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Individual Therapy with the Couple in Mind 1/6: Horizontal Attachment

How do insights from couple therapy enrich work with individual clients? In her new six-part series, couples therapist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author Anne Power will share what she has learned about couple dynamics and suggest how these understandings and concepts can contribute to individual therapy – starting with the link between attachment strategies and escalating relationship cycles.

As individual therapists we learn so much about relationships and almost always work with people who face relationship struggles, yet our training often does not equip us with an understanding of couple dynamics. This continues to be true even though, as a profession, we’ve come to realise that privileging vertical relationships can mean overlooking the impact of horizontal relationships – with siblings and with spouses.

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When I trained to work with couples I experienced an unexpected bonus – I felt a renewed curiosity in my work with individual clients. My practice continued to be mainly with individuals but now with the sense that I was working ‘with the couple in mind’.

Occasionally a client relayed to me how this was helping: a long-married female client returned from a break chuckling that her husband seemed so changed, she’d been joking to herself that he must have been coming to secret therapy sessions. He was a therapy refusenik who had declined to do couple therapy. She said, “I know it must be that I’m being different with him but he seems so much nicer!”

Another long-term individual client told me once of an altercation with her partner. As they squabbled her partner had asked, “What would Annie say?” and my client had fired back, “Oh she’d be on your side”. This latter comment touched me as I understood that my client was not complaining about unfairness on my part but was comfortable with the experience of being pushed by me to see her relationship in the round – as a system, created by both parties, in which each was triggered by the other.

In this series I will talk about basic couple dynamics in ways that I hope will be useful for individual practitioners. We’ll look at rows, sex, and the disappointments in marriage, whilst thinking about the attachment bond between two equals and how the partners’ contrasting attachment strategies often create conflict.

The most common pairing is one person with an avoidant-dismissing strategy coupled with someone with a preoccupied style. The individuals are naturally drawn to a quality in the other which is under-developed in the self (and in part two we’ll be looking in more detail at how we seek out partners who carry the ‘fascinating’ and the ‘familiar’).

In terms of our attachment patterns this very often lands couples in a spiral: the more reserved and reticent the avoidant partner becomes, the more the preoccupied partner insists that they must talk; as the preoccupied person intensifies their demands, the avoidant partner hides deeper in their ‘cave’.

This cycle of Pursuer and Withdrawer is particularly well addressed by Emotionally Focused Couple therapy (EFT), which we will look at in greater detail in part five. The key systemic point is that this escalating cycle is not the fault of either partner – they are caught up in a dynamic created by their two protective strategies. If we can see through all the dust, it’s clear that both behaviours – even the withdrawer’s cold stonewalling and the pursuer’s demanding rage – are in the service of maintaining the attachment bond.

Anne Power will be writing a regular blog on her website, where you can find attachment resources tailored to couples


Anne Power

Anne Power has qualifications from The Bowlby Centre, Westminster Pastoral Foundation, Tavistock Relationships and Relate. She has taught on supervision and therapy trainings at The Bowlby Centre, WPF and at Regents University London. Her clinical work has been in voluntary settings, in the NHS and in private practice in London. She is currently working online with couples and supervisees. Her book Contented Couples: Magic, Logic or Luck? was published by Confer Books in June 2022. The book describes research interviews with long-term couples and uses the couples’ own words to discuss what makes a long-term relationship work as well as how much difference it makes if we choose our partner via random romance, arranged marriage, or dating sites.

Her first book, Forced Endings in Psychotherapy, explores the process of closing a practice for retirement or other reasons. Her published papers explore attachment meaning in the consulting room and in the supervision relationship.

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