What Are Attachments?

We start forming attachments in the womb. We find our mother's heartbeat particularly soothing. We even like the sound of our mother's voice better when it's muffled like it sounded in the womb. After we are born, we start a process of interacting regularly with a fairly small set of people. We form attachments or bonds with them and most importantly develop strategies to cope with them. So, to understand "attachment" in this context you need to:

  • Imagine being an infant or young toddler.
  • Know your understanding of anything was limited to your intense immediate feelings.
  • Remember you had no words or thoughts yet, other than perhaps mental images. You had no context other than your feelings about what had happened before to go by.
Fig. 1 – Stan Tatkin's Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment (Tatkin's "Anchor")

  • The primary attachment is predictable and attentive.
  • The child can balance attention. This allows exploration and reconnection readily without anxiety.
  • The primary attachment pays much more attention to the child, not to self and is "non-smothering."
  • This covers about 60% of people.

Insecure Attachments

Ambivalent Attachments (Tatkin's "Wave")

  • The primary care is unpredictable but attentive.
  • The primary care may be focused on self and need or want soothing or reassurance from the child.
  • This covers about 15% of people.

Preoccupied Anxious Attachment

An individual may become preoccupied with the verbal or behavioral cues they get from their partner. If there are "too few" cues, they may remain more or less agitated waiting to finally receive a response.

They will often try to regain closeness by starting a conversation or making physical contact hoping to feel soothed and loved. They are not good at soothing themselves after an argument and need a lot of reassurance that they are still wanted. If they do not get it after repeatedly trying, they will decide that they are not wanted and not enough. They will feel anxious or depressed.

Angry-Resistant Anxious Attachment

Angry-resistant people are often "allergic to hope." They anticipate disappointment and failure in relationship, often by using negative, angry behavior. This tends to increase the chance of their getting what they really don't want.

Angry-resistant people have an extreme need for closeness. They can seem insatiable, except when they feel rejected, become angry and tend to punish their partner. They are hyperaware of the verbal and behavioral "signals" they receive from their partner. They believe their partner should always be fighting for them and they may set up "tests" for their partner to prove their love over and over. If their partner fails a test, they will feel unloved and unwanted and may lash out.

Avoidant Attachments (Tatkin's "Island")

  • The primary attachment is predictable but inattentive.
  • The primary attachment seems preoccupied, inconsistently available, "cold" or dutiful.
  • Anxiety or fear is covert or hidden. The child doesn't recognize it or show it.
  • The child's internal physical stress is high.
  • The child lacks comfort or relief regularly.
  • The child relies on self-soothing.
  • This covers about 20% of people.

Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Dismissive people act like a one-person team and may be totally oblivious of how extreme this can seem to their partner. They often react to "approach" by an intimate other with anxiety or by trying to withdraw. They frequently find "too much" intimacy overwhelming and hard to accept or adjust to. It can feel like "I want you in the house, but not in my room" to someone else. The other is "dismissed," either by actual behavior or by being ignored. Others can feel unappreciated or undervalued. Dismissives may feel that they aren't cut out to be in a relationship or may minimize the importance of a relationship. They can feel pressured by their partner's desire for closeness and even for information.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Those with this style look a lot like the Dismissives, but they are fearful of being alone. While the Dismissive is more consistency distanced, the Fearful is more like a yo-yo. The Fearful partner may feel they can't get the relationship right and that too much is expected of them. They tend to have fantasies about an ideal relationship, being alone or being with an ex-partner. They can find it hard to stay emotionally committed and present in a relationship.

The Fearful person may not fully commit to any relationship, feeling they need freedom. They may even end a relationship and then feel that they made a mistake and may not find another person who will accept them. They will then try to return to the relationship without dealing with the issues only for the cycle to repeat.

Disorganized Attachment

  • The primary attachment is unpredictable and inattentive.
  • Frequent intensely negative stuff happens to the child in the early environment. It's some combination of "scary," frightening and abusive.
  • There's a dilemma in the child's world. Their source of comfort is also the source of pain and fear.
  • Approach for the child is anxiety producing because bad things might happen suddenly.
  • Avoidance and withdraw is anxiety producing because it means being alone or abandoned so there won't be any comfort or relief.
  • Dissociation and "freezing" responses are developed.
  • They have the most trouble with adult relationships.
  • This covers about 5% of people.

What are "Provocations"?

prov·o·ca·tion /ˌprävəˈkāSH(ə)n/
Actions or speech that makes someone annoyed or angry, especially when done deliberately.

