“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
– Albert Einstein-
Attachment theory explains how human beings build bonds of connection and intimacy across the lifespan (in utero to adulthood). It describes two relational patterns individuals can get stuck in when they are stressed: a dismissive pattern and a preoccupied pattern. The dismissive pattern tries to avoid stress by “down playing”, isolating, being overly self-reliant, bucking authority, and becoming critical of others. The preoccupied pattern tries to manage stress by “turning up the intensity”, worrying, becoming focused on what others think, appearing helpless, and clinging to others.
It’s important to remember that there is not one pattern that is better than the other. Rather, these are unhealthy patterns that individuals get stuck in when stressed. Some researchers (Ciechanowski et al. 2001) have studied how attachment theory can also be related to how individuals relate to an illness.
In light of COVID-19 how are you and your partner relating to this global illness? In your distress are you relating in a dismissive way or preoccupied way? Are there similarities in how you and your partner are relating to COVID-19? Difference? Are these similarities or differences causing any conflict in your relationship?
Take a step back and try and understand how you are both relating to COVID-19. Neither way is right or wrong. Is there a way that you could be more supportive of your partner in their stress? For example, maybe you could only check the news updates on COVID-19 twice a day (for the preoccupied partner) and maybe you could ask your partner about the latest news, rather than avoiding the topic (for the dismissive partner). If you are both preoccupied maybe you could set into place some parameters on how much social media chatter you expose yourselves to related to the pandemic. If you are both dismissive perhaps you could commit to trying to offer your preoccupied friends and family support (for example, rather than saying, “Just calm down” you could say, “Man this seems really stressful for you. I am so sorry this feels hard”).
Many times the way we relate to people when stressed is exhibited in how we relate to challenging circumstances like COVID-19. Knowing how we relate in stress can help us be compassionate and patient with ourselves and our partner.
Stephen WB Mitchell has his Ph.D in Medical Family Therapy and works as a professor, writer, speaker, storyteller, and a web-based relationship coach. He and his partner Erin Mitchell, MACP see couples together in their web-based practice. They have an online course for couples Create Your Couple Story. They speak and write together on issues of marriage, family, death, life, miscarriage, and the general importance of stories to help us make sense of our lives. You can follow their journey on Instagram @createyourcouplestory and at their YouTube channel Couples Therapy Bites with the Mitchells. Their mission is to guide couples and families into deeper connection and healing through story telling.