When we are in an intimate relationship and feel vulnerable, defensive or shameful, usually it’s our old stuff that is being triggered — patterns of interaction that we developed with our parents. When we are young, we learn to act and respond in ways that optimize our attention and love from our parents. Some behaviors may be encouraged, while others discouraged. Here I want to illustrate two common examples and how they manifest in adult relationships: avoidant culture and anxious-ambivalent culture.
Avoidant culture emerges if one or both parents seem to primarily value the idea of a “nice” family, and not the day-to-day interactions and connections with family members. As a result, children intuit that being “nice” is how to act and the best way to optimize parental approval. This being “nice” usually implies being low-maintenance, maintaining a good appearance inside and outside the family, and being “independent” — although child “independence” in avoidant families is more of an adaptation to neglect than true independence (Tatkin, 2011).
Such children tend to have more alone time than others, simply because relationships are not a priority within the family. Usually, the priority is a parental need for children to be low-maintenance and appear to be doing well. Such families usually place considerable importance on appearance and performance — performance in school, for instance, and possibly sports or extra-circular activities.
To illustrate this further, we have the classic example of a father pushing his son to play a certain sport. If the father pressures the son more than the son wants to be pressured and fails to assure him that their relationship is most important whether he plays or not, the child is left not feeling truly seen or valued for being himself. He is more of a vessel for his father’s desires. The underlying assumption is the father’s attention and love are conditional. They are based on the child’s performance, and the child is not truly seen and appreciated for just being himself.
As a result, adult partners raised in an avoidant culture tend to be sensitive to having their autonomy usurped. They may be familiar with feeling like narcissistic extensions of others, a wholly one-sided and unsatisfying arrangement. Such partners naturally seek distance, due to unexamined assumptions that they can’t be appreciated for being themselves; that distance allows them to maintain their autonomy. Keeping distance can also be safe and familiar for those raised in an avoidant culture, as they are oriented to extended periods of time alone.
On the other hand, we have anxious-ambivalent culture. If one or both parents show interest in interaction and connection with the children one day, then the next day they are anxious, overwhelmed and uninterested in interaction, children may become preoccupied with the parent’s sporadic availability for connection.
An example of this could be a single mother who struggles with bouts of depression. On good days she is caring and attuned. On bad days, she is aloof and anxious, with insufficient energy and interest for attunement and interaction with her children. She may even recruit a child to support her emotional needs, forcing the child into the role of caretaker. What results is a preoccupation with the parent’s emotional availability. Anxiety arises from not knowing and not having agency over mom’s emotional states, and whether she will be attuned or aloof.
The child then becomes ambivalent, due to the unreliability of mom. They may think, “You are present and caring today, but will you be tomorrow or the next week?” Or, “I can’t forget how bad it feels to be dropped when you are depressed.” Since such negative experiences usually have more emotional salience in our memory than positive ones, the child may project such disappointment and anger onto the parent, as they have learned that disappointment is just around the bend.
Such patterns continue for adult partners. When the relationship progresses to a sense of permanency, they may become preoccupied with the connection and availability of their partner. It’s as if the anxious-ambivalent emotional memories return, and they may project a conjoined feeling of abandonment-disappointment onto their partners. They may then spontaneously push their partner away, knowing they are just going to be disappointed anyway. However, adult partners raised in an anxious-ambivalent culture have more relational experience compared to avoidant culture and are caring and passionate, when connection is assured and conveyed. Thus, the role of the partner of those raised in such culture is to assure connection. If connection is continually assured, such fears of abandonment-disappointment can be assuaged (Tatkin, 2011).
So when partners trigger each other’s vulnerability, defensiveness and shame, it is usually based on past patterns. For those from an avoidant culture, such negative feelings can usually be traced back to a fear of losing the self; that is, to a sensitivity to losing autonomy and being co-opted. Adult partners from avoidant cultures also tend to be conflict-avoidant and are sensitive to being blamed. For those from an anxious-ambivalent culture, when such negative feelings are triggered, they can usually be traced back to a fear of losing the other; that is, fear of being dropped, left or abandoned by their partner.
Knowing that what triggers your partner can generally be traced back to old stuff can help in taking certain behaviors less personally. Your partner is doing their best based on how they learned to interact with their parents. Knowing certain vulnerabilities and fears can help you to avoid triggering them.
It can also provide insight into how to mitigate them. Partners from an avoidant culture need to meet with reassurance and understanding that being in a relationship is safe and they are going to be appreciated for themselves and not for their bank account, status, or appearance. Partners from an anxious-ambivalent culture need to be reassured that they are of primary importance, and you are not going anywhere. Such knowledge can have huge benefits for the relationship.
Tatkin, S. (2011). Allergic to hope: Angry resistant attachment and a one-person psychology within a two-person psychological system. Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol 18(No 1) 66-73.