I suspect my boyfriend and I are not the only ones getting a crash course in one another's go-to stress responses right now amid the coronavirus crisis—and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, confirms my hunch. "How we react in a pandemic offers some important information," she says. "When this kind of stress hits, the life-and-death kind, we react using our childhood reactive survival strategies. These archetypal coping strategies of fight, flight, or freeze don’t come from the grown-up parts of our brains; they can be self-destructive and hurtful to our partners, but if we pay attention, they can teach us a lot about ourselves."
"When this kind of stress hits, we react using childhood reactive survival strategies, which can be self-destructive and hurtful, but they can teach us a lot about ourselves." — Tammy Nelson, PhD
So for couples to preserve their relationships during this trying time, it's mission critical to understand not just how your partner copes but also the ways of dealing with stress that you, personally, turn to. And the attachment styles we develop as children can help paint that picture, says relationship therapist Lauren Cook, MMFT. Attachment styles are categorized into four main archetypes—secure, anxious, avoidant, and chaotic—which we can use as frameworks to help us better understand ourselves and each other in many ways, including preferred ways of dealing with stress.
How to use attachment style to understand your partner's preferred way of dealing with stress
Secure attachers are able to connect well with others and also be personally independent. "You see that same response in times of stress," Cook says. "So they're able to engage social support, but they're also able to still set boundaries and know when they need to step back." If you're partner's secure, it's unlikely their coping mechanisms for stress will impact your relationship negatively.
Those with an anxious attachment style, meanwhile, are likely to become more clingy when stressed. "They feel scared, and like the world is ending, and so they may be the ones to engage in a lot of fact-checking, perhaps over-preparing, and they can sometimes catastrophize," Cook says. "This can sometimes burn out the people around them, because it can be an exhausting response style, not only for the person living with the anxious attachment but for the people around them as well."
If your partner exhibits this response, Cook says setting boundaries is key. "You don't want to enable those fears," she says. "You want to be the secure source that validates that concern but doesn't feed into it."
Avoidants, on the other hand, might push people away and retreat (it me!). "The key is to become aware of that response in ourselves so we can respect that and give ourselves the space that we need, but also so our partners don't personalize it," Cook says. "When there's an avoidant style in place, gently challenge yourself [or your partner] to lean in a bit more to try and allow yourself [or themselves] to be supported by others."
Finally, those with a chaotic style respond with a mix of the anxious and avoidant responses. "This is honestly the most distressing type of response to experience," says Cook. "One second, they're clinging to people and feeling like the world is ending and then the next second, they're wanting to retreat and close away from it all. At its worst, this can look like having severe panic attacks or even suicidal ideation."
Chaotic attachers need grounding in the present moment, and an outlook that allows them to take things one day, or even one hour, at a time. "For partners of people with a chaotic attachment style, [priorities are] having patience, giving that person extra compassion, and not personalizing their response," says Cook. "If we can be that secure base for someone who has a chaotic attachment style, that can really help shift their experience so they can experience more calm as they cope through this."
How to best support your partner, no matter how they deal with stress
Since these psychological responses are largely unconscious, Cook recommends paying attention to the behaviors they manifest in both yourself and your partner. "Behaviors are the intervention point," she says, noting that it might be helpful to give our partners feedback on what we're seeing them do, whether that's cry a lot, isolate, or something else. Then, they can work to connect the behavior to the feelings causing it, and try to treat the problem at its source.
It might also be helpful for both partners to decipher between responses that require self-coping skills versus partner support, says Rachel Hoffman, LCSW, head of therapy at NYC-based mental health studio Real. "One method is to write down an anxious thought, utilize a self-coping strategy (such as meditation, or a workout) and then, if it continues to feel paralyzing, communicate to your partner that you need help," Hoffman says. "You can then determine as a team whether the stress/anxiety is in your control or outside of your control. If the anxiety is in your control, you and your partner can brainstorm strategies together." If it's out of your control though, your partner may be able to help distract you. (Of course, seeking professional help is always a great available option, too.)
Overall, though, the experts agree that being up-front about our needs is important right now, and compassion is a must. Ideally, the coronavirus crisis will offer an opportunity for relationships to grow and deepen; however, this might not be the case for every couple. "It gives us very helpful data to see how our partners respond," Cook says. "If how I cope through something really conflicts with how someone else is coping, that's important for us to look at. Maybe we can compromise, and maybe we find that we need to take more divergent paths."
But before making a drastic decision if your ways of dealing with stress don't complement one another, Dr. Nelson notes that it's possible to change how you cope. "How we handle things now is what we learned in childhood but today, as grownups, we have new strategies," she says. "We can make healthier, better choices. We can choose to be in control of our thoughts and our behaviors." With a little help from our partners, of course.
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