By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Some people can’t seem to get close enough to their partner. Others are more comfortable remaining a bit distant. And, quite often, these two kinds of people find each other, forming a relationship that leaves the intimacy-seeking person frequently pulling for more connection and their partner trying maintain more personal space.
To help you understand this dynamic better, it helps to know a little bit about attachment theory. Back in the late 1950s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby explained that the mother-infant bond continues through childhood and helps the child create a working model for how to “attach” to his or her caregivers. For instance, one child might learn that if he cries, his mother will soothe him. The result is that he will likely express distress when he needs help. Another might learn that crying will only result in his mother rebuffing him. Because of his need for her to stay close, he learns to stifle his emotions and figure out problems on his own. Children then often apply this working model to other significant relationships, such as with teachers and peers. Although it is modified with experience, people tend to carry their basic style of connecting into adulthood, especially using them with romantic partners.
Current attachment theory explains that people connect with significant others along two basic dimensions: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance.
Attachment-related anxiety has to do with how much you feel you are worthy of love. People who “score” high on this dimension question whether their partner really loves them and worry a lot about being rejected or abandoned. Those low on this dimension tend to feel more worthy of love and don’t worry much about being rejected.
Attachment-related avoidance has to do with how emotionally available you expect others to be. People high on this dimension expect that others will not meet their emotional needs, so they tend to remain emotionally distant and don’t rely on, or open up to, others. In contrast, those low on attachment-related avoidance tend to expect others to be emotionally there for them, so they are more open in sharing and in depending on others.
Part of what all of this means is that the tendency to need to either be repeatedly reassured of a partner’s love or to keep deep thoughts and feelings to yourself are deeply rooted. And, when each partner is high on a different dimension, it causes problems that are not easily resolved.
If you and your partner struggle with this, you can work on strengthening your relationship by talking about your differing needs and how to negotiate them. Take a hypothetical couple: Karen repeatedly reassured John that she really cared and wanted to be there for him. After each time, she gave him space so that he wouldn’t feel cornered (which would only make him want to withdraw more). Similarly, he repeatedly reassured her that his desire to work some things out in his own mind before talking with her didn’t mean he cared any less. By reaching out to each other in a caring and understanding way, they learned to connect more easily. Karen felt less worried and John was a bit more open.
As with so many other struggles in relationships, good communication can help you overcome this difference. It can help the two of you feel closer and eventually develop a style of intimacy that meets both of your needs.
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