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  • Writer's pictureElfreda Manahan-Vaughan

How well do they know you?




I have had several conversations with clients recently about how well their family, or more specifically, their partner knows them. This conversation often crops up when they learn that the attachment need of 'Being Known' is often the hardest one to achieve. This attachment need is also the one that can cause conflict, as we often don't understand other people's behaviour, and rarely ask about it, and we also assume that they should understand ours.


Here's a typical scenario of a husband and a wife. The wife, uses an avoidant attachment pattern, gets triggered every time her, anxious attachment pattern, husband shows big displays of frustration. This can be anything from getting angry over not finding a parking space, to there being no water left in the kettle, for his cuppa, after its been boiled by someone else. When he explodes, she goes quiet. She feels angry that he is reacting this way but can't tell him because that would make her feel ashamed and helpless. She also feels vulnerable that she can't control what's happening and as with most situations like this, it is triggering similar feelings to how she felt as a child. He doesn't see that his behaviour is problematic, as it has been away for him to get rid of big emotions his whole life and in most situations it has caused a reaction in others that has helped him to get what he wants. The first step for my client is to understand what is happening in this dynamic and the second thing is what to do about it so that it gets better for both of them.


Here's the break down. A person with anxious attachment functions primarily via their emotions and so they can read other people via emotions but aren't great at understanding a cognitive break down of events. The avoidant person is all about the cognitive. They will tell you what you are doing wrong and come up with a solution but they won't show a lot of emotion, and guess what? The anxious person just doesn't get that. Ok, back to the couple. The parking situation has lead to the avoidant wife going quiet. The husband can sense there is something wrong so he goes into charm over-drive, he tries to be sweet and thoughtful and acts all disarming to try to show his wife that he is not the big, scary, angry man that he was earlier and she doesn't have to worry because he is fine. Unfortunately, she is not.


All through dinner she tries to control the anger and hurt she is feeling inside. She is monosyllabic in her answers, she's cold and it is obvious there is something going on but she just doesn't say. This lasts for hours or maybe even days. He is increasingly more worried. He buys her flowers, sends her romantic texts and eventually assumes that she must be ok because she is speaking to him and she doesn't seem angry. Eventually, when she feels she has a handle on those unwanted emotions, she tells him she needs to talk.


She doesn't mention her feelings but focuses on what he has done wrong. She uses lots of 'you statements' and clear, logical instructions about how he 'should' behave in future. He listens but it makes him feel helpless, like there is something deeply wrong with him. He wants to do better and so he says sorry but also feels like she doesn't understand him and even though she feels better, she also doesn't feel like he understands her, in fact it's pretty hard to understand someone who doesn't truly understand themselves. Things are better, for now, until the whole cycle starts again the next time.


What's the answer? For that we need to consider what secure responding is like. Firstly, the wife needs her husband to know what she is feeling, to do that she has to give herself permission to feel her feelings. This is often a challenge but having an empathetic coach to listen unconditionally can help. Once she knows what her feelings are then, it's about practicing expressing those feelings in an assertive, non-combative way. Instead of focusing on what she needs him to do. I help her focus on sharing with him how she feels. When my clients do this, their spouses response is usually, 'I never knew, you always seem so calm'. When he gets how she feels, it makes sense to him, he's good at reading emotions. Instead of telling him what to do, she now focuses on what she needs. This can be an apology, an admittance that he overacted or simply asking if she is ok. This also opens up the lines of communication to discuss how to prevent this in future. A person with anxious attachment is often triggered by feeling helpless and they are also not very good a problem solving in advance. This is the realm of the avoidant person. She can ask questions to anticipate problems before they arise, as she is already good at planning to avoid feeling helpless herself. Learning to ask questions to empower her spouse, rather than offering solutions, gives him the capacity to anticipate problems and manage his emotions better.


Relational repair starts with self-awareness and for most of us that is awareness of our attachment patterns. It is not uncommon for people who have done some self-improvement to think they are secure but still have problems in their relationships because they can't see it when their insecure patterns show up. That's where I come in. Tell me the relational problem and how you are both reacting and I will tell you the attachment dynamic. I will support you in finding better ways to communicate that, not only, makes your relationship better but also makes both of you feel more secure with each other. Your partner can't know you if you don't know yourself, and also, if you don't tell them about how you feel.


This is the challenge of my female avoidant clients. They often don't want to admit how they feel and when they do they don't know how to express those feelings without going into fixer mode and attempting to get the other person to do things differently. My anxious clients need to learn to problem solve. They also need to learn perspective taking and putting themselves in the other person's shoes. This hasn't always been easy for them because they've often been surrounded by avoidant caregivers who don't show their emotions very well. Thankfully, this can, and does, change with the right support and understanding. If you would like to know more about coaching with me and how to improve your most important relationships then get in touch, or book a free discovery session.

Thanks for reading. If you haven't signed up for my newsletter or blog, this maybe a good time.


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