When you sense an argument brewing, what’s your initial reaction?
Whether it’s the dreaded, “We need to talk” text from a romantic partner, a meeting with your boss to “discuss” a project that hasn’t been going well, or bringing up something hurtful that happened with a friend, it’s safe to say that the majority of us don’t like conflict.
Even if it’s a conversation that’s necessary and that will wind up being helpful in the long run, bringing up something that is the source of conflict between you and the other person can give you that pit of dread in your stomach and trigger a cascade of worries.
We all have different ways of coping with conflict. Some of us want to run in the opposite direction and avoid it for as long as possible. Others want to figure out the solution right now, even if the other person isn’t in a good head space to do so.
And still others of us constantly worry about the presence of conflict and continually check in with the other person to make sure everything is okay. A major driver in the way that you tend to respond in a conflict situation is your attachment style.
For this reason, knowing your attachment style can give you invaluable insight into how you handle conflict in relationships, whether a friendship, a romantic relationship, or a working relationship, and it can empower you to respond in different ways that can help you resolve the conflict successfully.
What is attachment style?
Your attachment style is the way that you understand the relationship between you and other people and your sense of safety and security with them. You learn this framework from your relationship with your primary caregiver, and there are four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. These four styles are based on the way that your primary caregiver did or didn’t meet your basic physical and emotional needs as a child. (It’s important to note that most parents are simply doing the best they can given their own background and attachment style. Identifying your attachment style can offer valuable insight into how you approach your present relationships, but it isn’t meant to be a judgment on your parents.)
In a securely attached relationship, you feel secure in your ability to meet your own needs and in your ability to have your needs met by others in your relationships. In other words, you are able to monitor and take care of your own emotional health while also seeking out the support of others to meet your emotional needs when needed. You are also able to meet the needs of others in your life without abandoning your own needs.
In an anxious attachment style, you do not feel secure in your ability to meet your own needs and so you look to others to help meet your needs and regulate your emotions. With this type of attachment, you often wonder about whether or not others accept you or if you are really fitting in. In an avoidant attachment style, you don’t trust others to meet your needs, and so you often don’t reach out for help, preferring to take care of yourself.
The fourth attachment style, the disorganized type, is uncommon in the general population, but is often associated with suffering traumatic experiences as a child. It is best described as a combination of the avoidant and anxious attachment styles. Someone with this type of attachment style might get very close to others and then suddenly withdraw completely.
While we may all wish that we had a secure attachment style, about 50 percent of the population has an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style. Our attachment styles are often most noticeable when we are facing some kind of conflict with another person, because that’s when our sense of safety and security feel most threatened.
Someone with a secure attachment style may feel upset at what is happening and recognize that they need to take care of their own emotions and needs while they make space for the other person’s. When facing conflict with another person, someone with a secure attachment might still feel apprehensive about the conversation but will take a balanced approach: “We’ll have a respectful dialogue where, even if we don’t totally agree on things, we can respect these differences and find some common ground.”
Someone with an anxious attachment may feel like their relationship is in peril and feel the need to frequently check in to make sure everything is “okay” with the other person. They may be overly accommodating for the sake of minimizing conflict and preserving the relationship. When faced with conflict, someone with an anxious attachment might focus on trying not to say the “wrong” thing and will worry that the conflict will result in that relationship ending. For someone with an anxious attachment style, it can often feel like rejection or abandonment is just one conflict away.
Someone with an avoidant attachment is quick to withdraw from the relationship at the first sign of conflict and may label someone who is trying to address an issue with them as “needy” or “pushy.” A person with this attachment style might tell themselves, “I didn’t really care that much for them, and I’m better off without them anyway” as a way to preemptively deal with rejection that might result from the conflict. Someone with an avoidant attachment also fears rejection and abandonment, but tries to deal with this fear by pushing the other person away.
When you feel like the security of your relationship is threatened, you will most likely fall back on your typical attachment style response. Being aware of your “go-to” response can help you choose the response that will promote a successful resolution of the conflict instead of feeling like you are on autopilot when you respond. Your fear might try to convince you to overreact because you may feel like your relationship is being threatened. But in most cases, the conflict can be resolved and doesn’t necessarily spell an end to your relationship, whether that is a friendship, a romantic relationship, or working relationship.
Healthy resolution of conflict
In order to promote a healthy resolution of a conflict, it can be helpful to incorporate some of these practical suggestions to help you respond in a growth-focused way rather than a fear-based way:
If you feel overwhelmed by your emotions (this can happen no matter what your attachment style is):
Instead of running on autopilot in a conflict and responding in whatever way comes to mind in the heat of the moment, try fostering an awareness of your emotions and what they are telling you to do. Ask yourself if your emotions are going to help you resolve the conflict in a way that respects the type of relationship you have with that person. Name-calling, bringing up past hurts, or being defensive may all feel “good” in the moment, but they rarely promote a healthy resolution to conflict. Instead, being mindful of the consequences of your actions can help you actively choose what you want to say and how.
If you find yourself shutting down and wanting to run in the other direction (common with the avoidant attachment style):
Instead of going silent or pushing the other person away, try sharing with the other person your perspective and why it bothers you, and offer a compromise. As tempting as it might be to just cut your losses and abandon the relationship altogether so that you don’t have to “deal with it,” the other person just might be open to hearing what you have to say and discussing a compromise. Try it and you might be pleasantly surprised!
If you find yourself worried that the other person is going to blame you or end the relationship (common with an anxious attachment style):
Instead of lashing out when you are upset at another person or are afraid they are distancing themselves from you, try to give yourself a “time-out” and step away to clearly identify what is going on for you once your emotions aren’t as strong. Then ask yourself how you can communicate this in a calm and clear way where the other person is most likely able to really listen and understand what you are saying.
If you find yourself afraid to give the other person space to cool down or think about things (common with an anxious attachment style):
Instead of trying to figure it all out right now, try to remind yourself that resolving a conflict often takes time and happens in stages. Very rarely are individuals able to resolve conflict in one sitting. Be patient, and, as long as each person is willing to do the personal work needed, you may well be able to resolve the conflict in a way you are both satisfied with. Taking the time to understand each others’ perspectives, explore options for compromise, and decide on the best option is truly worth it.