Have you ever had a friend who continually dated ‘bad eggs’? (I use ‘bad egg’ to refer to people who are bad news in relationships.) Some people just seem to be riding on a rollercoaster of relationships disasters!
I was one such person. Many of my romantic relationships were extremely dysfunctional.
On the other hand, some people appear to consistently build rewarding relationships. These pairings are marked by goodwill and positive interactions. They do not experience the kinds of ongoing drama typical of dysfunctional relationships.
How is it that these people consistently build rewarding relationships? And why is it that other people appear to continually make bad choices in relationships?
Surprisingly, the kinds of people who enter into dysfunctional relationships are very similar in a number of important ways. In this article I will outline two key traits that are typical amongst those who have troublesome relationships.
Those who possess either of these traits are likely to experience less rewarding relationships. Those who do not possess these traits typically build more rewarding relationships.
These 2 traits predict relationship problems
In this article I am going to outline 2 traits that contribute to relationship dysfunction. The 2 traits that contribute to relationship dysfunction are related to what John Bowlby called the attachment system
. We’ll need to understand a little bit of background information about attachment systems
in order to understand these 2 key relationship dysfunctions.
John Bowlby’s classic 3-volume book, Attachment & Loss
, is one of the most quoted works in modern psychology. Bowlby's research has had a huge impact on our understanding of close relationships. Bowlby proposed that humans (and other animals) have evolved an internal system called the attachment system
. The attachment system is a basic behaviour system
- Behaviour System. Biologists believe that animals have evolved behaviour systems in order to help them achieve important goals. A system is triggered when its particular goal is not being met. Once its goal has been obtained the system is turned off.
For example: The goal of the eating system is to obtain food when we require more calories. We become anxious and hungry when the system goal is not met. Once we have eaten, the system deactivates. We cease to be hungry.
Similarly, the sleep system is activated if we have not obtained enough sleep. In this instance we become tired. In each case, the system has a set goal and aims to move us towards this goal.
- Attachment System. Bowlby believed an attachement system is activated in babies whenever they feel under threat. The goal of the system is to obtain the protection and support of an adult.
A baby's attachment system also has the goal of ensuring that she remain close to an adult at all times. If a baby is left alone, the system activates and the baby begins to cry until an adult returns.
Attachment & Love
A baby's attachment system is designed to ensure she obtains support from adults. However, a similar attachment system
appears to operate in adults.
Philip Shaver and his colleagues have conducted a great deal of research into the study of 'attachment' in adult romantic relationships. They believe that adult attachments are formed through romantic bonds.
These researchers believe that, in a number of important ways, adult romantic bonds are similar to the attachment bonds existing between children and their parents. Every feature of the infant attachment system appears to have an adult romantic parallel.
Hazon & Shaver developed the following descriptions of the 3 styles of attachment seen in romantic relationships. These descriptions are used to measure a person’s attachment style
Have a read of the following descriptions. Then decide to what extent you feel that each description represents how you act and feel within romantic relationships.
Here are the 3 descriptions
I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
How do these 3 relationship ‘styles’ relate to relationship outcomes?
So how do these romantic ‘attachment styles’ relate to relationship outcomes? Let’s have a look at each one.
‘People who classified themselves as securely attached described their love relationships as friendly, warm, trusting, and supportive. They emphasized intimacy as the core feature of their relationships; and they believed in the existence of romantic love and the possibility of maintaining intense love over an extended time period’
People who securely attach also typically have stronger self esteem, better psychological wellbeing, better social skills and stronger ability to manage their emotions.
‘People with an avoidant style described their romantic relationships as low in warmth, lacking in friendly interactions, and low in emotional involvement. They believed that love fades with time and that the kind of romance depicted in novels and films does not really exist.’
‘…people who reported having an anxious style characterized their romantic relationships as involving obsession and passion, strong physical attraction, desire for union or merger with their partner, and proneness to fall in love quickly and perhaps indiscriminately. They characterised their lovers as untrustworthy and nonsupportive, and they reported intense bouts of jealousy and anger toward romantic partners as well as worries about rejection and abandonment.'
What causes the negative attachment ‘styles’?
Anxious & Avoidant attachment styles are classed as 'insecure'. A number of theorists have suggested possible causes for the 2 ‘insecure’ attachment styles. They suggest that these two styles involve ‘hyperactivation’
of the attachment system. This occurs when the attachment system fails to obtain its goal. In romantic relationships, the attachment goal is to obtain support from one’s partner.
- ‘Hyperactivation’ (Anxious response)
In the event that a person fails to obtain a supportive response from her partner, her attachment system may be hyperactivated. In this case, the person ‘fights’, ‘protests’ or persists in trying to obtain her desired response. She does this in an attempt to force her partner to respond in the way she wants.
