Couples come to counseling for a variety of reasons, and therapists are tasked with understanding the nature of couples’ concerns and offering helpful tools. Sometimes, as therapists, we might hear one partner complain about the things the other partner is doing and, often, these things may seem very trivial. We might also hear clients complain of conflict that centers on a lack of emotional availability on the part of their partner, coupled with their partner escaping or turning elsewhere to de-stress, to get needs met or for emotional sharing.
For example, one person might say, “My partner is always on their phone” or “My husband always takes work calls even during family time” or “My wife shares our fights with her friends” or “My partner would rather play video games than be with me.” Then there are statements that are less trivial, such as, “I think my spouse is having an affair.”
Anything that erodes the security of the bond between partners and creates distress can be seen as a threat to the relationship. The resulting distress must not be viewed as trivial, regardless of how small and harmless the situation may appear on the surface.
A rival to the relationship
A competing attachment is a threat to secure bonding in which one person in a relationship turns away from the relationship and toward someone or something else to get their emotional or attachment needs met. This is often experienced by their partner as a rival to their relationship — someone or something with which they have to compete for their sweetheart’s time
Some of these emotional investments or activities on the part of one of the partners may actually be counterfeit attachments. These attachments are an attempt to mimic the fulfillment of comfort, soothing and belonging needs that a secure relationship would typically provide. It is usually the other partner (not the partner engaging in the competing attachment) who initially complains of distress.
The person participating in the competing attachment may or may not be aware that they are turning elsewhere to get their emotional and attachment needs met. This may largely depend on their own attachment style and level of emotional intelligence. Those engaging in the competing attachment are sometimes aware of what they are doing but may try to deny the impact this has on their partner or relationship.
Depending on the type of competing attachment (what or whom a person turns out to) and the frequency (how often they’re turning out), their partner can be left feeling frustrated, jealous, hurt and disconnected. The more often this occurs, the more distressed the relationship may become. The attachment bond may then start to shift from secure to insecure, or a romantic attachment bond that was already insecure can have that insecurity amplified. Additionally, relationship satisfaction decreases as a relationship becomes distressed by a competing attachment.
Research currently shows a connection between competing attachments and insecure attachment relationships. However, it is unknown whether one causes the other or if an already insecure bond or insecurely attached person might be more vulnerable to developing or experiencing a competing attachment.
While different types of competing attachments tend to pose different levels of threat to a relationship, there is a clear connection between a partner’s concern of competing attachment and their romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. In a study conducted for my dissertation research, it was revealed that the more a competing attachment increases, the more the attachment security within the relationship decreases. As attachment security decreases, the more relationship satisfaction also decreases.
Competing attachments constitute a counterfeit attachment in which one partner turns outside of the marriage or relationship and toward something or someone else for escape, soothing, comfort or attention as a substitute for unmet attachment needs. Competing attachments can include addictions, affairs, gaming systems, smart phones, family members or anything else that might lead a spouse or partner to feel it necessary to compete with this “other” for the attachment bond with their partner.
Competing attachments vs. hobbies
It is important to distinguish the difference between a competing attachment and a hobby. Obviously, not everything that someone turns to outside of a relationship will constitute a competing attachment. Clients may have healthy attachments with other people or things that do not violate the boundaries of the romantic attachment relationship between two people and that do not create a feeling of competition for emotional time, attention or affection.
In general, hobbies do not threaten relationships because there are some emotional boundaries involved. Typically, hobbies are engaged in for general enjoyment rather than as an escape or as an alternative to the benefits of their romantic partner. Hobbies do hold the potential of turning into a competing attachment, although this doesn’t usually happen in securely attached people or relationships.
In my clinical practice, I have often heard female partners voice feeling the threat of competing attachment because their partners come home from work most nights and neglect to spend even a little bit of quality time connecting. Instead, they go straight to their gaming systems and play for hours until it’s time to put the children to bed or turn in for the night. Part of what contributes to the sense of a competing attachment is if one partner regularly turns to this “other” before they turn to their own partner or more frequently than they turn to their own partner.
Types of competing attachments
Research has yet to explore every type of competing attachment individually or their respective impact on relationship security and satisfaction, in part because new forms of competing attachment pop up and develop over time. In addition, competing attachments and their impacts can vary culturally. However, a few specific types of competing attachment have been linked to decreases in relationship security and satisfaction.
Research on addiction and attachment helps explain how disrupted early life attachment bonds and adaptive mechanisms can, if left untreated, become barriers to emotional flexibility and bonding in adult romantic relationships. When emotional regulation and soothing have not been taught in the context of attachment bonds with a loved one, it can leave the individual more vulnerable to turning to a substance as a means of soothing and escape. On a fundamental level, failed attachment to a primary attachment figure creates alternative attachment to survival mechanisms and defenses. This eventually transitions into attachments to substances or other compulsive behaviors in an attempt to find comfort, soothing, safety, protection and security.
