Whenever his fiancé, Janice, interacted with other men, say at a social gathering or through work, Gerry felt threatened and jealous. He became the proverbial green-eyed monster, not to the point of stalking her, but enough to undermine their relationship. He pestered her with endless questions about her whereabouts and activities, as well as male friends on her social media accounts. What’s more, she caught him perusing her smartphone for emails and texts. The situation grew so disruptive that Janice put a hold on setting a wedding date and insisted they seek couples counseling.
“It doesn’t feel under my control,” Gerry lamented at our first session. “I tell myself to just chill, but the jealous feelings carry me away.”
In contrast, Janice found his mindset perplexing, stating that “Unless it’s something blatant, I just don’t feel jealous when he interacts with other women.” This glaring disparity suggested the source of their conundrum resided in their very different attachment styles. Psychological studies suggest we exhibit four primary emotional postures toward romantic relationships, as follows:
These persons feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, as well as autonomy; meaning they don’t feel compelled to control or possess their partner, nor do they approve of being “managed” by that person. They generally view people in a positive frame, preferring to assume good intentions by others unless proven otherwise. Janice fell into this cluster.
This was Gerry’s attachment style. These individuals often succumb to jealousy, to the point that some become stalkers, abusers or worse. They exhibit an obsessive preoccupation with their partner’s whereabouts and actions. Because they feel insecure about intimate relationships, in an often-futile effort to reduce their anxiety, they try to control or possess the other person.
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These folks are fiercely independent and, as the label indicates, disparaging toward emotional intimacy. The priority they place on personal autonomy leaves them wary of emotional entanglements that might tie them down. Some of these folks are labeled “afraid to commit,” but, just as often, it is less about fear and more about unbridled loyalty to living as they please without the encumbrances imposed by other people’s expectations and needs.
Individuals with this attachment style are frightened of emotional intimacy, often because of the vulnerability it requires. Many become socially avoidant, either by strictly limiting relationships or by keeping them very superficial. Unlike those in Gerry’s camp (anxious/preoccupied), they don’t worry about infidelity in a partner, if they have one, so much as emotional intimacy itself.
It’s important to recognize that attachment styles differ based on context. How we emotionally attach with family, friends or colleagues can differ markedly compared with romantic partners. For example, someone with a fearful romantic attachment style may exhibit a secure one with a close friend or a pet. Speaking of the latter, many who struggle to attach securely to other people often turn to pets instead. These cross-species relationships don’t pose the risks inherent in human bonds and often convey a powerful sense of emotional safety.
How do we acquire our romantic attachment styles? For the most part, developmental psychologists believe early life experiences do the mental sculpting. For example, in Gerry’s case, he endured a troubled relationship with his mother, who proved emotionally unavailable, moody and disinterested. He wanted greater closeness with his mom, as any child would, but learned through experience that she was unreliable and up to no good, later discovering she had a series of extramarital affairs. When he became involved with Janice, the distrust and insecurities fostered in his childhood informed their relationship, and not in a good way.
Many a dysfunctional partnering arises from mismatched attachment styles. Obviously, bringing these disparities to the surface is a first step in addressing them, however, realigning one’s style requires intrinsic motivation to do so, which Gerry exhibited. With reassurance and coaching, Gerry’s capacity to trust Janice grew over time, but slowly. When he became jealous, he reminded himself that it was his attachment style “speaking,” not Janice’s behavior.
As social animals, attachment is built into our DNA. However, sometimes, rebuilding proves necessary.
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