Balancing Individuation and Attachment in Relationships

attachment styles

One of the most difficult aspects of being in a relationship is striking that balance between individuation and attachment. The dual pulls of that intimate connection with your partner while being true to yourself and your own 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 tendencies within them. 

For a balanced, successful relationship, you need to understand your and your partner’s attachment style, your individual needs, and your biases around the importance of attachment vs. individuation.

Attachment Styles in Relationships

If you’ve never heard of attachment styles, learning about them can be a wonderful way to better understand the challenging dynamics in your relationship. Your attachment style determines the way you most commonly behave when you are in relationship distress.

Researchers looking at parent-child relationships in early childhood found that children had different tendencies in relationship to their primary caregivers. These tendencies persisted throughout a person’s lifetime, continuing to impact their adult romantic relationships. 

Here’s a basic overview of the most common attachment styles:

Anxious Attachment

The anxious attachment style develops when a child receives irregular affection and care. They experience a caregiver who is available to them, but only sometimes. In relationships, they feel anxious about their partner physically or emotionally abandoning them at any time. They are worried about losing connection. When they are distressed, they are likely to become more clingy, frightened, and demanding.

Avoidant Attachment

The avoidant attachment style occurs with children who have suffered an absent, boundary-crossing, or highly critical caregiver. In their adult relationships, they assume a partner will not be there for them. When distressed, they have a tendency to distance and self-soothe as opposed to looking toward their partner for comfort and support.

Disorganized Attachment

The disorganized attachment style is often observed in cases of more extreme neglect or abuse. These children experienced a caregiver who was frightening, while at the same time still needing their care to survive. As adults, they generally move back and forth between clinging to and pushing their partner away, showing some anxious and some avoidant behaviors.

 

Watch this webinar on the tools you can use to deepen attachment in relationships:

 

Attachment Styles as a Spectrum  

Notice we have left out secure attachment as an attachment style in our list.  We believe it is really more of a potential state in a relationship, as opposed to an attachment style. In fact, while many people talk about attachment styles as fixed – that you are either secure, anxious, avoidant, disorganized – we think of them more as tendencies along a spectrum. So, while you may lean more towards one or the other tendency, how you actually react depends a lot on the relationship you are in.

You may experience secure attachment with a partner, or a partner may trigger you towards your usual attachment style. For example, if you’re generally anxiously attached in your relationships, but are dating someone who has a stronger anxious attachment than you, you may end up feeling more avoidant. If you are generally more avoidant, but manage to end up in a relationship with someone more avoidant to you, you may start to chase that person.    

Understanding Individuation

In addition to understanding your own and your partner’s attachment style, it’s helpful to be aware of your simultaneous needs for individuation. Individuation is the ongoing process by which a person feels themselves to be an individual, separate from other people, with their own thoughts, feelings, needs, and boundaries.

When we first embark on a new relationship, the uncertainty of whether it will last causes some people to go into a merging phase. This forms the foundation of the attachment. The merging phase may go on for a very long time.  Sometimes, one person may eventually begin to move out of this phase before their partner does. In other instances, they both start to move out of it together, and towards balancing individuation and attachment. 

woman practicing individuation

When an event threatens the relationship, the natural process of individuation can be hindered. As a result, one of the partners may suppress their individual desires in an attempt to keep the relationship solid. Difficult individuating comes from fear of losing your partner, shame about your individual needs, or societal or partner 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 begins to deteriorate. Strongly independent people feel particularly fearful of losing their freedom, and avoid letting themselves fully attach.

To strike that delicate balance between attachment and individuation, it’s important to know when to compromise – and when you need to follow your individual desires. It’s an imperfect process and requires trial, error, and adjustments over time.

How Do You Know When To Compromise? 

If your partner asks for something they need, or asks you to refrain from something that makes them uncomfortable, it is ok to compromise if:

  1. It doesn’t have any negative effect on you to do so.
  2. There is potentially some negative impact, but your partner’s upset is more distressing to you.
  3. The ask has a strong negative impact for you, but you are willing to work with the inherent disappointments. Also, you are aware you are able to do so without shutting down or resenting your partner.

It is not ok to compromise if:

  1. You are agreeing to it unconsciously, or out of shame about who you are or what you want.
  2. The compromise will make you feel like you are no longer yourself. 
  3. Giving in to the ask will make you feel so resentful towards your partner that you shut down and disconnect from the relationship.

Couple practicing relationship attachment styles

Combining Individuation and Secure Attachment in Relationships

Attachment and individuation are actually 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.

Unfortunately, many relationships are in an attachment vs individuation battle. It’s usually the anxious partner who pushes for attachment, while the avoidant partner will fall more into the tendency of individuation. Avoidant partners often get vilified for being “emotionally unavailable” or “unable to commit”, while anxious partners get vilified for being “needy” or “dependent.” When this judgmental battle plays out over long periods of time, attachment starts to wane. 

When we stop judging, we can see the need on each side for both security and selfhood. Secure attachment happens when both partners get to be themselves AND feel safe in their connection.

3 Steps to Better Attachment-Individuation Balance 

  1. Deepen Safety : Heightening your own and your partner’s sense of safety in the relationship will help with secure attachment. This means empathizing with your partner about the things that make them insecure – and then consciously practicing reassurance. As an example: during a phase of relationship repair, you might have to go on a trip. Commit to calling your partner once a day for 15 minutes to let them know how much you miss them, or how important they are to you.
  2. Support Each Other’s Selfhood: Supporting each other’s selfhood helps with healthy individuation. Try to understand their needs – even if they make you feel nervous or uncomfortable. Let them know you truly want them to be themselves, and you will do your best to make room for that need. Be aware however that you must also evaluate your capacity for this. For example: you want your partner to be free to do whatever they want. However, some things may be too taxing on your nervous system. Letting them know why you can’t handle something makes a very big difference.
  3. Create Attachment/Individuation Communication Practices: Talk openly about your attachment needs and challenges, your individual needs, and your capacities. Agree to look at differences in needs as neutral to avoid blaming and shaming. If you can’t handle something, talk about your challenges instead of judging your partner.

For very in-depth, experiential work on attachment and individuation and all of the skills you need to balance them, join us for our Couple’s Training or the Somatica Core Training. You can also find out more in our books Making Love Real and Coming Together