Substances are shown to have analgesic (pain blocking) effects that aid in the numbing out of emotionally painful experiences and situations. Individuals with addiction lack the ability to internally self-regulate their emotions. They frequently turn to substances or compulsions to regulate their feelings of pain or distressing emotional experiences. Nonchemical processes such as pornography and gambling are demonstrated to have similar effects to chemical substances on the brain and can be used by a person to achieve the same effect.
The more frequently someone turns to addictive behaviors to meet their attachment needs, the less often they will seek connection with others. The addiction eventually starts to become a substitute for human connection. Over time, this builds into a false sense of connection, or a counterfeit attachment, because a true and secure attachment bond involves a reciprocal relationship.
In romantic relationships, the consequences for the partner who is not addicted is that they are left emotionally (and, often, physically) alone to deal with emotional distress and the stresses of daily living. Additionally, it is hard to build a secure and satisfying connection with a partner who is not emotionally present, engaged or accessible because of their addiction, especially if the addiction negatively alters the person’s mood. The result is a relationship that is higher in conflict, less emotionally engaged, more unstable or insecure, and less satisfying.
Social media, gaming, smart phones
With the advancement and availability of new technology, the types and frequency of competing attachments have also changed. Internet addiction is a general term used to encompass a wide variety of online behaviors that are problematic for individuals and relationships. For example, addiction to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has been cited as being intrusive in relationships and is associated with relationship dissatisfaction. Technoference is a term applied to the interference of technology in relationships, including romantic relationships. Another trending term is phubbing, or phone snubbing. This describes when a person turns their attention to a smart phone instead of to their romantic partner or others in a social or personal setting.
As cell phones and gaming systems have morphed from simple electronic devices to devices that encourage participation and interaction online, live human interactions have decreased. Online adult gamers have described sacrificing major aspects of their lives to maintain their online gaming status. Romantic partners report that technologies such as gaming and smart phones frequently interrupt quality time and connection, reduce instances of going to bed together at night, and affect the amount of time spent together on leisure activities. In other words, these partners feel that their relationship has taken a back seat to online gaming activity.
Those who have been phubbed report feeling that their romantic partner favors a virtual world over time and connection with them, thus sending an implicit message about what their partner values most. This has become so problematic in romantic relationships that support groups have been created for “gaming widows” suffering from technoference. Additionally, interviews have revealed that technoference lowers relationship satisfaction and increases conflict between romantic partners.
Pornography is unique in that it can encompass two different types of competing attachments: addiction and infidelity (since many romantic partners view pornography as a form of infidelity). Often, the partner who is addicted turns to pornography as a source of stress release or to soothe feelings of shame and disconnection in the romantic relationship.
Research into the experiences of those partners who are not addicted to pornography shows that they often feel in competition with the pornography or the actors in the pornographic material. The turning outside of the relationship to an addiction has also been shown to have a negative effect on the security of the relationship bond and the level of relationship satisfaction.
Affairs and infidelity
Being unfaithful in a romantic relationship (infidelity) is considered one of the most potent threats to romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce and one of the leading threats of competing attachment.
Unlike other forms of competing attachment, this particular form may need to occur only once for the partner to consider it a competing attachment. What constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior with someone outside of the relationship can take on different meanings for different people. For some, a one-time nonsexual encounter in which their partner turns to another may be acceptable, whereas others may find small flirtations that do not result in sexual intercourse unacceptable. For others, finding inappropriate, provocative or sexual pictures or messages exchanged between their partner and someone else may constitute infidelity. The definition of infidelity depends on how the couple delineates the boundaries of their relationship and how they define cheating.
Infidelity, even if only perceived, has the power to undermine the trust, security and satisfaction of the love relationship. Behaviors on social media that violate relational boundaries are also associated with relational insecurity and lower levels of relationship satisfaction.
Factors such as attachment security and satisfaction have been demonstrated to be both consequences and causes of infidelity. Those with secure attachment are less likely to engage in infidelity-related behaviors. There is also a link between attachment avoidance and interest in other partners, as well as strong associations between attachment insecurity and infidelity in relationships. Unmet attachment needs and low levels of relationship satisfaction may contribute to people seeking connection and sex outside of their primary love relationship.
Outside or “rival” relationships may not constitute or result in infidelity, but they can still be experienced as competing attachments to the romantic bond. A rival relationship may be any nonromantic relationship that a partner has with another person outside of their love relationship, especially if the outside person is perceived as being attractive. This could be a friend of the opposite sex. Even family members can become competing attachments in some relationships.
