Love Logic: A Series Illustrating Adult Attachment Theory in Practice

Oct 29, 2014 by Colleen Kelly

Wendy and Pete: Commitment Concerns

Wendy and Pete started out with a whirlwind romance that had them travelling to exotic places and spending most of their free time enjoying each other’s company. After a year, the relationship became more serious and they began to talk about the possibility of living together. Shortly thereafter, Pete began showing more ambivalence about spending time with Wendy. He called and texted less often, and he sometimes had “other plans” on the weekend, telling Wendy he was not available. Wendy began wondering if Pete really loved her, but was too afraid to ask because she didn’t want to rock the boat. This went on for about six months.

Wendy and PeteNow, after a year and a half of dating, Wendy is still afraid of voicing her disappointment regarding Pete’s inconsistent behavior. She keeps thinking that things will change. Occasionally she gets angry and blurts out something about how unreliable he is, but because these outbursts don’t go very well, she tries to tamp down her disappointment. One moment she’s encouraged and feels better, and the next moment she feels shut out and discarded.

Pete is afraid of giving up his freedom, although he enjoys spending time with Wendy.  He loves their connection and how easy it is with her. He wants to find a way to be more committed to Wendy, but is doubtful that he’ll be able to “do his own thing” and have a girlfriend he loves when he wants or needs her.

How would you go about helping this struggling couple?

One common approach would be to give them advice. For example, you might note that Pete has commitment issues and urge him to make a decision instead of holding on to Wendy when he can’t follow through. You might encourage Wendy to stand up for herself and assert her needs.

Let’s say that you give them the above advice. Wendy begins to assert herself and firmly tells Pete that she is not happy with Pete’s hot-and-cold behavior and that she needs him either to make a commitment or go elsewhere.  Pete hears this and decides that it confirms that he’s never going to make her happy and be able to do the things he wants. Ultimately, he decides he can’t risk committing to the relationship.

When couples like Wendy and Pete come in to see me for therapy, they want help with their relationship. There are so many ways to interpret their respective behaviors and provide help. But how do you get to the heart of the matter without blowing up the relationship?

Enter Adult Attachment Theory

There have been decades of study and research into adult love relationships called adult attachment theory. Utilizing this approach helps us to see what is happening in between Wendy and Pete. Pioneers in the research and study of adult love and bonding like Dr. Sue Johnson will point out that these kinds of situations come into clarity when we look at them through an attachment lens. Utilizing the logic of love helps us get to the heart of the matter, rather than simply deal with the surface behavior.

Let’s see the logic of love in application, using it to clarify Wendy and Pete’s relationship:

  • Wendy and Pete are arguing because the relationship has survival value. If either of them didn’t care, they wouldn’t be so upset.
  • It’s difficult for them to state their needs clearly. Why?  Because Wendy is too afraid it might result in Pete leaving. Pete doesn’t know how to tell Wendy he wants more freedom without disappointing her or making her angry.
  • These fears make it hard to risk stating their needs clearly, and addressing this issue openly.
  • This drives them back into less-risky behaviors like Wendy “stuffing” her disappointment or complaining, and Pete checking out of the relationship.

Their respective fears and hurts are keeping them from sensitively addressing the fabric of their relationship. Yet how do they address these fears and hurts without driving each other further apart?

This article illustrates the first step: recognizing that there is much more going on than simply Pete’s commitment issues or Wendy’s difficulty in standing up for her needs.  We’ve now identified what’s at stake in the relationship and how their respective fears and hurts are leading them into unhelpful patterns of interaction that leave them feeling ambivalent, alone or disconnected.

In the next installment of this Love Logic series, I’ll address the “how” of dealing with these difficulties. Tune in to see what happens to Pete and Wendy when we utilize the logic of love to help them move through these difficulties in a way that honors themselves, as well as the relationship.

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