Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Two people in relationship; one of them throws up their hands in despair and exclaims, “This relationship is a disaster! Everything is crap! How could you not have noticed all the problems we’re having??” The other one looks deer-in-the-headlights startled, and asks, “What problems? I thought everything was great??”
Witness in action one of the most common scenarios that will send couples into counselling: the Disparate Perceptions Issue, or, as I like to call it, Attachment Style Mismatches 101.
We tend to perceive a “relationship” as a singular entity, some amorphous thing into which two or more people enter and merge and become the mythical, “you-complete-me”, boundaryless One. In practice, however, we remain singular entities with connections to each other, and from an attachment perspective, those connections can be exceptionally different. Person A may have a secure attachment to Person B, whereas Person B is anxious and insecure in their attachment to A. Between them they view what they have established together as A Relationship, and what they also have under the hood are two potentially-conflicting attachment styles that will filter and skew how each of them perceives the general state and health of the relationship.
In the cliched and gender-biased “tradition” of the anxious woman and the disconnected (avoidant) male partner dynamic, we see this clash of attachment style in full bloom as one partner frets and micromanages issues while the other partner retreats or stonewalls emotional engagements until someone gets unhappy enough to say something.
(Note: this dynamic is not limited to this cliched traditional structure. We actually see the anxious/avoidant and anxious/secure attachment styles in relational dynamics of ALL SORTS. But sometimes cliches are useful for illustrative purposes, and I only have so many words allotted per blog post, so bear with me.)
By the time the relationship gets to a counsellor, neither one of them can understand the other’s point of view. How could A have not seen all these problems? I don’t know what B is talking about, everything is fine from where I sit. I’ve figured out a really useful metaphor for explaining to people how this works from an attachment perspective, once I’ve dropped the bomb on them that what they view as a singular Relationship is a potential fiction masking the multiplicity of attachments going on behind the scenes.
Think of a big, multi-lane roadway. For Ontarians, I’ll use the 401 as my example. We think of the 401 as a singular entity called a highway. In truth, what we see as a highway is actually two distinct directions of traffic, each one busy in its own right and moving at its own pace. Imagine what happens when construction or mishap constricts or shuts down traffic on one side of the roadway, but not the other. The impacted side gets snarled for miles and miles while driver frustration and rage rises; the other side might notice, might slow down a little, but otherwise continues on about its own business with significantly less impact to its overall flow.
Relationships, when viewed from the attachment angle, function similarly. One attachment can be in profound distress without the other attachment(s) being equally, or even similarly, affected. I tend to believe we actually do ourselves a serious disservice when we insist on viewing relationships as singular entities simply BECAUSE it blinds us to the different experiences each participant in the connection has with other people in that connection. An insecure partner is going to have a very different attachment to a partner than a secure or avoidant partner will have, but couples will often come into therapy with an expectation that because one of them can see a problem or series of issues, that the other partner can/should/must be able to see exactly the same thing(s). But attachment filters will pretty much guarantee that this is just not true. Emotional traffic has crashed to a halt on one side of the relationship, while the other side continues to sail blithely or securely on by.
When we break the notion of A Relationship out into individual attachment styles like the divided lanes on a highway, we can introduce new lexicon around defining differentiated perspectives and communication dynamics. We can begin to consider how different attachment styles impact our expectations for our partners, and how those expectations are communicated within the relationship. We can also explore more effectively how each partner recognizes and responds to distress calls within the partnership in ways that (hopefully) don’t diminish the individual needs for trust and security (there’s a whole other post or posts on how this can play out among the different attachment styles). We can help individuals investigate how their particular attachment style may contribute to connection bid and repair attempt processes and give them an established frame of reference to help them modify their own behaviours to improve those processes (i.e., normalizing client experiences by showing them, “this isn’t just you, you’re not broken; these kinds of issues are common to people with this attachment style”).
And eventually, with time and practice, we can help clients learn how to unsnarl their own attachment jams and let traffic move back up to a smooth flow in their relationship. (There’s a whole sidebar’s worth of imagery around relationship therapists as “highway traffic cops”, but until someone actually lets me drive the high-speed modified police cars, I’m just going to leave that entire topic alone.)