The most common presenting issue I hear is a need for “communication skills”. From my perspective, having done this work for a number of years, is that communication problems are often a result of attachment challenges. That is, the couple is caught in a dance that reflects their individual attachment styles. While there are three common attachment styles, secure, anxious and avoidant. I’m going to focus on the latter two, anxious and avoidant. If you aren’t familiar with attachment theory or don’t quite remember it, get a quick refresher here (scroll down to the section titled, “Do We Observe the Same Kinds of Attachment Patterns Among Adults that We Observe Among Children?”). If you are interested in finding out your characteristic attachment style while you read, you can complete this assessment. If you know your style, you may want to keep in mind one practical principle that I have learned in my practice. Even if someone has a characteristically secure attachment, under stress most of us also have a characteristic less secure attachment style. This means that there are three basic types of attachment dances in dyadic couples, anxious-anxious, anxious-avoidant, and avoidant-avoidant. Couples in each pairing, have common communication cycles that leave them without the ability to maintain a sense of connection when they are in a conflict. In that sense, the problem isn’t that the couple isn’t communicating, or doesn’t know what to communicate. The problem is that the couple is communicating in ways that are shaped by the challenges in the attachment.
Click to enlarge this table displaying common conflict dialogue among couples with different attachment style pairings:
Interestingly, the solution to all of these dynamics, is the same, secure attachment. Another author whom I highly recommend, David Schnarch, calls this holding onto yourself, but I like to call it Holding the Middle. Holding the Middle is the ability to do three things all at once. Those three skills are regulating your emotions, setting boundaries on your behavior, and setting boundaries on your partner’s behavior.
Regulating Your Emotions
The first and most important of these three skills is the ability to regulate your own emotions. So, while an anxious person might feel upset and be motivated to reach out to their partner, an anxiously attached person who has learned to hold the middle has the ability to feel that anxiety and to prevent it from telling them how to act. A characteristically avoidant person might feel trapped or as if their partner is trying to control them but an avoidant person who has become secure enough to hold the middle has the ability to breathe through that feeling and to decide how to speak and act despite those fluttering feelings. A formerly anxious person might still reach out. A formerly avoidant person might still walk away for a short time. The important distinction in attachment security is the ability to choose and the ability to return to a middle space where both partners can meet.
The problem with having an anxious attachment style is not the act of reaching out for the partner but reaching out to the partner so that they will soothe you instead of you soothing yourself. So, regulating your emotions isn’t a first step to no longer reaching out to your partner, it is the first step in being able to choose when, how, and how often you will reach out to your partner. If you feel like your world is collapsing, it is hard to make those choices and a person with anxious attachment who gets deeply caught by their feelings might end up texting 27 times in 10 minutes until they get a response. A secure person who can regulate their emotions on the other hand has the capacity to reach out once and then to wait for a response. A secure person might feel scared their partner will not come back, that this is the end of the relationship, etc. just like the person with anxious attachment. But in contrast they have the ability to soothe those emotions enough that they stand in the metaphoric middle where they wait for their partner to return to conflict resolving conversation.
For the person with avoidant attachment, regulating your emotions might look a little different on the outside, while on the inside, very similar things are happening. First, the avoidant person often leaves in a fit of anger or disgust, deciding that their partner is “too much”. They pull away saying they “need some time”. Inside what happened is that they were overwhelmed by the experience of their partner’s needs and or their own. The feeling of dependency (in either direction) felt suffocating and scary because, “What if they don’t calm down after I put all this energy into soothing them?” or “What if I trust my partner to be there for me and then they aren’t there the next time I need them?”. The formerly avoidant person who has developed the ability to regulate their emotions and act more securely can recognize, “Hey, I think I’ve gotten overwhelmed”. They might still ask for some time away but they depart and return differently. Here are some things an avoidant person might do after they have the ability to regulate their emotions:
- Add a reassurance that they will return before leaving,
- Make it clear that, “I need a minute to cool down because I’m a little overwhelmed” making it about them and not blaming their partner for it.
- Come back from a walk or a few minutes alone and say, “Can we restart the conversation?’
Again, the important thing taking place is awareness and personal responsibility for their own emotions while also maintaining the ability to tolerate and normalize the difficult feelings that can come as part of a close relationship.
Setting Boundaries on Your Own Behavior
Setting boundaries on your own behavior means that you commit to yourself that you won’t allow yourself to gloss over conflict but will commit to resolving them. For the anxious person, this likely means choosing not to give up on an important issue just because it is causing conflict. The newly secure person who is holding the middle decides that they will regulate their emotions so that they can participate in creating the resolution. They decide to send only one message offering reconnection. They decide to maintain their values and to not give up on getting their relationship needs being met. They decide that it is more important to be true to themselves than to maintain connection at any cost and they act accordingly.
For the avoidantly attached person learning to set boundaries on their behavior means deciding to come back to conflicts that have been left unresolved. It means practicing trusting another person to comfort them or practicing comforting their partner. In this way, the formerly avoidant person accepts a degree of healthy mutual dependence upon one another.
Also see this blog entry on “What Are Good Relationship Boundaries?”
Setting Boundaries on Your Partner’s Behavior
A person who has learned how to hold the middle waits for their partner to return to a regulated emotional state before trying to resume conversations. Waiting for the partner to return to a regulated state means that you don’t attempt to resolve the conflict while they are acting and speaking primarily out of a distressed emotion (anxiety typically for the anxiously attached person, overwhelm typically for the avoidant person). This means that you expect them to have the capacity to regulate their emotions on their own and you give them the space and time to regulate their emotions. If you have a more anxiously attached partner that means while you hold them when they cry or express fear, you don’t agree to drop an issue just because they were scared by it. You don’t let go of your needs just because it is too hard for you to deal with their emotional vulnerability. If you have an avoidant partner, this means that you allow them time to step away to regulate but when they return, you gently resume the conflict resolution conversation with them. If they refuse, you wait for their readiness to do so but you don’t drop the issue either. The meta-lesson about setting boundaries on your partner’s behavior is that you don’t let the issue drop without resolution that is satisfactory to both of you. You don’t let emotional avoidance strategies, including the anxious person’s distress or the avoidant’s overwhelm, make small issues go unresolved.
Holding the Middle
The anxiously attached person leaves their own emotions behind to get their partner to comfort them or gives up their needs in order to soothe their partner’s displeasure at their own expense. That is, they leave themselves behind and step into their partner’s emotional space, attempting to borrow the partner’s emotional regulation capacities and using the partner’s satisfaction as a proxy for their own.
The avoidant person turns away from contact with their partner, bringing their own discontent with in a way that doesn’t create the vulnerable connections that foster intimacy or they turn away from their partner’s vulnerability because they don’t know how to deal with it. That is, they leave their partner behind neither benefiting from the partner’s ability to give them love and care, nor offering it to the partner.
Holding the middle is the action in between these extremes. You stay on your side of the emotional dynamic, rooted in your feelings and needs but you remain at the metaphoric boundary between the two of you, ready to meet your partner’s vulnerability at that boundary when they are ready to offer it. You remain rooted in your place, neither being pulled into taking over responsibility for your partner’s emotions nor giving up care for those emotions. You neither make your partner responsible for your emotions nor hide them away so that your partner can’t hold you and comfort you. You stay, feet planted and arms wide open, in the middle where the two of you can meet in vulnerability.