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Relationship Disconnection: Unraveling the Attachment Cycle

In the intricate web of human relationships, delving into the attachment bonds that weave our interactions is key to unlocking secure relationships.

Within emotionally focused couples therapy, we often encounter reoccurring attachment cycles—a pattern that can act as a virus, infecting the emotional connection within a relationship and giving rise to feelings of disconnection and loneliness.

Identifying Three Attachment Cycles of Disconnection:

These attachment cycles are adapted from Dr. Sue Johnson’s “Demon Dialogues” as explained in her book Hold Me Tight(R).

attachment cycles, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious-avoidant trap, blame game, avoid-avoid cycle

The Anxious-Avoidant Trap:

The Anxious-Avoidant Trap manifests when one partner takes on the role of the “anxious protester,” while the other adopts the role of the “avoidant withdrawer.” This attachment cycle emerges in response to unmet emotional needs or unresolved conflicts. Let’s navigate through its stages:

  1. Cue: Typically, a cuer sets off this cycle, often involving unmet emotional needs, a conflict, or a perceived threat. It could also be a partner’s emotional withdrawal or distancing.
  2. Protest: The protesting partner conveys their emotional needs or frustrations through various means, often resorting to criticism, complaints, or persistent attempts to initiate a discussion.
  3. Withdrawal: In response to the protests, the withdrawing partner emotionally disengages. They may physically withdraw, fall silent, or emotionally detach, viewing this as a defense mechanism against perceived criticism or pressure.
  4. Escalation: As the protesting partner escalates their efforts to connect or resolve the issue, the withdrawing partner withdraws further. This heightened tension exacerbates emotional disconnection.
  5. Emotional Disconnection: The Anxious-Avoidant Trap deepens emotional disconnection, creating frustration and hopelessness for both partners. The protester feels unheard and unloved, while the withdrawer may feel overwhelmed and inadequate.
  6. Pattern Reinforcement: This cycle perpetuates itself, reinforcing the roles of protester and withdrawer, often becoming deeply ingrained in the relationship.

Read The Protest-Withdraw Pattern article to get an example of how this looks in a relationship.

  • Variations: Occasionally, partners sensing this attachment cycle coming may proactively defend themselves or blame each other before withdrawing, thus perpetuating the cycle. Those who protest may give a cold shoulder when their partner tries to resolve the issue instead of complaining.

The Blame Game:

The Blame Game unfolds when both partners perceive each other as adversaries rather than allies. This pattern often involves escalating conflicts, with blame, criticism, and accusations as strategies to be understood or connected with. Here’s an exploration:

  1. Cue: Typically, something happens—a minor disagreement or a misunderstanding—that activates feelings of frustration, hurt, or insecurity in one or both partners.
  2. Escalation: Instead of addressing the issue collaboratively, partners escalate the conflict. They start attributing fault to each other’s actions, words, or intentions, often employing accusations, criticism, and blame.
  3. Defensiveness: Responding to the blame and criticism, partners become defensive. They may deny responsibility, counter-accuse, or emotionally withdraw.
  4. Heightened Tension: The tension mounts as both partners become increasingly entrenched in their positions, refusing to back down.
  5. Negative Emotional Impact: This cycle fosters hurt feelings, resentment, and emotional disconnection, gradually eroding the emotional safety and intimacy in the relationship.

Read The Blame Game article to see this attachment cycle in action.

The Avoid-Avoid Cycle:

The “Avoid-Avoid Cycle” manifests when one or both avoidant attached partners employ avoidance strategies to evade conflict or emotional discomfort. Here’s how it plays out:

  1. Cue: Something activates feelings of discomfort, anxiety, or fear in one or both partners—whether it’s a disagreement, a perceived threat, or the mere prospect of discussing a sensitive issue.
  2. Avoidance: Instead of addressing the issue, one or both partners choose avoidance as the safest strategy. This avoidance may manifest as physical withdrawal, emotional distancing, or a swift topic change.
  3. Silence: One partner may become emotionally distant, refusing to communicate, or emotionally shutting down. This leaves the other partner feeling it’s not worth it to bring things up.
  4. Pursuit: Feeling disconnected or ignored, one partner may attempt to reconnect, often in passive ways such as asking to go for a walk even though they seek validation, attention, or resolution about something else.
  5. Rejection and Emotional Isolation: The pursuer’s attempts often meet rejection or further withdrawal due to the tension, deepening feelings of emotional isolation and insecurity.
  6. Pattern Reinforcement: The cycle repeats, further ingraining the avoidance pattern, making it increasingly challenging to address issues effectively.

Read The Avoid-Avoid Dance article to see this attachment cycle in action.

