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Four Secure Attachment Principles for Couples Working Things Out

There is a major misconception or generalization in the media that conflict in romantic relationships equates to “proof” that two people are incompatible and should therefore end things because they sometimes disagree. Attachment Theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, shows us that all couples, even those with secure attachment styles, fight and argue in close relationships. We are all imperfect individuals, and therefore our relationships are not free from imperfection!

Research shows us that conflicts in relationships actually serve as opportunities for couples to deepen their bond through “rupture” and “repair.” How a person responds to conflict in their relationship and if they are able to quickly “repair” after a “rupture” (fight or disagreement). Rupture and repair is the basis of secure relationships or couples with secure attachment orientation.

So what does a repair look like? It is a sincere apology, that is usually sweet and simple without excuses. This can be anything from “I’m sorry I said that about how you load the dishwasher,” to “I am sorry I did not think about how your mother would feel about us going away, I know that really hurt you and I am going to work on being mindful of her situation around the holidays.” When we accept that there will be ruptures often in relationships, we can turn towards how we can repair conflict in a secure manner with our partner.

Due to the fact that attachment styles are malleable and can be learned no matter your natural attachment disposition, the principles of how a person with a secure attachment style repairs can be learned.

As mentioned in our blog about attachment styles, folks with secure attachment styles tend to be able to separate true conflict from situations that shouldn’t be taken too personally. They can talk about their emotions and concerns with their partner without feeling like it’s going to ruin the relationship or cause the partner to leave.

This can look different depending on the couple, but most secure couples in conflict share the same five principles:

  1. Show basic concern for their partner’s well-being

  2. Effectively communicate their needs and feelings

  3. Maintain focus on the problem at hand

  4. Refrain from generalizing the conflict or making it a personal attack

If you believe you tend to get activated during a conflict with your partner, either you attack or retreat from the issue at hand, it's possible your insecure attachment style (those with greater attachment anxiety or avoidance) got activated. Folks with an insecure attachment style tend to shy away from facing conflict head-on.

How to Make Secure Principles work for your relationship

By showing basic concern for your partner’s well-being, your partner not only feels heard in conflict but by showing concern for your partner during an argument they can feel both seen and heard. This looks like validating your partner's experience, without seeing eye-to-eye with them. “I understand why you may feel overwhelmed when we are in the city for long stretches of time, I am working to meet this big deadline at work so I need to be in the office instead of visiting our bay house. Let’s talk about how we can navigate our different schedules for the next few weeks so we both can be happy.” Here you send the message, “I see you and I hear you, your feelings matter.

Secure attachment styles in conflict, are able to share their own vulnerability as well as hold their partner’s vulnerability instead of blocking it or pushing it away. It can be very difficult to have hard conversations in relationships if we struggle to own all of our feelings, even the ones that society could make us seem “needy” for having. When we can connect with our feelings and have the emotion regulation tools for when we feel overwhelmed, we can come to our partner in a regulated state and communicate what we need in those moments. This could sound like “I’m really upset about something that happened today at work, I would like to have the space to talk to you about it when we are home. When you come home and go straight to watching football, I feel alone”

Secure couples in conflict also stay focused on what the actual problem is instead of dancing around it or focusing on something irrelevant to the situation. For example, instead of bringing up how your partner is more focused on his work meetings than on how you will take care of decorating the house for Christmas, you focus on what is really bothering you at that moment and what is the conflict at hand. This may sound like, “Christmas is in two weeks, I know we are both really busy this holiday season, but can we find time this weekend to spend two hours decorating the house with our kids.” Here, instead of attacking your partner for a “lack of attention to the house” or “being absent from the kids' lives” you come together and maintain focus on the problem at hand in a regulated non-judgemental way.

Below are some Insecure Strategies to Avoid in Conflict:

  1. Getting sidetracked from the real problem at hand

  2. Neglecting communicating your true needs and feelings

  3. Reverting to personal attacks and defensiveness

  4. Withdrawing from the situation

  5. Forgetting to consider your partner’s well-being

If you’re interested in healing your attachment style or want to work on how you repair conflict in relationships with the help of a therapist, the North Berkeley psychologists at North Berkeley Counseling are here to support you. We offer in person therapy in Berkeley, California, as well as online throughout California, Florida, Virginia, and Hawaii. Book your first session today!


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