prowl.
This is an extreme example. The true narcissistic personality type is rare (occurring in approx 6% of the population). In reality we all have some elements of narcissism within us, and when times are tough it’s common for people to just “look out for themselves”. In periods of stress or personal problems our ability to be empathetic often decreases. But the ability to be empathetic towards our partners on a consistent basis (even when times are tough) is the key characteristic that determines the quality of our interpersonal relationships.
Empathy is the most important characteristic of any close relationship, and particularly in our romantic relationships. Unfortunately we don’t all learn this, or perhaps it’s better to say we learn it to varying degrees. But no matter what your level of empathy is, it can be improved.
Focusing on Others
In relationships, we all want to be valued. We all want to be loved, desired, and appreciated for who we are. If we want that, it’s safe to assume our partner wants and needs that too.
Is thinking about yourself being selfish? No, not at all. We need to think about ourselves and take care of ourselves. However thinking of yourself to the exclusion of others is a problem.
For our relationships to survive we need to value our partners, and their needs must be important to us. For our relationships to thrive, we need to place our partners needs at the same level as ours (or at least very close). We need to understand that love means compromise. Things won’t always be the way we want, and they won’t always be the way our spouse wants. We need to be willing to work together towards a common good that benefits both.
In nature, when two organisms work together for common benefit it is referred to as a symbiotic relationship. When the benefits are very one sided, it is referred to as a parasitic relationship.
If you are unhappy in your relationship, ask yourself why. Does your relationship add value to your life? Are your needs being met? Now ask yourself if you are adding value to your partners life. Are their needs being met?
All relationships go through ups and downs. But overall your relationship should be something that adds value to both your life and that of your partner.
If it isn’t, take a look at how you approach the relationship. Empathy can be worked on and developed. Remember, it’s not about your needs. It’s about finding the way to best meet the needs of the couple, so that both are feeling valued and fulfilled. Working on improving and sustaining empathy is one of the best ways to improve your relationship and have a happier future.