This article first appeared on Happify
It’s Valentine’s Day. Your partner walks in the door with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. They then tell you they’ve booked a table for two at your favorite restaurant. At dinner, they gift you that very thing you’d been eyeing for months. As you look at this perfect person sitting across from you, your eyes tear up and your heart oozes with love.
And then the next day arrives.
Suddenly, this same partner for whom you felt so much ardor only yesterday has forgotten to take out the garbage, walk the dog, or pick your child up from the party. They have little patience for your daily challenges, they barely ever compliment you, and, boy, do they have to win every argument! You look at them with frustration, sometimes disdain, and wonder whatever happened to the person with whom you fell in love?
Love researchers Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster distinguish two kinds of love in an intimate relationship, each involving a separate process and timeline. Passionate love gets all the headlines—it’s dramatic and flashy and what makes us fall in love in the first place. It often reignites on romantic occasions like Valentine’s Day, birthdays, and anniversaries. But it is companionate love that binds people together and becomes the fabric of a lasting relationship. The researchers describe it as “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined”. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses how companionate love grows over time as partners apply their attachment system—the bond that once tied them to their caregiver—to care for and trust each other.
Jennifer Gill Rosier, Ph.D., associate professor of communication studies at James Madison University, has found that when an attachment style is based on fear, and thus “insecure,” which psychiatrist and researcher Dan Siegel, M.D., posits in his book Mindsight is the case with about half the population’s relationships, we become enmeshed in an unhealthy power dynamic in our intimate relationship. This can show up in the different ways listed below, based on the three types of insecure attachment:
Dynamic # 1: I’m Inferior, You’re Superior
If your earliest relationship was marked by uncertainty, for example, you were showered with affection one day, ignored the next or told you were loved and valued only when you behaved, the past experience may give rise to feelings of inferiority when you’re with your partner. Experiencing this so-called ambivalent attachment style in childhood can, later in life, cause you to obsess about your partner’s reactions (‘Was it something I said?’) and become hooked on their approval (‘Maybe I shouldn’t do that’) If there’s a disagreement, you’re quick to take all the blame, and rush to appease them with excuses, apologies, and reassurances that it won’t happen again. You worry about your value in the relationship, and cling to him or her for fear they may leave you, or experience jealousy when they’re in the company of a potential partner. In my coaching work helping women build their self-worth, I’ve seen clients share too much too soon, stretch their limits of tolerance, or brush important conversations under the carpet for fear of upsetting their partner.
Dynamic # 2: I’m Superior, You’re Inferior
If, on the other hand, your caregiver was oblivious and/or critical of your strengths and decisions, it could lead you to develop feelings of superiority in a relationship, as a way to mask the pain of having felt unseen. This avoidant attachment style shows up as judgment of your partner’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings (‘You’re so sensitive’) and a lack of empathy that can sometimes border on narcissism. There may even be a desire for greater independence where you feel somehow constrained by the relationship. One way to know if this is you is to think about how you respond to your partner’s good news. Are you supportive and genuinely happy when good things happen to them, or are you competitive and do you feel the need to undercut or one-up them? In her Active Constructive Responding model, Shelly Gable, Ph.D., has described two forms of passive responding that are common when this dynamic is at play—understated support; or worse, ignoring the good news and stealing the conversation back to yourself.
Dynamic # 3: We’re Both Inferior
The third and most unhealthy form of insecure attachment is called disorganized and may stem from some form of trauma that occurred in your relationship with your primary caregiver, or at a later stage in life with a romantic partner. You don’t value yourself, nor can you see the good in your partner. This leads to an internal struggle where you cling onto them and yearn for their attention, yet feel a strong urge to detach yourself when you do get it. Sadly, disorganized attachment often leads to an abusive relationship, and unless you’re lucky enough to find a very securely attached partner who can help repair the damage of your early years, you may end up playing out this past abuse throughout your romantic life. In his highly influential book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “The limit of your self-abuse is exactly the limit that you will tolerate from someone else.”
If you relate to any of these dynamics—and bear in mind these are the extreme versions on a spectrum—read part two, where you’ll learn the three essential secrets of building an intimate relationship that’s as secure as it is passionately alive.