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What do you do when you and your partner have ‘attachment styles’ that are in direct opposition to each other?

Here’s what I mean. Consider the avoidant attachment style, versus the anxious attachment style. Now, our goal is always to form a healthy attachment to our partner, but that doesn’t mean we always do that perfectly. Even in great relationships, if there are extra stressors in your life, or you get into a particularly difficult argument, it’s always possible to slide back into your unhealthy attachment style. And if you as a couple represent each one of these two, that can be difficult.

Anxious attachment needs constant reassurance. When they’re in conflict they tend to check in excessively, defer to the other person, or ignore their own emotions for the sake of making the other person happy. They want connection with their partner and if they feel like they aren’t getting it anxiety runs high.

An avoidant attachment style, by contrast, is quite the opposite. These are the people who tend to shut down when they’re overwhelmed in conflict. They might get quiet, stonewall their partner completely, or just pretend everything is okay and leave in order to avoid having to really face the conflict.

You can see the problem. They both end up doing the exact opposite of what their partner needs. The anxious attacher clings and pesters their partner for reassurance, when all their partner wants is some quiet space alone to process. The avoidant attacher withholds the very reassurance their partner so desperately craves. Both practices can drive the other partner deeper into their stress response, until the conflict is blown way out of proportion from whatever it originally was. It’s a vicious cycle.

So what do you do?

The first step is to be able to recognize this process when it’s happening. Just reading this you’re likely able to discern which of these negative attachment styles sounds like you; what might be more difficult is actually recognizing when you’re moving through these behaviors. Next time you feel you’re in conflict with your partner, take stock. Do any of the above descriptions sound familiar? Are you demanding reassurance without letting them have space? Are you shutting down and withholding the affection that just might solve the problem?

Once you’re able to recognize that, the next step is moving out of that stress-filled headspace. Usually if we’re responding that way, we’re flooded. Our emotions and stress are causing a real bodily response that’s making everything seem worse than it is. This is where a slow startup can help. Reset your body’s stress levels. Take a moment and count to ten; take several deep breaths. Maybe take a break from the conversation and come back with a little more calm and patience. What’s going to work for you will be different person to person, but the goal is to get those cortisol levels down. Find a way to let go of the stress that’s fueling you, and see how you can approach the conversation from a place of loving calm.

Easier said than done, I can almost hear you saying as I write this — and I assure you: you’re right. But like any good skill, you can improve with practice. Talk to your partner about this; make a plan together; practice it every time conflict comes up. Even better, role play it and practice even when there is no conflict. The more you practice, the easier it will become.