If I have learned nothing else from Dancing with the Stars, it is at least a lovely metaphor for the dancing that couples do to maintain their most comfortable attachment level based on the early pattern they learned in childhood. There are many dance styles performed every week on the fun to watch show, but for our purposes, we will discuss the Tango, a sensual dance involving intimate connected holding, intense eye contact, and dramatic poses; and the Quick Step, a fast syncopated step dance with arms held rigid to maintain a regulated distance between the couple.
As for attachment, there are many styles of attachment incubated in the bassinet and arms of a primary attachment figure (AF) from birth and reinforced in this and other relationships for life. There is healthy attachment, which we all should hope for but which is more difficult in today’s overwhelming world. The language of loving attachment is complex and requires attunement/ connection by the loving AF and the infant without disruption or trauma. Ambivalent or Anxious Attachment results from intermittently disrupted attunement/connection caused by an absent or faulty translation of meaning between AF and child; for example, a depressed AF or a very irritable child. Avoidant attachment results from a lack of consistent and predictable attunement/ connection between AF and child, which can be caused by an undemonstrative or withholding AF. The piece of the puzzle that is always a variable is temperament – a very active child may paired with a very stoic and or sedentary AF, for instance. And of course, the tragic Reactive Attachment is usually caused by inadequate or absent AF presence; for example, orphan/abandonment/drug addicted AF.
There are, of course shades and mixes of all types of attachment on a continuum, but in the end, we all become comfortable with a certain degree of connection to others, and for the purposes of this conversation, our love interests. We strive to maintain that degree of closeness and use many unconscious and conscious ways to control that level of comfort.
If I grew up in a family with an AF relationship that more closely resembles the Tango, I would likely be comfortable with intimate emotional and physical connection. Conversations would touch my heart and soul, physical closeness and touching would be frequent and demonstrative. I would be comfortable with hugging, kissing, hand holding, spooning in bed, and in depth conversations with acceptance of the other’s thoughts and needs. I might be more intuitive and thrive in connected environments at work and in my relationships.
If however, I had a “quick step” AF relationship, I would feel compelled to hold a certain distance both physical and emotional and would find uninvited touches or questions uncomfortable and would seek to reestablish status quo. My connections might be hurried and abrupt.
Now, this is when it gets interesting. A Tango, marries a Quick Step with the expectation of physical and emotional intimacy, which may well exist in the first flush of lust and “in love” state, but which returns to homeostasis or what is comfortable for the Quick Step once the relationship has aged. How does this look in a relationship rather than in a “dance?” Tango wants to cuddle; Quick Step says she likes to sleep facing the wall or gets “too hot” to cuddle. Quick Step needs downtime, distance when she comes home and Tango meets her at the door ready to download the day.
Unfortunately, as time goes on, one or the other may find less than loving ways to achieve this balance. When arguing becomes too intimate, a well-timed “slam,” a walk away, or an intrusive physicality, can provide the needed return to comfortable connection. Arguing can be a very difficult state of intimate connection for some folks with avoidant attachment, so name calling and even physical abuse can end the discomfort, creating the desired distance. Likewise, during an argument, separating by walking away can feel like abandonment for an anxiously attached individual.
What to do? Be aware of your style and your partner’s style of attachment and work together toward reading the cues of discomfort and establishing respect for rather than judgment of each other’s needs. Not an easy task to accomplish without professional help, but being conscious and compassionate is the key.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-509-9832.