Some theorists have suggested this kind of response may occur when a person experiences mixed responses from their partner (or in the case of children, from their parent). The person then learns that if she keeps persisting, she may get the desired response eventually.
The big problem with this attachment style is that the 'anxious attacher' becomes increasingly distressed when her needs are not met. She also has a tendency to doubt her own value as a person.
- ‘Deactivation’ (Avoidant response)
In the event that a person persistently fails to receive any supportive response from a partner (or parent) the attachment system may be ‘deactivated’.
In this instance, the person who has been seeking support experiences so much frustration that she ceases to attempt to gain support any more. This avoids the pain and frustration involved in being continually ignored. It also avoids the difficult feelings associated with continually not having ones needs met.
Some theorists have suggested that this response occurs when a person continually experiences disapproval or punishment from their partner (or parent) when she attempts to gain support.
The obvious side-effects of this 'deactivation' response is that those who persist in avoiding seeking support enjoy less intimacy, are less likely to have their needs met (from others who are more responsive) and will be less able to enjoy intimate sex.
Shaver & Mikulincer comment,
People who adopt an avoidant romantic attachment style forego the opportunity to enjoy intimacy with people who may in fact be able to meet many of their needs.
‘In short, some of life’s most rewarding experiences are forgone in an attempt to avoid certain kinds of frustration, disappointment, and punishment.’
Why some people continually have dysfunctional relationships
As outlined above, the term ‘insecure’ refers to both avoidant and anxious styles of attachment.
From my perspective, a serious problem arises for those who adopt 'insecure' attachment styles. The negative behaviours associated with 'insecure' attachment typically drive away those who are more secure in relationships.
A secure person is unlikely to want to enter into a relationship with an insecure person. This is because a secure person would far prefer to be in relationship with other people who securely attach.
As a result, this means that ‘insecure’ individuals are typically only able to enter into relationships with other insecure individuals.
- The Negative Relationship Cycle. We need to experience strong secure relationships in order to begin to feel secure. However, an insecure individual is unlikely to be able to begin a relationship with a secure person. She therefore typically enters relationships with other insecure people. As a result, she is unlikely to have her needs for support met. And so the relationship reinforces her original insecurity.
Can negative attachment styles be altered?
I the past I have been an extremely dysfunctional anxious attacher. In the end, I decided that I needed to learn to stop acting in the dysfunctional manner
in which insecure people typically act. I realised that if I continued to act in a insecure manner, I would never be able to enter into a more secure relationships. I did 3 things that helped me alter the negative cycle of insecurity.
- Avoid 'insecure' behaviours
I decided to try stop acting in the typical manner of ‘insecure’ people. The better we are able to recognise our negative behaviours, the easier it becomes to alter them. Therefore, the first step in this process entails beginning to be honest with ourselves about when we are acting in an insecure manner.
When entering new relationships, I concentrated on trying to calm my typically overly intense, 'needy' and ‘clingy’ behaviours.
If you are more typically an Avoidant Attacher, then learning to act more securely might involve altering avoidant behaviours. It may, for example, involve yourself to be more trusting and intimate in relationships. It might also involve allowing yourself to accept more support from your partner. And it might involve trying NOT to withdraw from your partner whenever you feels threatened.
- Avoid 'insecure' peopole
Alongside trying to act in a more secure manner, I began to be very careful about who I spent time with. I determined NOT to spend time with people who were selfish or self-absorbed, or who ignored my needs for support. If we continue to surround ourselves with people who do not respond to our needs, then we will remain insecure.
- Be attentive & supportive of others
In more recent times, I have begun to realise that I need to also concentrate on meeting other people’s needs. This is the reward that others look for in relationships. When we concentrate on meeting others’ needs, secure people are more likely to want to spend time with us.
These 3 responses tie into one another. As we begin to act in a more secure and supportive manner, so other more supportive people will enjoy spending time with us. At the same time, if we determine to spend more time with supportive people, and less time with unsupportive people, then our security will be reinforced.
Find out your ‘attachment’ style!
Are you typically an Anxious, Avoidant or Secure attacher? Take this test to find out. The Experiences in Close Relationships
(ECR-R) questionnaire has been developed by several academics in order to measure attachment style.
The instructions are as follows:
The statements below concern how you feel in emotionally intimate relationships. We are interested in how you generally experience relationships, not just in what is happening in a current relationship. Respond to each statement by choosing the response that best indicates how much you agree or disagree with the statement.
The 1st questionnaire measures Anxious Attachment
: CLICK HERE
to take the Anxious Attachment test.
The 2nd questionnaire measures Avoidant Attachment.
: CLICK HERE
to take the Avoidant Attachment test.
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Photo: Bethany King