Provocative behaviors include: wild accusations and exaggerations, constant demands to do more for someone (especially after they reject all of your suggestions), illogical statements, absurd arguments, vague suicide threats, hostile-sounding statements, trying to get you into a fight with a third person, escalating hostility for no apparent reason, and suddenly dropping a complaint in the middle of a heated argument and then drawing you right back in to restart the fight again.

The Weird Goals of Provocations

Provocations are really "safety tests" for mistrust. A test is "meant" to find out: can you be rendered anxiously helpless (so you can't be expected to protect me), anxiously guilty (so I know you've "betrayed" me) or angry and hostile (so you really are "dangerous" to me). This is seldom a conscious deliberate thing. It is built on a set of "habits" or relationship coping strategies left over from dealing with long past, usually very early childhood, relationships with "powerful" people who had to be depended on but who were "not safe" or "reliable" in some significant way. However, you can stay calm, consistent and respectful. Your feather never need to get too ruffled.

What NOT to Do or Say

  • Don't go out of your way to try and please, rescue or make sacrifices for them when they are being unreasonable.
  • Don't get defensive, act hostile or act guilty (unless you actually are).
  • Don't just stand there and take it or play it off.
  • Don't get verbally nasty, threatening or lecture them back.
  • Don't treat them like they just don't get it.

What to Do or Say

The short version of what to do are say is as follows: be relentlessly respectful of the other person's suffering (even if you don't really get it), to their abilities and values. Be humble without disrespecting yourself or your own well-being. Be honest. Own your stuff and apologize when appropriate. Communicate the expectation that they are able to behave in a reasonable and cooperative way. Do your best to play to their strengths. Do absolutely everything you can to keep this up consistently or "variable intermittent reinforcement" will make it take much, much longer to get things to change.

You also need to remember that tone of voice is everything. You can use the same exactly right words and sound as if you are feeling anxiously helpless, guilty or hostile – or you can sound like you are at peace with yourself and with your own limitations.

How to Handle Specific Issues

The goal of each of the following solutions is to avoid "failing" a "safety test". You don't want to come across as anxious, helpless or guilty, nor do you want to seem hostile or angry. You also need to keep in mind that you don't get to decide if you passed or not. People who regularly face safety testing, can try really, really hard to pass, but you simply will not be able to pass every time. Change in these circumstances is a long-term project.

1. Handling Exaggerated Over-Generalizations and Wild Accusations

Seriously unreasonable people often make very dramatic, over the top, hyperbolic statements about what kind of person you are or accuse you of having secret (bad) motives for whatever you are doing or saying.

The key to handling this kind of situation is to find the kernel of truth hiding in there somewhere. No matter how awful or crazy sounding what they say is, there is always a kernel of truth in it. Always. It may be tiny but find it and acknowledge it. After you "validate" the kernel of truth, ignore all the exaggeration and all the negative innuendos or implications that are simply bait.

2. Handling Escalating Demands and Nothing Being Good Enough

You find yourself being pressured to do more for someone or to do it when it's very inconvenient or next to impossible. You also find that you are rarely, if ever, thanked and frequently told that whatever you did was too little, too late, not enough or wrong for some reason. You are being asked to solve problems, but you never have a right or good enough answer. Something will always be wrong. So, what do you do about it?

You need to simply and non-anxiously state your helplessness. Be empathetic, but don't be anxious, act sheepishly or guilty. You've been setup in such a way that you will not be able to help, so let it go without feeling bad about it.

You might say, "It's stinks being stuck, but I'm out of time/ideas/whatever." If you're being told you need to drop a commitment to someone else, you need to stick to that original commitment. You can add, "You know if it was the other way around, you wouldn't want me to bail out on you." You can simply say that you are responsible for whatever it is and leave it at that. Acting anxious and guilty about it is a test fail.

You could also say matter-of-factly that you're sure they can rise to the occasion or that they can find other helpers. This is not a good place to apologize. You haven't done anything wrong and you've given it a good shot. Again empathize, but don't apologize. Expressing what could be taken for anxiety or guilt means you risk failing the test again.

3. Handling Illogical Statements and Absurd Arguments

When you are confronted with illogical or absurd statements like, "I'm going to call your boss and tell him he's full of it." You'll be tempted to argue because this will obviously cause huge problems. If you take a moment to think about it though, you know the other person knows this full well, so why would they say such an ignorant sounding thing that just invites you to disagree and argue? It might just be venting, but it's often also a test for: Do you care? Will you get mad? Will you insult me or my intelligence? Will I still be safe?