Dominant and Secondary Attachment Cycles:

In some relationships, both dominant and secondary cycles coexist, showcasing different patterns in specific contexts or content areas. For instance, one partner may pursue sexual intimacy, while the other avoids physical intimacy but seeks emotional closeness or support in other aspects of the relationship.

Step 1: Recognition of the Attachment Cycle:

Review the patterns above, and with your partner, see if you resonate with any of them. Not every interaction will fit these patterns, but they tend to emerge during challenging moments. Reflect on a recent conflict as an example.

To assist with this process, please review the list of protesting and withdrawing behaviors provided below and identify any that seem to align with your role in the relationship dynamics.

Our current objective is to gain an understanding of these behaviors and recognize the cycle as the common adversary. This recognition creates a safer emotional space for partners to delve into their deeper fears and openly share them.

Anxious Protesting Behaviors Avoidant Withdrawing Behaviors
Criticize
Attack
Blame
Demanding
Nagging
Yelling to make a point
Judging
Questioning
Confronting
Defend
Analyze
Rationalize
Quiet
Turn cold or aloof
Calm up
Withdraw
Avoid
Leave
*Tilley, D. (2003). When we are not getting along: My feelings, thoughts and behaviors checklist. Douglas Tilley LCSW-C. Retrieved September 19, 2023, from www.douglastilley.com/Forms/Your Relationship ThoughtsFeelingsand Behaviors.pdf

Step 2: Weaving Behaviors with Feelings of Disconnection:

Engage in open and honest communication with your partner. Identify behaviors from Step 1 that resonate with your relationship dance. Then complete sentences adapted from Hold Me Tight(R) by Dr. Sue Johnson in Conversation 1: Demon Dialogues.

“When [partner’s name] experience disconnection or a sense of instability in our relationship, I react by [behavior], and then [partner’s name] react by [behavior], which reinforces the disconnection. So I react by [behavior], and that reinforces disconnection for [partner’s name], so they react by [behavior], and around and around we go.”

attachment cycles, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious-avoidant trap, blame game, avoid-avoid cycle

“The very thing one of you does to cope with feeling hurt, lonely, inadequate and/or insecure triggers fear in your partner. The way each of you handles that fear brushes on tender places in the other, perpetuating the distress cycle.”

Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald. 

Do you see the behaviors of each partner feeding on each other? Identifying this pattern is a crucial step in transforming your relationship.

Step 3: Naming the Cycle and Making It the Problem:

Dr. Sue Johnson suggests assigning a nickname to the disconnecting attachment cycle. This naming process fosters a recognition of a shared adversary whenever the cycle manifests, enabling partners to collaborate in transforming their relationship dynamics.

Within the realm of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, we hold the belief that by bestowing a name upon these negative cycles, we empower ourselves to gain control over them. As the saying goes, “If we can NAME IT, we can TAME IT,” thus creating the space needed for CHANGE.

Here are a few examples derived from couples I’ve had the privilege to work with:

  • The Tornado of Disconnection
  • The Trap
  • Darth Vader

It’s worth noting that some couples find humor to be a helpful tool in defusing tension, opting for amusing names for their cycles. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that humor might not be suitable for everyone, as it could potentially invalidate their experiences. The primary objective is to collaboratively select a name or phrase that supports both partners in navigating these challenging moments, aiding in the recognition that protesting and withdrawing behaviors that fuel the cycle hinder the connection partners yearn for.

Step 4: Recognizing the Enemy in Real Time:

Now that you’ve bestowed a name upon the disconnecting cycle, partners can begin to actively recognize when this cycle unfolds in real-time. Both individuals can work towards heightened self-awareness regarding the behaviors outlined in Step 2 and communicate these observations to each other.

Here’s an example:

  • The Avoiding Partner: “I sense the impulse to withdraw right now, as if Darth Vader has joined our conversation. I’m determined not to let the force of this cycle dominate our connection.”
  • The Pursuing Partner: “I’m feeling the urge to be demanding, which signals the presence of ‘the trap.’ I’m committed to avoiding falling into that detrimental pattern with you.”

At this stage of transforming your relationship, the objective isn’t to immediately change the cycle. Rather, it’s about naming it to gain the upper hand and exert control over it. By doing so, you can mitigate the cycle’s destructive impact on your emotional connection.

Step 5: Emphasizing a Common Goal:

Remember that both pursuing and withdrawing behaviors serve legitimate relationship goals. Pursuers seek connection, while withdrawers may withdraw to prevent worsening conflicts. Recognize the unintended impact of these behaviors on each other and strive for collaboration.

