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Relationship Challenges: Is It Your Problem or Theirs?

An attachment perspective on when to fix yourself vs. your partner.

Key points

  • Attachment styles are primarily patterns of interpersonal communication and emotion regulation.
  • People with preoccupied attachment may struggle knowing when to fix themselves vs. when to fix their partners.
  • People with avoidant attachment may assume nothing is wrong with them and that the problem is their partner.

Even when they are rewarding, navigating relationships can be challenging. The challenge exists from the first weeks of dating all the way through the 20th year of marriage. Our attachment styles, which develop in childhood and stay with us across the lifespan, are ways that we obtain information about the environment, process emotions, and respond to relationship issues. These styles come with a social radar that tells us when things are going right and when something is off in the relationship. What they don’t tell us is when the problem resides in the situation, ourselves, or the other person.

People with secure attachment styles tend to have accurate social perceptions and well-adjusted emotional systems. So, when challenges arise, they can tell when the other person is exhibiting poor behavior, when a situation is unfavorable, or when their own emotions or behaviors are the problem. They can then use this information to formulate a workable response.

Responses typically include:

  1. Reevaluating your judgment of the relationship context and situation.
  2. Setting boundaries and asking the other person to adjust their behavior.
  3. Negotiating tradeoffs between what they need in the relationship and what the other person needs.
  4. Challenging their own thoughts and emotional reactions and making adjustments.
  5. Ending the relationship when the above steps don’t work.

Examples of the types of problems confronted might include:

  • Perceiving that the person who was initially very into you is backing off or losing interest.
  • Your partner is pointing out a shortcoming in you that you do not agree with and don’t think you should have to change.
  • Your partner wants to conduct themselves in a way that runs counter to your own beliefs and values.
  • You are losing interest in your partner and find yourself wondering if the grass might be greener elsewhere.

If you have one of the three insecure attachment styles, you may have particular challenges navigating these issues.

Preoccupied Attachment

People with preoccupied attachment may have social radar that scans for signs of danger and rejection, is highly attuned, and is always on. So, they may pick up on signs that the other person is backing off when, in fact, the other person is just getting more comfortable in the relationship, or maybe just struggling with their own life challenges. They may discount these situational factors and jump to the conclusion that the other person is getting ready to move on. Because the preoccupied person’s sensitive radar activates the defensive emotional system, they are likely to be flooded with negative emotions. They typically know that they are highly reactive but the flood of emotions makes it difficult to see their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors clearly. They can’t figure out whether they are overreacting or whether the other person really is up to no good. So, needing to lower these feelings, they verbalize their misgivings to the other person in what often comes out in an accusatory way that forces the other to (a) provide appeasement and reassurance, (b) counterattack and escalate the conflict, or (c) disengage and exit the relationship (see Simpson & Rholes, 2004).

They want to look at every angle, ponder it, feel all their feelings, pick a solution that provides maximum security, and keep the conversation going.

Dismissing Attachment

People with dismissing attachment usually have poor social radar. They often don’t pick up on signs that the other person is upset. This can make them look callous or indifferent. But they really might not see the problem. If they do see the problem, they might not have a clue about what to do about it. They regulate emotions in their own bodies by ignoring or suppressing them. So, this is the approach they tend to take with their partners. Opposite of the preoccupied person, they tend to look at the source of relationship problems in terms of their partner being overly reactive and demanding or in terms of their own context (as opposed to their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). They may get overwhelmed not by their own emotions but by the strong emotions of their romantic partners. When a romantic partner is “coming at them” with misgivings, they cannot tolerate the invasion of strong emotion. So, they try to shut it down in their own bodies or get some distance from the other person. If the other person does not let them do this, they may cope with the situation by leaving the other person (Connors, 1997).

They want to look at as few angles as possible, not spend that much time pondering the issue, pick a minimally acceptable solution, and be done with the conversation.

Fearful Attachment

Those with fearful attachment tend to have high social radar that might not be well calibrated. They might miss some social cues and overreact to others. They can either look checked-out and disinterested or come unglued and attacking. They don’t know how to regulate their own emotions and so they don’t have an organized style of reacting to others. They are likely to alternate between their own shame at not being able to figure it out and blaming the other person for being cruel and uncaring. Alternating between these two poles may occur in rapid succession, with each one feeding back and activating the other in a shame/blame spiral (Cassidy and Mohr, 2001).

They may perceive that figuring out the relationship is futile, spend too much time pondering it, or just give up, not coming up with a solution, and alternate between coming at the other person or running away.


  1. People with strong preoccupied and dismissing attachment should probably steer clear of each other in forming romantic relationships. Do be aware, however, that mildly preoccupied or dismissing combinations can work if both people are self-aware and willing to take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  2. If you are preoccupied, don’t trust your radar when it comes to quickly ending relationships or having serious conversations. Recruit a trusted friend or therapist to bounce your thoughts off of to give you a “reality check” before acting.
  3. If you are dismissing, realize that your radar is not sensitive enough and that the other person may have had an issue or reacted negatively to you long before you realized it. Let them unpack their thoughts with you and be patient. Don’t run away from the relationship until you have had time to get calm and check in with a friend or therapist.
  4. If you are fearful, don’t disappear from a relationship without talking about it. Your emotions and thoughts may be so jumbled and confusing that you blow things up or run and hide. Openly tell the other person that you are feeling strong emotions and need some time alone before you can have a productive conversation… and then actually come back and have that conversation.
  5. Read the recommendations for the other styles above because this may be who you are in a relationship with.
  6. Most important recommendation: Don’t try to change another person into who you wish they would be. Give it enough time to see if you can accept that person for who they are. If you cannot tolerate or cope emotionally with who they are, please don’t attack them for that. Just be honest and release them with gentle kindness.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2004). Anxious attachment and depressive symptoms: An interpersonal perspective. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Adult attachment: theory, Research, and clinical applications (pp. 408-437). New York: Guilford.

Connors, M. E. (1997). The renunciation of love: Dismissive attachment and its treatment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 14(4), 475-493. doi:10.1037/h0079736

Cassidy, J., & Mohr, J. J. (2001). Unsolvable fear, trauma, and psychopathology: Theory, research, and clinical considerations related to disorganized attachment across the life span. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 8(3), 275-298. doi:10.1093/clipsy/8.3.275

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