Coping strategies that people exhibit can be explained by their Attachment Styles.
Everyone has different ways of dealing with conflict and stress in their relationships, and your partner’s reactions during tense moments can be anywhere from baffling to downright infuriating. Do they turn super emotional and start nagging all of the sudden? Do they throw up walls and push you away with no explanation? This post will help you understand why your partner is behaving the way they do during stress, and how you can respond in order to get them back to a calmer, more present state.
All of our close relationships are also known as attachments. The way we were related or attached to (or not) as kids shapes how we attach now as adults. Dr. Stan Tatkin, in his book Wired for Love, talks about people’s 3 main attachment styles as Islands, Waves, and Anchors. You and your partner are each one of these styles, and that combo effects how you relate during stress.
If you can identify each of your styles, you can begin to work differently during challenges. This will lead to having healthier conflicts that ultimately strengthen the relationship, because you know how to successfully work through the tough times together.
"Anchors are secure as individuals, willing to commit and fully share with another, generally happy people and adapt easily to the needs of the moment.” (Tatkin) Anchors were raised with at least one parents who know how to soothe and comfort them. They were also encouraged to be independent and to cooperate.
They feel comfortable in their own skin and know how to experience intimacy and alone time positively and easily. During stress, Anchors are ready to stay with their partners and solve the issue together, without becoming overly reliant on their partner’s reassurance in order to feel secure.
"Waves are generous and giving, focused on care of others, happiest when around other people and able to see both sides of an issue.” Waves had at least one parent who was emotionally inconsistent - here one minute and gone the next. Because of this, a wave’s deepest fear is abandonment, which can feel like a constant threat.
Waves can have a hard time establishing their own boundaries because they don’t want to do anything that would push their partner away, and because of that can end up in co-dependent relationships. During stress, Waves will instinctively push in closer in order to find security and reassurance from the other person and attempt to make sure the relationship isn’t going to break. They end up trying harder and harder for connection and reassurance in order to feel safe again.
"Islands are independent and self-reliant, take good care of themselves, productive and creative, especially when given space and low maintenance.” Islands had parents who stressed achievement and intelligence, while discouraging dependency.
They probably had at least one emotionally distant parent, who was more focused on themselves than their child. Because of this, islands learned to rely on themselves, and end up needing a lot of space and independence in relationships.
Without space, islands can start to feel suffocated or trapped. During stress, islands will instinctively pull away, either emotionally, physically, or both, in order to protect themselves and attempt to find security on their own or by distracting themselves from the stress. Attempts at “pulling them in” can cause them to retreat further into their own minds or space until they feel alone enough to feel safe again.
You may notice you turn into a “different person” with lots of emotions and reactions when something disturbs your relationship. That’s because your deepest fear of abandonment is being triggered and the child in your who is afraid of that is running the show more than usual. It also might seem like the world stops completely unless/until you solve this issue and feel safe again.
Your practice is to comfort yourself, that young part who is afraid. You can return to yourself with calming, self-soothing touch on your arms, face, or body, along with kind words to yourself. You can say something to yourself like “Breath deep. I know it’s scary, but I’m here with you. You are safe. You are loved.” You can also let your partner know what’s going on for you.
Say something like, “I am feeling so afraid this fight means we’re over. need to know that we’re still connected, even while we’re frustrated, and that you still love me underneath these bumps.” You can also return to other healthy friendships you have to be reminded that you’re not being abandoned and there are still people who love you, no matter what.
Once they know you’re not abandoning them, their emotional reactions will subside and they will be able to show up in a more present way again. You can be in a fight, and still reassure them that you’re not going anywhere. Give them deep, calming presence and physical touch. A big hug, gentle caresses, and words of reassurance.
Since their fear is tied to their nervous system so strongly, keeping yourself calm and present around them will alert their system that it’s safe instead of threatened. You can say something like “Even though I’m angry / disappointed /checked out right now, underneath all this I love you, I’ll still be here for you, and I know we will get through this.”
You may notice that you become very analytical or checked out during stress. This can lead to “future thinking” instead of being in the present moment. Take some space away, but do it mindfully. Let you partner know what’s happening. You can say something like, “I need to be on my own for a little bit to reset, because I love you and want to work through this. I’m not leaving for good, and I will reach out to you by (this day/time).
This will reassure them that they can trust you to take space and not abandon them forever. Use your space to come back into the present moment. Remind yourself that all relations have bumps, and you’re going to be okay even though your partner is reacting right now. Use meditation or a physical practice (gym, yoga, sports, run, etc) to get into your body again instead of letting your mind fly away.
They’ll need to know you can allow them to have space without pressuring them. Speak to them in a calm, rational tone. If you pressure them, they will feel threatened by the amount of contact you need, but if you can lovingly give them space and soothe yourself, they will feel relieved and ready to return sooner.
Try not to explode with emotional demands right now, as they won’t be able to meet your needs in this moment, and will likely want to run farther away. Instead, you can make a request like, “I want you to have the space you need to reset from this. What day or time would feel good to check in with me by? I’ll give you space until then.”
Recognizing the different needs that you and your partner have during times of stress can help you both take responsibility to show up for yourselves and each other. As you keep practicing supporting your partner even when it’s challenging, they will feel less threatened and be more able to support you back as well.
Speak directly about what needs you have and ask them what they need without taking it personally. Being able to rift and repair well together during conflict is one of the biggest indicators of a healthy relationship that is capable of creating a lasting love.