You love them and they love you, but all of a sudden they can turn into a flurry of emotions during a fight. They always want to talk things out at the moment, they need you to reassure them, and they ask what’s wrong when you stop talking. For someone not wired this way, this behavior can be anywhere from annoying to downright baffling.
Does this sound like your partner? Let’s begin to understand the physiological issue going on under the surface.
Everyone has different ways of dealing with conflict and stress in their relationships, and your partner’s reactions during tense moments might be driving you away.
All of our close relationships are also known as attachments. You and your partner are each one of these styles, and that combo affects how you relate during stress. Chances are your partner searches for reassurance under stress because of their attachment style.
The behavior that feels needy/clingy usually comes from the style known as Waves. Understanding them from an attachment style perspective will help you make sense of their behavior and know what actions to take.
Waves have learned to relate with people who will help support them, and have a harder time supporting themselves alone. In our culture, we tend to value people who can be emotionally independent (more like islands - see our other blog). A wave is just as valuable a style and can amplify social networks and healthy communication. In a relationship, if a wave isn’t given reassurance that the relationship is secure, they will start to feel anxious and frantic.
Waves had at least one parent who was emotionally inconsistent - here one minute and gone the next. Because of this, a wave’s deepest fear is abandonment, which can feel like a constant threat when they love someone who is pulling away.
Waves can have a hard time establishing their boundaries because they don’t want to do anything that would push their partner away, and because of that can end up in co-dependent relationships where they’re always giving instead of expressing their needs.
During stress, Waves will instinctively come in closer to find security and reassurance from the other person and attempt to make sure the relationship isn’t going to break. If their partner pulls away, their anxiety keeps getting worse, to the point they might feel like they’re dying or that all hope is lost. That’s because their survival center (the limbic system) has hijacked their solutions center (pre-frontal cortex) and they are acting more out of instinct and fear than logic. They will keep trying harder and harder for connection and reassurance in order to feel safe again.
While it can be tempting to judge them for being hijacked by their emotions, it’s important to realize that if you have gone completely cold-stone logical, you have also been hijacked by a stress response, and your brain is not functioning from its solutions center either. So both hyper-emotional and hyper-rational are coping mechanisms around stress, they just group people into opposite behaviors that can “keep pressing the other’s button” so to speak.
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You may notice that you become very analytical or checked out during stress, which is a very different coping style. When your partner pushes in closer to feel safe, they are in survival mode and not really thinking about how it’s affecting you. This might trigger an even greater sense of “wanting to check out” because they are just too much to handle. That’s because, for your style, it’s best to close down during intense situations, as you learned to rely on yourself.
Before this post, you might have assumed that your partner was becoming needy because they’re “too sensitive” or “crazy”, rather than recognizing they are acting out of their own fear or attachment style based on how they grew up.
Once your wave partner knows you’re not abandoning them, their emotional reactions will subside dramatically and they will be able to show up more presently and rationally. You can be in a fight, and still reassure them that you’re not going anywhere. Give them a deep, calming presence and physical touch, just long enough to remind them things will be okay again soon. A big hug, gentle caresses, and words of reassurance that this is all going to work out in time. Since their fear is tied to their nervous system so strongly, keeping yourself calm and present around them will alert their system that it’s safe instead of threatened. You can say something like “Even though I’m angry/disappointed/checked out right now, underneath all this I love you, I’ll still be here for you, and I know we will get through this.”
No amount of detached rational explanation or telling them to just give you a minute is going to relieve their anxiety, the way it would make your style feel better because what you both need in these moments is the complete opposite. Since they need a connection to find safety but you need space to feel safe, you’re going to have to create safety for yourself in a new way, to create more connection with them.
Often your style pulls away because you don’t believe your partner can understand you or meet your needs. And your partner’s emotional neediness seems to reinforce your perspective. However, as soon as you’re willing to “lean in” and help reassure your wave partner, they are actually some of the best-suited people to listen, empathize, and support your needs. By pulling away you create a self-fulfilling prophecy, but by leaning in, you create a chance for a better connection than you had before. Tell yourself, “I can trust this person to understand me if I’m willing to try.” Take a few deep breaths, and see if you can speak about how you’re feeling.
If they are overwhelming you and it feels like too much to “lean in”, take some space away for yourself, but do it mindfully. Let your partner know what’s happening. You can say something like, “I need to be on my own for a little bit to reset, not because I’m leaving, but because I love you and want to work through this. I’m not leaving for good, and I will reach out to you by (this specific day/time).” This will reassure them that they can trust you to take space and not abandon them forever, while also being honest about your own needs. When you can use clear communication that shows you understand both sides and are willing to compromise, you set yourself up for healthy relationships. If it’s too much to get those words out, at the very least, you can say “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now and I need a few minutes, but I’ll come back.”
Use your space to come back into the present moment. Remind yourself that all relationships have bumps, and you’re going to be okay even though your partner is reacting right now. Use meditation or a physical practice (gym, yoga, sports, run, etc) to get into your body again instead of letting your mind fly away. From there, you can circle back and be more clear about your needs, your understanding of their needs, and your plan for returning.
Recognizing the different needs that you and your partner have during times of stress can help you take responsibility to show up for yourself and the relationship. As you keep practicing supporting your partner with connection and reassurance, they will calm down sooner and be able to support your needs even better. Speak directly about what needs you have and ask them what they need without taking it personally. Being able to break and repair well together during conflict is one of the biggest indicators of a healthy relationship that is capable of creating lasting love.