In rival relationships, one partner may consistently turn out to a friend or family member to discuss private emotional topics, seek comfort or validation, or share friendly connections that are not shared with their partner or spouse within the love relationship. Another example may be a partner who exchanges text messages, emails or phone calls or engages in private get-togethers with another person outside of the love relationship, particularly if their romantic partner is not invited to take part. The romantic partner may feel like they are being left out of or are on the outside of a friendship or relationship that their partner has.
In therapy, clients might complain about their partner’s closest friend of the opposite gender or an intrusive in-law whom their spouse frequently turns to for advice and emotional support. Rival relationships that involve family members, usually described by clients as “intrusive” family members, are associated with a weaker couple identity and are demonstrated to predict the quality of the couple’s bond.
Interestingly, even in cultures in which men are expected to maintain a strong alliance with their mothers after getting married, wives in these marriages often complain about feeling like they are competing with their mothers-in-law for their place in the family unit. An example might be a husband who frequently puts his mother first by meeting her every need, even after he marries. This type of competing attachment often goes unnoticed. Society tends to dismiss enmeshed mother-son relationships as being potentially problematic, despite the consequences to the son’s marriage or romantic relationship. I am not referring here to a healthy attachment bond between a mother and a son but rather to an unhealthy form of attachment (insecure bonding) that results in the failure of either person to securely and appropriately transition parts of their attachment role when necessary.
Importance to clinical practice
In each of these types of competing attachment, there exists a common link with attachment security (or lack thereof) and relationship satisfaction. As professional therapists, we know that science is clear about the importance of human attachment bonds across the life span. Primary attachment figures were initially considered important for infants and children. However, these roles were later recognized as being important for all humans at all stages, including those with whom we formulate strong romantic attachment relationships as adults.
Each person will have a different attachment style that is classified as either secure or insecure. These attachment strategies are typically stable over time. However, attachment relationship bonds can be defined separately from individuals, also as either secure or insecure. Additionally, there is plasticity in adult attachment relationships. They can shift from secure to insecure and vice versa. In romantic relationships, distress can occur when the security of the attachment relationship is threatened. This is important for therapists to understand as they work with their clients to help them shift from insecure to secure bonding and to build safe and satisfying relationships.
Competing attachments threaten the security and satisfaction of romantic attachment relationships and can become pivotal moments that redefine a couple’s relationship as unsafe. This can additionally create an impasse to relational trust and stability, both of which can negatively affect relational satisfaction. Anything that threatens the stability and satisfaction of an attachment bond is important for clinicians to know about so that they can be prepared to intervene.
Not all things that someone turns to outside of the love relationship qualify as competing attachments. To constitute a competing attachment, it must cross certain boundaries or thresholds that result in distress. If a competing attachment does exist in a relationship and is causing distress, then the relationship satisfaction will start to go down. The less secure the bond becomes between the couple and the less satisfying the relationship is, the more risk exists of the relationship becoming broken. Attachment security is strongly associated with relationship satisfaction. Both attachment security and relationship satisfaction are also important factors in relationship longevity and personal health. Relational satisfaction should remain relatively high and stable over time for most couples in securely attached relationships.
Attachment science offers a guidepost for treatment strategies and interventions for couples who come to therapy reporting the presence of competing attachment.
If a couple comes to your practice complaining of a competing attachment or hinting at the possibility of one, consider asking a few assessment questions. These questions are based off of the Competing Attachment Scale that I created with emotionally focused therapy trainer Rebecca Jorgensen and UCLA professor Rory Reid in 2015 for my dissertation study.
1) Have you experienced in the past or do you currently experience a sense of competition with the activities or relationships in which your partner engages?
2) Do you feel like your partner turns elsewhere outside of the relationship to have their needs met rather than turning to you?
3) Do you feel hurt, bothered or upset by this?
4) Do you feel like this has been a problem in your relationship, created a lot of conflict or affected your ability to get close with or have a healthy bond with your partner?
Also consider the following treatment recommendations for couples reporting distress due to a competing attachment:
- Clearly identify and understand how the competing attachment is part of a couple’s relational system (their negative interaction pattern or cycle).
- Identify the competing attachment as an alternative (and ineffective) way of coping with/not dealing with emotional distress or not getting needs met (maladaptive behavior).
- Help couples turn toward each other as secure bases/safe havens to help co-regulate moments of emotional distress.
- Help couples find alternative ways of coping with emotional dysregulation that don’t create relational distress or violate relationship boundaries.
- Help couples identify their emotional/attachment needs and be able to ask for these needs to be met in their relationship.
For more information on adult attachment research, or to find clinical training in your area, visit the websites of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and its founder, Sue Johnson.
Anabelle Bugatti is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Las Vegas. She is a certified emotionally focused supervisor and therapist and is the president of the Southern Nevada Community for Emotionally Focused Therapy. She has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Northcentral University. Her new book, Using Relentless Empathy in Therapeutic Relationships: Connecting With Challenging and Resistant Clients, is slated for release at the end of the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
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