We all know the cat and mouse game in relationships. It is that familiar dynamic of the chaser and the chased. Hollywood and popular culture do a great job of depicting this dance in the courting phase of a budding romance. Instead of the chase going on forever though we often witness a happy ending, with the mouse swooning in the cat’s embrace and the game complete.
What about when the chasing game continues long after the initial quest is over?
How do we manage the back and forth dance that extends past the honeymoon phase and into the humdrum and every day rhythm of the relationship?
In the world of psychology, the cat and mouse behavior of craving or avoiding someone else is attributed to our attachment styles. These styles or behaviors grew from our relationship with our mothers (or primary caregivers) when we were babies and have extended all the way into the bedrooms of our adult lives.
So what are the attachment styles?
Psychologists found that there were two basic groups of attachments: secure and insecure.
Adults with secure attachments had mothers who met their emotional needs when they were babies. Their mothers:
- Consistently picked them up when they cried.
- Fed them when they were hungry.
- Smiled back at them.
- Let them explore the world knowing that mom had their back.
Securely attached adults won’t engage in any extended version of the cat and mouse game of relationships.
They will naturally attract other securely attached adults. Each partner will have the autonomy to go out and explore the world knowing that the other one is cheering them on, eager to inquire about their adventures and revel in physical, sexual and emotional intimacy.
On the other hand, adults with insecure (a.k.a anxious) attachments had mothers who were not able to meet their emotional needs when they were babies. These mothers were:
Research found there are three different types of insecure/anxious attachments:
- Anxious-Ambivalent- babies who are incredibly anxious when separated from their mother and at the same time push her away when she returns.
- Anxious-Avoidant- babies who give the impression they are independent with hardly any signs of separation anxiety when mom is unresponsive.
- Disorganized– babies who are severely abused or maltreated by their mother. These babies have no coping response to the mother’s behavior. They are depressed, have a blank stare when being held by the mother, or show disturbing behavior like rocking back and forth when the mother is near.
Since most adults have not addressed the attachment styles they formed in childhood, they lug these behaviors into their adult lives thus becoming the emotional baggage of their relationships.
This concept is what psychologists refer to as “transference” – when someone redirects feelings and behaviors felt in childhood to a substitute relationship in adulthood. As much as we don’t want to admit it, most of us couple with some version our mothers and fathers. Or at least those similar traits are the ones we see in them.
A common unhealthy pairing is an anxious-avoidant with an anxious-ambivalent. These two often come together in relationship to replay the dynamics with mom in childhood. Their clashing behavior can cause serious conflict in the relationship.
The ambivalent adult gets nervous when separated from their partner and desperately seeks attention from them. They can desire and sometimes demand that their partner meet their needs. This clinging triggers the avoidant partner to head for the hills…or the basement. Once the ambivalent partner relinquishes their craving, the avoidant partner returns.
The avoidant partner might not being able to articulate their own need for attention, but the idea of separation does trigger anxiety inside of them. The more space the ambivalent partner gives their avoidant counterpart, the more both partners remain content.
Unless both partners realize that the only consistent person who is fully responsible for meeting their own needs is themselves, things are only stable until the cycle repeats itself again.
Managing your own attachment
You won’t be able to change your partner’s attachment style, so the best thing to do is to focus on your own.
If you are ambivalent and feeling anxious or needy towards your partner, instead of looking for something outside of yourself to give you the attention you desire, recognize this is your attachment behavior and then ask what you can give yourself in the moment to connect to you and meet your own needs. This may include such things as:
- Treat yourself to a massage
- Take yourself out on a dinner date
- Take a yoga or dance class
- Practice some other form of self-love.
- Keep a journal of your feelings to explore any patterns that trigger needy feelings.
If you are avoidant:
- Practice articulating your need for space in a gentle, compassionate way before it gets to the point where you want to run from your partner.
- Practice expressing your feelings and ask your partner to give you a safe space to articulate them without reaction or judgment.
For all Attachment Styles:
- Don’t be the culprit for your partners’ mess!
When you get triggered, remember that your partner’s attachment style is something formed since they were babies. Although the behavior may be re-enacted or transferred onto you, the behavior is NOT about you nor is it a reflection of you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are to blame for your partner’s’ behavior.
- Work with a therapist to gain the awareness required for change.
Many times we don’t know that we are acting a certain way because of our attachment styles. Having a professional work with you to increase your awareness about your attachment style is a great way to alter your behavior. Real change does not come from the struggle to fix something; it comes from having awareness of yourself and the situation. In other words, it is the awareness that causes a shift, not the struggle.
Everyone has an attachment style and no one is to blame for yours. It might be easy to direct your frustration to your own mother or primary caregiver, but remember that every parent loves and cares for their child to the best of their ability.
Attachment styles have been ingrained for generations. Since attachment research has been around for only a few decades, awareness to the subject has only just begun.
Be grateful that you can gain knowledge of your attachment style and stay positive that with the right amount of awareness, self-mastery and self-love, you can shift from an insecure to a secure attachment.