Like Bennifer, Why Do We Struggle to Find and Keep the Right Partner?
Our attachment style, laid down in childhood, affects our relationships into adulthood
Therapists Graham Johnston and Matt Wotton explore what it takes to have a successful relationship
We have therapists and counsellors available to support you with attachment disorder and/or childhood difficulties – find yours here
Some famous celebrity couples split in 2021. Shia LeBoeuf and Margaret Qualley. Liam Payne and Maya Henry. Now Bennifer – Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez – are giving it one more go after nearly two decades with other partners.
So, it’s clearly not just us ordinary folk who struggle to choose – and stay with – the right partners.
The majority of us tell ourselves a story about why we struggle in relationships. Maybe we’ve been single for years, and tell ourselves that no-one wants to be with us. Maybe the story is that there are no decent other single people out there. Maybe we’ve been in a succession of initially exciting but rapidly boring relationships. Maybe we’re in a relationship with someone we care deeply about, but we struggle to get out of a pattern of arguing, or we don’t find them sexually exciting anymore.
Chances are, though, that those stories are wrong. There is a science to successful relationships, but it’s not what we’ve been told.
Half a century of relationship advice has focused on improving communication, without focusing on what the evidence shows is more important: understanding our attachment style, the need to feel emotionally safe, and managing inevitable conflict in relationships. There’s nothing wrong with improving communication skills, but focusing on that alone is like repairing the sails of a ship whose hull is taking on water.
Attachment styles explained
Empirical research shows that our earliest relationships shape what we expect from our partners. If we ignore these expectations, we’re likely to sleepwalk into unsuccessful relationships, or avoid them altogether. Most of us will fall broadly into one of four core attachment styles.
Secure individuals are able to balance the need to be close and intimate with other people, alongside the need to take risks and explore the world. They are able to tolerate the fact that the other person has other friends and interests which are important to them. They get upset when hurt by the other person, but they are able to express that to their partner.
But many of us will fall into one of three insecure styles, where finding and keeping the right partner will be harder. Avoidant individuals have learnt that their need for intimacy is a threat or a problem for others, and needs to be kept under wraps. They may avoid relationships, or emphasise action and career achievement over romantic satisfaction. Or they may prioritise a good-looking partner over emotional intimacy. Within relationships, they’re likely to be a “withdrawer” when conflict arises, either with a passive move into silence, or they may actively blame the other person and move into self-righteousness, sometimes coupled with indignation or anger.
Anxious individuals are hypervigilant to being let down by others, looking for possible rejection and abandonment everywhere. They find it hard to tell their partners how they feel – other than that they are stressed and anxious – because they are so focused on pleasing them. They’re likely to be “pursuers” within a relationship, especially when partnered with an avoidant “withdrawer”.
Finally, disorganised individuals experience their partners as a source of safety and fear at the same time. This approach leads to confusing and contradictory behaviour in relationships – sometimes unresponsiveness; at other times, explosive rage and hostility. These individuals may cling to their partner if they need to feel safe, but then feel stifled and claustrophobic in intimate moments.
What our attachment styles mean for our relationships
Attachment science challenges the idea that we seek out those we think will make us happy; instead, it suggests we seek those who feel familiar. An anxiously attached individual may feel that, in order to feel safe, they need to be with their partner all the time, and pick an emotionally avoidant partner. Initially, this seems like a nice fit for both parties. Until there is conflict, and competing emotional needs and attachment styles threaten the relationship.
In addition to our attachment styles, what are other principles of successful relationships we can glean from the research? John and Julie Gottman have spent decades researching the foundations of successful relationships. They discovered predictable patterns that were different in happily married from unhappily married couples. Some of their claims went too far, and have been subject to subsequent challenge on the basis of sample sizes, but nevertheless, their work offers a strong empirical basis for successful relationships and therapeutic interventions.
The most important element for relationship success is friendship – understanding each other’s emotional worlds. In other words, can you describe your partner’s psychological world, their history, their hopes and anxieties?
The second element is that successful couples expect and prepare for conflict, rather than avoiding it. The key here is to ensure the conflict is about working through inevitable personality differences, rather than the day-to-day frustrations being the focus. These differences might show up as: how important it is to be on time, what it means to have a “clean” house, as well as different sex drives and preferences. The research suggests about 70% of arguments are about perpetual problems – in other words, personality differences that lie behind our day-to-day frustrations, which aren’t going away any time soon.
A successful couple will discuss different preferences and opinions without criticising the other; will tackle conflict instead of letting it fester and spill over in contempt; will acknowledge, and even learn to laugh at, each other’s quirks; and will signal to their partner that they care about the future of the relationship, even in times of conflict.
Good relationships ultimately aren’t about clear communication and the lack of arguing. They’re about the small moments of attachment and intimacy: those moments of laughter, play, silliness, exploration, and lust – even after, maybe especially after, a good clean fight.
Good luck to Bennifer.