When Relationships Change
Change is inevitable.
Relationships shift, grow, end, or transition to something new all the time. Like gravity, change is always operating within and around us, every moment of every day. So why is it so much harder to accept the law of change when it comes to relationships? Because we take it personally.
When a baby discovers gravity, delightfully tossing their snippy cup over the edge of their high chair again and again, the parent is probably not going to blame gravity and think “why gravity, do you torment me so?!” They may utter other colorful language, but it’s unlikely directed at gravity itself.
That’s because these new parents, like all of us, understand and subconsciously accept the law of gravity as an absolute truth, and just a part of life. We are secure in the truth of gravity. The law of change is different for many of us. We don’t accept it as an absolute truth, and we suffer for it.
We are attached to a lie we tell ourselves, that things are permanent, because that idea feels secure and safe. So when we experience change in relationships, we become insecure believing we, our partner, or the relationship is somehow deficient. We think we can stop it by clinging desperately to it, or conversely, pretending that it doesn’t matter at all, thinking to ourselves:
“Go ahead and change, I never cared about it anyway.”
“The relationship was a failure.”
“They never really loved me.”
“It was all a lie.”
Sound familiar? These are all symptoms of insecure attachment styles in relationships, that flair up when experiencing change.
The hope for overcoming these insecurities lies in another powerful truth. They are learned behaviors, and therefore can be unlearned. If we can find security within ourselves, rather than outside ourselves, maybe we can suffer a little less and trust a little more, even in the face of change. So lets do a quick explanation of Attachment Theory for some context.
There are said to be four main attachment styles. Secure attachment, and three insecure attachment styles, Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful Avoidant.
The creator of Attachment Theory, John Bowlby, explains that different attachments to caregivers, early in life, was a way for the child to ensure their own survival. If the child felt that their caregivers were reasonably and consistently available to their needs and emotions, they learned they were safe, could trust the relationships, and were more likely to feel a secure attachment. Adults with secure attachment styles are more likely to accept the changes and fluctuations within relationships because they are secure in themselves, less likely to take change personally, more able to empathize, and have a strong ability to see things from multiple perspectives. It’s not that they don’t feel loss and pain in the face of change, but they are able to choose to move through it, without believing they are personally deficient somehow. The unfortunate truth is that most of us are more likely to have some form of insecure attachment.
Within Anxious attachment, a person tends to fall into codependency, clingy-ness and a desire to chase their attachment figure in order to find security and validation. In childhood they likely learned that acting out got the attention from their often emotionally or physically absent caregiver, and that learned survival instinct followed them into their adult romantic relationships.
Those with Avoidant attachment learned in childhood that the emotional or physical absence of a caregiver meant they had to go it alone. These children adapted to finding comfort in withdrawing if they felt fear or anxiety, learning that they could only depend on themselves for security. As adults these avoidant tendencies lead to emotionally isolating from their partners, avoiding conflict by disengaging, or physically removing themselves from situations. But this doesn’t solve their problems. It just shoves them down. Lastly, the Fearful Avoidant style, my personal brand, is someone who is both anxiously attached, desiring validation and dependency on a partner, while also ultimately believing they will never get that need met, because of a lack of trust in others or a deep sense of negative self worth. They want to be loved but don’t fully believe they will be. This attachment style is often associated with a child who experienced trauma from a caregiver. The attachment figures they depended on for security were sometimes available and loving, but also sporadic and often emotionally or physically abusive. The child both desired and feared their caregiver, creating this tug of war within themselves as they tried to find security in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment.
The more we become aware of our personal brand of attachment, or that of our partners in the face of change, the easier it can be to navigate difficult moments in a relationship. Change is never easy, but for those of us insecurely attached folks, its particularly hard. We need to do some reparenting and facing of past trauma. We need to show up for ourselves, as our own caregiver, in all our mess and say, “I love you. You are safe. Cry all you want. Move through pain and shame and fear.
I still love you and I am here for you.” It takes time for that voice to grow, and the work ahead of us can be extremely painful. If you are an anxious person, trying to self-sooth while in crisis, can be a brutal process. Similarly, if you are avoidant, reaching our for help can feel deeply embarrassing. But this is the work. The law of change is inevitable. But change isn’t all bad. So you can choose to keep fighting it, and keep suffering. Or you can choose to grow, because change is coming, as sure as gravity will pull that sippy cup to the floor again and again.
So maybe start the process of examination and self-love. Feel the pain and growth of change, and reach out for help if you need it from family or friends or a licensed therapist, or coach. This won’t be forever, there is something new on the other side, and you will get there.