Many people – too many people – are drained by efforts to cover up their sense that they are essentially inadequate and flawed. This causes many problems in their lives, including feeling chronically distressed about their intimate relationships. The good news is that there are ways to help alleviate these problems. One part of the solution is to find a partner whose style can help them to feel better about themselves.
When I say “style,” I’m talking about their “attachment style.” The word “attachment” refers to how people connect with others, and attachment theory explains how the ways in which people connect are established early in life. These connections are most strongly influenced by interactions with primary caretakers, who are most frequently their mothers. When caretakers are consistently caring and responsive to their children’s distress, their children are likely to develop a sense that they are worthy of love and can expect others to be supportive of them. These children are considered securely attached.
Sometimes – for varying reasons – caretakers are not consistently warm and supportive, leading to an insecure attachment style. This style reflects varying degrees of struggling with feeling unworthy of love or feeling that they cannot depend on others to be emotionally there for them. Although each person’s style reflects a tendency to respond to relationships in particular ways, it does differ depending upon particular circumstances and life experiences.
Children who grow up to feel essentially flawed and feel that they need to earn love struggle with what is called “anxious attachment.” Unfortunately, their lives are often driven – consciously or unconsciously – by efforts to avoid rejection or abandonment. They are frequently clingy, jealous, and feel needy. These are common characteristics of attachment-related anxiety.
Although this style of connecting with others becomes entrenched in their sense of themselves, research has shown that it can be changed through experiences in which they feel cared about and valued. In 2014, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Aukland found that anxiously attached partners benefit from having partners who are clearly loving and supportive – especially during stressful times. This is just one example of an abundance of research about attachment styles.
Researchers Stephen Drigatos, Caryl Rusbult, Jennifer Wieselquist, and Sarah Whitton conducted a study in 1999 that I have long found interesting. They found support for what they called the Michelangelo phenomenon. Just as Michelangelo would bring out the natural beauty of stones through sculpting, a partner can bring out their partner’s “ideal” self, revealing their beautiful nature. This occurs when the person is forgiving of their partner’s weaknesses and tends to focus more on the strengths that their partner values. While everyone can benefit from this dynamic, it would be especially helpful for someone with an anxious attachment style.
Based on these studies and other research in attachment theory, those who are anxiously attached can be helped to feel better about themselves and more secure in their relationships by choosing a partner who has the following characteristics:
Securely attached. These people have a healthy sense of themselves and an expectation that their intimate relationship will be a mutually loving, supportive, and emotionally close one. They have the emotional stability, ability to directly express caring, and openness to remain emotionally connected, even as they work through during difficult times.
An effective communicator. Emotionally close and supportive relationships are based on the ability to be good at listening and talking through issues. Because effective communicators are able to manage their feelings well, they can help guide their insecurely attached – and sometimes emotionally overwhelmed – partner through distressing times.
Appreciative of you. More than anything, anxiously attached people need to feel loved and accepted for who they are, not just what they do to benefit others. So, a partner who genuinely respects, values, and is interested in them can provide a healing experience.
A good fit. Just like anyone else, anxiously attached people are happiest in their relationships when they enjoy the time spent with their partner. So, it is essential for them to have a partner with whom they can enjoy shared activities, such as engaging conversations or just walking together on the beach. In addition, ideal partners in a long-term relationship have similar values, or at least respect each other’s values. This is especially true when those values affect daily life, such as whether they want children.
Ready for a relationship. Finally, an ideal partner must be ready and able to commit themselves to the relationship. They must be willing to make their partner’s happiness a priority.
While it is ultimately up to each person to nurture a greater sense security in him or herself, choosing the right partner can make a huge difference in their overall happiness. So, rather than allowing yourself to get swept up the initial excitement of meeting someone new, make it a point to step out of the flood emotions. This can be tough, but try to think objectively about this person’s attributes. Then make a conscious decision about the wisdom of pursuing the relationship. As you do so, it may help to keep in mind that the choice you are making could be one of the most important decisions in your life.
Drigatos, S., C. Rusbult, J. Wieselquist, and S. Whitton. 1999. “Close Partner as Sculptor of the Ideal Self: Behavioral Affirmation and the Michelangelo Phenomenon.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 293-323.
Simpson, J. A., & Overall, N. C. 2014. “Partner buffering of attachment insecurity.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 23: 54-59.