The biggest problem may again be insulting them or sounding hostile. Dr. Allen suggests something along the lines of "I'm not going to insult your intelligence by arguing with you about that." or "Of course you could do that, but since I'm sure you're aware of how much trouble that would create, I don't understand why you'd want to do it or even say it out loud."

You could also try to simply ask about the feelings behind it with something like "What bothers you the most about what happened?" or otherwise take a guess at finding the kernel of truth that might be in there somewhere.

4. Handling Hostile Sounding Comments

It's surprisingly easy to say something that can be taken more than one way, one good and the other critical or mean spirited. At one time I had a supervisor who liked to make jokes or "humorous" remarks about people. All too often, these seemed far more critical and mean than they did funny, but they were always "funny enough" that they could deny or play off any nastiness.

If you find yourself struggling with not knowing what is meant and don't want to argue about, use Dr. Paul Jenkins "Identify, Verify and Accept" strategy like this: "When you said [ambiguous statement]? I wasn't sure what you meant. It sounded like you might have meant [problematic interpretation]. Is that it?"

After they backpedal, own or explain, you simply say "OK." This lets them know that it's had a less than good impact on you and that it will have an effect on what happens down the road. You do not need to get angry or make threats. It will be clear from the tone and context of your "OK" that they are not completely off the hook for their behavior, but it does leave room for them to gracefully do something to repair the damage soon.

Another variation goes like this: "When you said [ambiguous statement]? I wasn't sure what you meant. It sounded hostile/angry. Were you trying to pick a fight with me?" Be very careful to keep your tone pleasantly neutral because you aren't trying to pick a fight. You're only asking to confirm a hunch. If it becomes an issue, simply say you're not looking for trouble. You're just trying to understand, and if something is wrong, you're willing to talk about it. As always avoid sounding anxious, helpless, guilty or angry.

5. Handling "Failing" and Apologizing

The last bit of advice is on disarming a seriously unreasonable person after some provocation gets the best of you and you react with a statement or action that seriously fails the test.

This will eventually happen. A seriously unreasonable person has had a lifetime of experience in creating these reactions, so sooner or later, they'll get to you no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

After this has happened and both you and the provocateur have calmed down, own up to your mistake and apologize for it! Be a person of integrity. Be someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong, and who is the sort of person other people can look up to.

Your apology should not have any excuses for what you did or any blame for what the other person might have done first. It should also not have even the slightest hint of putting yourself down in any way. You do not need to fall on your sword. You do need to own your stuff by admitting what you did and expressing an understanding of how you might have felt if it had happened to you.

Finally, only apologize for what you actually said or did, but not for the feelings that led to it. For example, "I am sorry for sounding so critical, but I just had the feeling that you were dismissing everything I said out of hand." or "I'm sorry I called you a witch. That was really out of line, but you were sure were aggravating the snot out of me." The first part of both are a good start, but the added feelings are forms of excuse making or blaming.

A Few Final Notes

  • Breathe – stay centered and grounded.
  • Observe your thoughts, feelings and body. If it's becoming "too much" or "getting risky" take a timeout.
  • Avoid becoming or coming across as weak, anxious, helpless, guilty, angry or hostile.
  • Stay assertive and decisive, say things clearly, don't argue, justify or over-explain. Repeat yourself as necessary. (Be a broken record.)
  • Own your own stuff. Apologize when it's appropriate, that is when you are guilty, not just feeling bad or guilty.
  • Remember that if the conversation is "serious" or tense, you will be pushed harder and tested more the longer it goes on. You will eventually fail if you don't find a way to stop it or transform it. Take a timeout.
  • Watch out for reacting to personal attacks or insults. These are shame bait.
  • You are dealing with the emotions of a toddler and the experience of an adult (but not in an adult mindset at that moment).
  • Don't take it personally. You are dealing with bad coping strategies and a hurt person who doesn't feel safe.
  • "Being right" is always a lose-lose game.
  • Expect pushing.


David M. Allen, M.D., Responding to "Borderline" Provocations (Parts 1-10), Psychology Today (2013-2014) [Google for specific URLs]

Stan Tatkin, [Relationships Are Hard, But Why? (TEDxKC)]

Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (2012)

Verse for the Week

Ephesians 4:2 (NLT)
Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love.

Prayer for the Week

Help me this week to begin to love others and myself more equally. Help me see through the things that people do that frustrate, disappoint and anger me, so that I can continue to show them love and change our relationships. Help me notice the things that they do to show me love and to support me. I continue to want to be an example to those who know me. I want to show them that overcoming the past is possible. Amen.