Understanding Attachment Distress: Nurturing Emotional Security in Relationships

This article was originally published on Healing Moments Counseling.

Emotional security is at the heart of every thriving relationship. However, it is not something that comes naturally or effortlessly. Building emotional security requires conscious effort and intentionality from both partners. 

When one turns to their significant other seeking comfort and support, but finds them unresponsive, feelings of loneliness, fear, hurt, or anger can emerge. Ignored or dismissed doubts can escalate into deeper fears and insecurities, affecting the overall well-being of the relationship.

Insecure attachment in relationships can give rise to deep fears, such as the fear of rejection, abandonment, failure, not being accepted or valued, and fear of being controlled. These fears are legitimate and often stem from past experiences in current or previous close relationships. 

The impact of these insecurities becomes evident in statements like 

  • “They just don’t care about me.”  
  • “I feel invisible in this relationship” 
  • “My opinions don’t carry much weight”
  • “I can never please them” or “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I don’t want to rock the boat, it’ll just make things worse.”
  • “It doesn’t matter what I do. I can yell and scream, I can’t make a connection with [partner].”
  • “I do it by myself and just take care of things on my own.”

The distress arising from such insecurities becomes a pressure cooker when individuals feel unable to openly acknowledge their fears and receive comforting responses from their partners. 

When partners are not there for each other during critical times, like dealing with serious illness, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one, the sense of insecurity in the relationship intensifies. This perception leads to a belief that the relationship cannot provide the necessary support, leaving partners feeling emotionally disconnected and distressed.

It is essential to recognize and address these feelings of distress in a relationship. This is why repair is so crucial in intimate relationships. 

Attachment Distress: Cues Are In The Reaction

Difficult emotions such as hurt, anger, fear, sadness, or shame may surface as a reaction to feeling insecure. This is our attachment systems way of getting us to try to change that felt sense of insecurity. 

These emotions often manifest as a protest against the threat to one’s core need for security in the attachment bond. The intensity of these protests reflects the significance of the relationship to individuals involved.

A common problem is partners often express their attachment distress or insecurities in ways that block us from getting the reassurance and security we crave.

Professor John Gottman, a renowned researcher of couple relationships, highlights that distressed couples become overwhelmed by negative emotions and trapped in repetitive cycles of interaction. 

“Most couples during conflict try repeatedly to repair a conversation that has started to go negative. In the NEGATIVE ABSORBING MARKOV STATE, these repair attempts tend to fail… what John discovered [in his observational research] was that most conflicts are a result of the failure to connect emotionally” – Drs. John and Julie Gottman

The Science of Couples and Family Therapy: Behind the Scenes at the “Love Lab”

attachment distress

This trapped state can lead to a sense of discouragement and frustration for partners experiencing attachment distress. We become hopeless and overwhelmed in the stuckness. 

Negative cycles are patterns of interaction that often recur during conflicts or difficult conversations between partners. These cycles tend to follow a familiar, repetitive pattern, regardless of the topic being discussed, such as household tasks, finances, or making decisions. Even though the trigger for these cycles might not be immediately apparent, it is clear from how the conversations spiral into negativity, that they are emotionally charged. 

The focus in couples therapy lies not on the specific topic of the conversation but on how the interaction unfolds and the emotional chain reactions that occur between partners. These emotional dynamics are more critical to understanding and resolving the conflict. 

The way partners react to each other in these moments may be their best attempt at handling the situation, but it can also unintentionally drive them further apart.

“Negative cycles feed on themselves: How I deal with my difficult emotions are both a REACTION to a threat [to our bond] and become a fresh TRIGGER for my partner.” – Veronica Kallos-Lilly & Jennifer Fitzgerald

An Emotionally Focused Workbook For Couples: The Two of Us (2nd Edition)

Attachment Distress, Negative Cycle

The negative cycle often leads to unsatisfying interactions, where conversations take a negative turn, spiral down, and leave partners feeling unresolved and distant. The key to addressing and changing this negative cycle lies in identifying the repeated moves that each partner takes in the pattern. By recognizing and becoming acquainted with the pattern that spirals their relationship downward, partners can take the first step towards changing the pattern and soothing the attachment distress.

Relationship experts in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy have described three common patterns or emotional “dances” reflective of distressed relationships. These patterns likely occur in various combinations and intensities:

  • Pursue-Withdraw Cycle: In this pattern, one partner becomes anxious or distressed and tends to pursue the other for closeness, validation, or resolution using demanding, critical, or controlling strategies. The other partner, feeling overwhelmed by the strategies, withdraws and emotionally shuts down as their strategy to cope with the pressure. This further fuels the protective pursuing and withdrawing behaviors, creating a cycle of increasing emotional distance.
  • Criticize-Defend Cycle: In this pattern, one partner expresses criticisms rather than longings, which the other partner reacts defensively to because they are feeling attacked or blamed. The defensive response escalates the criticism, leading to a back-and-forth of negative exchanges that perpetuate disconnection and loneliness for both partners..
  • Withdraw-Withdraw Cycle: This pattern occurs when both partners respond to tension and disconnection in the relationship by withdrawing and emotionally detaching from each other. This can lead to an emotional disengagement and a lack of meaningful communication, exacerbating the disconnection in the relationship

Recognizing and acknowledging attachment distress within these patterns is the first step towards healing and creating emotional security within the relationship. Partners must be willing to understand each other’s fears and insecurities and work together to establish a safe and supportive bond. Seeing the fears as a yearning for connection and closeness, not blame or personal failure, creates a space for new ways to connect and stop repeating the negative pattern. Getting to this place of security may involve seeking professional help, such as couples therapy, to explore and address deep-seated emotional issues.

Emotional security is not a guarantee in any relationship. It requires active effort, compassion, and understanding from both partners. When dealing with attachment distress, vulnerable communication plays a vital role. Couples need to listen to each other’s heart with an openness, validating and expressing themselves softly and honestly. 

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy aims to help partners identify and understand their negative cycles, enabling them to develop healthier communication patterns and emotional responses. By recognizing these patterns and learning how to express emotions and needs more effectively, couples can rebuild trust, connection, and intimacy in their relationship.

By acknowledging and addressing attachment distress and the pattern it creates, couples can cultivate a healthier and more secure emotional connection, fostering a foundation of love and support that can withstand the tests of time. Relationships flourish when partners are willing to nurture each other’s emotional needs and create a space where partners feel seen, heard, and cherished.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *