The Important thing to remember is that we are all struggling to gain mastery over our childhood attachment injuries. We select partners who we feel are best suited to helping us to accomplish this important task.
So with that in mind, what do I mean by a relationship from hell? In the absence of secure attachment, some combinations of attachment styles offer predictable struggles and hurdles that we see in couples therapy. That doesn’t mean these aren’t loving relationships, or that these relationships are doomed to failure. It’s just that certain combinations are fraught with predictable peril. Fortunately, we have the science of human attachment to help us towards more secure bonds.
Is my last post, I discussed common pairings that we see in our Couples Therapy Intensives where at least one partner has the most common and healthy attachment style; Secure. It is guesstimated that about 50 to 60% of humanity falls into the predominantly Secure attachment style. It is also believed that the Anxious-Preoccupied, and two Avoidant attachment styles (combined) are tied for second place at around 20% or so each.
Most researchers who care to offer an opinion believe that Disorganized Attachment is the rarest, at around 10%. I believe it’s probably higher, but still, we only rarely see a client with a dominant style of Disorganized Attachment in couples therapy.
Because Anxious-Preoccupied and Avoidant attachment combined are estimated to be 40% of all couples, I thought it might be interesting to discuss how these “relationships from hell” play out in the absence of Secure attachment.
Anxious-Preoccupied (AP) and Avoidant-Dismissive (AD)
This is a form of “hostile” couple That John Gottman described in his typology. The key idea here is that this couple, at it’s worst, can present a perfect storm for how not to get your needs met. The Anxious-Preoccupied lives to connect. They are always seeking validation and approval, sometimes to an unreasonable extreme. It could be said that they make too much of love, while their Avoidant-Dismissive spouse makes too little.
However, not so fast. Before you think this marriage is doomed, think again. Research suggests that this pair can stay miserably married perhaps indefinitely.
The Dismissive gets lots of bennies for keeping the AP hanging on. And there ain’t nothin’ she can do about it. First the Anxious-Preoccupied validates the Dismissive’s worldview that intimate partners are a pain in the posterior. They titrate just enough good stuff to keep their Anxious-Preoccupied partner craving ever more attention. This feeds the Dismissive’s ego, satisfying their control issues, while giving them something to complain about at the same time. Perfect!
The AP may protest, but at the end of the day, they aren’t secure enough to leave to find something better. Curiously, after the healthy SS pairing, this couple is the most resilient in terms of longevity, although dissatisfaction for the Anxious-Preoccupied partner, without couples therapy, may be virtually perpetual. This pairing is a commonly seen relationship from hell.
Anxious-Preoccupied with Avoidant-Fearful:
So what happens when we keep the AP partner, but swap out the type of Avoidant from Dismissive to Fearful?
The AP will continue to hammer away to connect, and secure validation as they always do, but the Avoidant-Fearful type is far less likely to leave a trail of breadcrumbs leading to marginal marital satisfaction. The AF will be less far less likely to humor the AP, than the AD, and the Anxious-Preoccupied will become exhausted with by all the Avoidant-Fearful’s perpetual warding off the AP’s bids for attention. This pairing is a seesaw of misery.
The closer the couple gets, the more anxious the Avoidant-Fearful becomes. The more successful the AF is in parrying the AP’s bids for connection, the more anxious and insistent they will become. This is a far less resilient combination than the AP and AD, but it’s one of the relationships from hell that is not uncommon in couples therapy.
Anxious-Preoccupied (AP) with Anxious-Preoccupied (AP):
This is a particularly challenging relationship from hell. The AP is so wrapped up with their own needs; they often lack a felt sense of where their partner is coming from. This can sometimes be a very immature, almost adolescent pairing. There is an abundance of angst and drama with the AP/AP couple, and a deficit of humor and patience. This pair can burn out quickly as it collapses into a sinkhole of mutual dissatisfaction. With science-based couples therapy and a high degree of motivation, couples on the milder end of the AP/AP continuum can acquire sufficient skills to meet each others’ needs adequately.
Avoidants often pair off with either Secure or Anxious-Preoccupied partners. They tend not to mate with other Avoidants.
This is a rare pair. What these two flavors of Avoidance have in common, is, well…their genius for avoidance. The Dismissive won’t have their ego fed the way an Anxious-Preoccupied spouse would. And the Avoidant-Fearful will be put off by the defensive dodging of the Dismissive. This is a pair that has a hard time even getting together in the first place.
Avoidant-Dismissive (AD) with Avoidant-Dismissive:
As far as relationships from hell go, this is perhaps as bad as it gets. The AD needs someone with needs or demands to play off of. I can’t imagine how two AD’s could commit to each other in the first place. Dr. K informed me that although this is a rare pairing, she has seen it. They tend to live very disconnected separate lives. Sex tends to be impersonal, and the overall tone of the relationship is that they tend to keep each other at arm’s length.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.