Striking a balance between individuation and attachment in relationships is one of the most difficult parts of being with another person. Facing the dual pulls of that intimate connection with your partner while being true to yourself and your personal development is a huge challenge.
To better navigate these two seemingly opposing forces, it’s helpful to understand them — as well as your personal and your partner’s attachment style, needs, dependencies, and biases around the importance of individuation and attachment in relationships.
What Is Individuation?
Individuation is the ongoing process where someone sees themselves as an individual. They view themselves as separate from other people, with their own thoughts, feelings, needs, and boundaries.
Individuation isn’t just about maintaining your identity and being self-sufficient though. It’s also about recognizing, understanding, and expressing your emotions without relying on someone else for validation.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment is forming an emotional connection with another person. It’s what makes us feel safe, secure, and cared for.
Children develop a variety of different attachment styles with their primary caregivers. Often, these styles continue through that child’s lifetime even as they become adults, and can have major effects on their adult relationships.
Recognizing your attachment styles is essential for understanding the challenges in your relationships. It can help you figure out how you most commonly behave when you are in relationship distress.
What Are the 3 Common Attachment Styles in Relationships?
1. Anxious Attachment
The anxious attachment style develops when a child receives irregular affection and care. They experience a caregiver who is only sporadically available.
In relationships, those with an anxious attachment style feel nervous about their partner physically or emotionally abandoning them at any time. They are also worried about losing connection. When they are distressed, they are likely to become more jealous, clingy, frightened, and demanding.
[ Watch this real-life Somatica Session about Healing from Anxious Attachment as an adult. ]
2. Avoidant Attachment
The avoidant attachment style occurs with children who have suffered an absent, boundary-crossing, or highly critical caregiver.
As adults in relationships, they assume a partner will not be there for them. When distressed, they tend to distance themselves and self-soothe instead of looking toward their partner for comfort and support.
3. Disorganized Attachment
The disorganized attachment style is often observed in instances of more extreme neglect or abuse. These children experienced a frightening caregiver but still needed their care to survive.
Adults with disorganized attachment generally move back and forth between styles. They are at once clinging to and pushing their partner away, while also showing some anxious and avoidant behaviors.
Attachment Styles Are a Spectrum
Did you notice that we omitted “secure attachment” from our list? That’s because at the Somatica Institute, we believe it is more of a potential state in a relationship and not an attachment style. While many people talk about attachment styles as fixed, we think of them more as tendencies along a spectrum. So, while you may lean more toward one attachment style, how you react depends on your relationship.
As an example: if you’re generally anxiously attached in your relationships but are dating someone with a stronger anxious attachment than you, you may end up feeling more avoidant instead. Comparatively, if you are generally avoidant but are in a relationship with someone even more avoidant to you, you may start to chase that person.
4 Steps to Balancing Individuation and Attachment in Relationships
When conflict threatens a relationship, the natural individuation process can be hindered. As a result, one of the partners may suppress their desires to keep the relationship solid. Difficulty individuating comes from fear of losing your partner, shame about your needs, or societal pressures to compromise.
It is also common for one or both partners to focus so much on their individual needs that the safety and attachment in the relationship begin to deteriorate. Strongly independent people feel particularly fearful of losing their freedom and avoid letting themselves fully attach.
To strike that delicate balance between individuation and attachment in relationships, it’s essential to know when to compromise and when to follow your desires. Ultimately, attachment and individuation are two sides of the same coin — the safer you feel in your attachment, the more you feel free to be yourself. The freer you feel, the more you want to be attached.
1. Know When (and When Not) to Compromise
If your partner asks for something they need from you, it is OK to compromise if:
- It doesn’t have any adverse effect on you to do so.
- There is potentially some negative impact, but it is worth the relief it will give to your partner. And you’re willing and able to work with the inherent fears or disappointments without shutting down or resenting your partner.
Comparatively, it is not a good idea to compromise if:
- You agree to it unconsciously or out of shame about who you are or what you want.
- The compromise will make you feel like you are no longer yourself.
- Giving in to the ask will make you feel so resentful toward your partner that you start disconnecting from the relationship.
2. Deepen Safety
Heightening your and your partner’s sense of safety will help with secure attachment in your relationship. This means discussing with your partner what makes them insecure, and consciously practicing reassurance.
One example of deepening safety might be committing to calling your partner once a day for 15 minutes when you are on a trip. You can let them know how much you miss them or how important they are to you.
3. Support Each Other’s Selfhood
Selfhood doesn’t have to be built entirely by oneself. In fact, healthy individuation is easier when partners support each other’s identities. Try to understand their needs, even if they make you nervous or uncomfortable. Let them know you genuinely want them to be themselves, and that you will do your very best to accommodate that need.
4. Create Balanced Communication Practices
Balanced communication practices mean:
- Talking openly about your attachment needs and capacities
- Agreeing to look at differences in needs as neutral (to avoid blaming and shaming)
- Express when you’re feeling taxed or anxious to prevent resentment
Get Support from a Sex and Relationship Coach
Balancing individuation and attachment in relationships is an imperfect process. It requires trial, error, and adjustments over time. Even professional coaches sometimes need help understanding these concepts and helping clients work through them.
Fortunately, coaches certified by the Somatica Institute deal extensively with these issues in their practice. If you are looking for a coach to help you navigate attachment issues, find a certified relationship coach from our directory.
If you are a coach interested in gaining a deeper understanding of attachment, individuation, and how they shape your clients’ relationships, consider signing up for the Somatica Institute’s Sex and Relationship Coach training.