Identifying your relationship cycle and acknowledging it as it happens is a pivotal step in transforming your relationship. While you may not break the cycle immediately, gaining some control over it occasionally can instill hope that, with collaborative effort, you can learn to relate differently. In future discussions, we will delve deeper into the emotions fueling these negative cycles, offering insights into understanding and expressing yourselves more effectively within your relationship.

For those seeking further guidance and support in reshaping these patterns, consider exploring the following resources:

Recommended Books: 

Workshops: 

Articles on this site: 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the cycle of disconnection?

The cycle of disconnection, a fundamental concept in attachment theory, refers to the recurring pattern of emotional and relational disruptions experienced by individuals who have insecure attachment styles. This cycle typically involves a sequence of events where an attachment figure, often a caregiver or partner, fails to respond consistently and sensitively to the emotional needs of the individual. This lack of responsiveness can lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, or distress in the person seeking attachment, causing them to employ various strategies to regain closeness and security. These strategies may range from emotional withdrawal to clinginess. The insecure strategies to regain closeness, security, and emotional safety often perpetuates the disconnect, reinforcing the individual’s insecure attachment style.

What are the 4 concepts of attachment theory?

Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, encompasses four key concepts:

  1. Attachment: This concept emphasizes the fundamental human need for emotional bonds and connections with caregivers or significant others. These bonds provide a secure base from which individuals can explore the world and seek comfort and support.
  2. Internal Working Models: These are cognitive templates or mental representations formed in early childhood based on an individual’s interactions with primary caregivers. These models influence expectations about relationships, self-worth, and one’s ability to obtain support and care in later life.
  3. Secure Base: A secure base is a source of comfort and safety that enables individuals to venture out into the world with confidence, knowing they can return to a trusted caregiver when needed. It is a central aspect of attachment relationships.
  4. Attachment Styles: Attachment theory categorizes individuals into attachment styles based on their patterns of attachment behaviors. The four primary attachment styles are secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. These styles describe how individuals relate to others in close relationships.

What are the three individual attachment cycles?

Attachment theory outlines three fundamental attachment cycles that individuals may experience throughout their lives:

  1. Secure Attachment Cycle: In a healthy and secure attachment cycle, the individual seeks comfort and support from a caregiver or attachment figure when distressed. The caregiver responds consistently and sensitively, providing emotional reassurance. This cycle fosters feelings of safety, trust, and confidence in relationships.
  2. Anxious Attachment Cycle: Individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often experience an anxious attachment cycle. They tend to become overly concerned about their relationships and fear abandonment. In this cycle, they may express their distress through clinginess and seeking constant reassurance. However, their attachment figures may respond inconsistently, reinforcing their anxiety.
  3. Avoidant Attachment Cycle: People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may engage in an avoidant attachment cycle. They tend to downplay the importance of emotional connections and may distance themselves when their attachment needs arise. Their caregivers or partners may respond by becoming distant as well, perpetuating a cycle of emotional distance and detachment.

What is a healthy attachment cycle?

A healthy attachment cycle, often associated with secure attachment styles, involves a balanced and emotionally responsive dynamic between individuals in a relationship. In this cycle, when one person experiences distress or seeks closeness, the other responds with empathy, consistency, and care. This responsiveness creates a sense of security and trust within the relationship. Individuals in a healthy attachment cycle feel free to explore their independence while knowing they can rely on their attachment figures for support when needed. This secure base allows for personal growth, emotional resilience, and the development of positive internal working models, which, in turn, contribute to satisfying and enduring relationships throughout life.

What are the three relationship patterns in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT)?

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) identifies three primary relationship patterns that couples may exhibit:

  1. The Anxious-Avoidant Trap: In this pattern, one partner tends to be emotionally expressive and seeks closeness and reassurance, while the other partner tends to withdraw or become emotionally distant. The more the anxious partner pursues, the more the avoidant partner distances themselves, creating a cycle of emotional turbulence and disconnection.
  2. The Blame Game: This pattern is characterized by mutual blaming and criticism between partners. Instead of addressing their underlying emotions and attachment needs, couples engage in blame and defensiveness. This pattern erodes trust and intimacy, making it difficult to resolve conflicts constructively.
  3. The Avoid-Avoid Dance: In this pattern, both partners withdraw emotionally and become distant when faced with relationship challenges or emotional distress. They may avoid addressing their feelings and needs, which leads to a lack of emotional connection and leaves issues unresolved.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy aims to help couples recognize and understand these patterns, fostering healthier emotional responses and promoting secure attachment bonds within the relationship. By addressing underlying emotions and attachment needs, couples can break free from these destructive cycles and build stronger, more fulfilling connections with each other.

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