Our attachment style that we learn in childhood affects our “love styles” as adults.
I’m a big fan of the book How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich. It’s one of the few Christian marriage books that I can recommend wholeheartedly.
How We Love is based on attachment theory. This month we’re looking at attachment theory and how that affects our marriage, parenting, and relationships. I just interviewed the Yerkovichs yesterday for an upcoming podcast (I think on the 19!), and it got me thinking about how the typical Christian advice in marriage circles doesn’t work. And the reason: It doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is attachment.
So today I’d like to take us on a bit of a journey recognizing how our “love styles” as Milan and Kay call them can create an unhealthy dance pattern in our marriage. When we try to correct it using the typical Christian marriage advice, it can actually make things worse.
Let’s start by looking at love styles.
Last week we looked at the four big attachment styles. There’s one more in the literature that isn’t talked about as much–the preoccupied attachment style, where they experience deep anxiety about their relationships. But instead of focusing on how to maintain the relationship the way a typical anxious attachment person does, they focus on their own feelings (often anger).
So that gives us five love styles, that look like this:
Attachment Style –> Love Style
Avoidant Attachment — > The Avoider
Anxious Attachment — > The Pleaser
Preoccupied/Ambivalent Attachment — > The Vacillator
Disorganized Attachment — > The Controller or The Victim
Remember that real intimacy requires connection, and connection requires authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability.
We have to be able to share our deepest feelings with the one we love, trust that they will still be there and accept us, and then hear their deepest feelings as well.
If we’re going to be truly known, and we’re going to know our partner, then we need to be able to share ourselves and to receive.
The problem? That requires being in touch with our own feelings, being able to identify them, and being able to let our guard down.
So what happens with these five love styles?
I’m going to massively oversimplify here (and you really need to get the book How We Love for the whole picture), but let’s just take a snapshot:
The 5 Insecure Love Styles
The Avoider is more comfortable with tasks than feelings, and while they may want to connect, has no idea what they are actually feeling
The Pleaser wants security in the relationship, and so is very in tune with what their partner is feeling and thinking. They aren’t as in tune with their own feelings, because the aim is to keep the partner around.
The Vacillator also wants security, but it’s expressed differently. They’re very in tune with their own inner life, but often not as in tune with the other’s. They idealize relationships and are often quick to think that something else will fill this gaping hole.
The Controller doesn’t actually want connection, but control. They’re main focus as a child was on survival, and vulnerability is anathema to them. They’re quick to assign blame in relationships.
The Victim doesn’t actually crave connection either, but rather just not being alone. Often very passive, and unable to express their own needs well, they’re quick to accept blame in relationships.
Now imagine that two love styles collide in marriage.
In How We Love, Kay and Milan talk about themselves. Kay was an Avoider, and MIlan was a Pleaser. They both loved each other and were very committed to the marriage, but they kept having the same issues over and over again.
Milan would try to connect, asking Kay how she was, trying to have discussions about feelings, wanting to do things together. That pressure would cause Kay to want to withdraw–which would put Milan in a panic and he would pursue even more. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Milan wanted to feel secure by knowing that Kay loved him deeply; Kay wanted to feel secure by knowing that everything was on an even keel and that she was capable of doing her job as a wife. She was focused on task mastery; he was focused on security. The problem? Kay couldn’t “master” the task of feelings because she couldn’t get in touch with them, and Milan interpreted this as rejection.
So what would a couple like Milan and Kay learn if they went to typical Christian marriage advice? Let’s play it out one by one (and we’ll use a different couple’s name this time–say Derek and Lucy):
The 5 Love Languages approach
Derek and Lucy eagerly read the 5 love languages and think they have found their solution. Lucy’s love language is acts of service; she wants Derek to help her more around the house. Derek’s love language is words of affirmation; he wants Lucy to praise him more.
So Derek starts taking on more of the mental load of the household, owning the laundry task and the vacuuming task. Lucy notices what Derek is doing and thanks him for it and remembers to praise him for three different things each day.
But Derek still doesn’t feel like he knows what’s going on in Lucy’s heart, and still feels like she’s shutting him out. Lucy still feels suffocated, because while Derek is doing the vacuuming, he’s looking at her like a puppy dog who wants to be scratched behind the ears.
So they turn to the next thing…
The Love & Respect recipe.
They go to a love & respect seminar, where they learn that what Derek really needs is respect, to feel as if he’s in charge and to be able to make the decisions in the family. They learn that Lucy desperately desires connection and to be told that she is loved. Derek needs to lead, and Lucy needs to submit.
They try this for three days and it’s a big disaster. Lucy stops telling Derek what she’s thinking, because that would be disrespectful (since a lot of what she was thinking was that Derek was doing things wrong). Now Derek is getting even less of Lucy. But at the same time, Derek starts bringing Lucy home flowers and writing her love notes. Lucy feels even more suffocated; Derek feels even more lonely.
They ditch that, and try…
Check out our Love AND Respect Merchandise!
Romance! Let’s do date nights and hobbies.
Maybe they just aren’t spending enough time together. Maybe they need to go out to dinner once a week and to find a hobby to do together.
So they go to a restaurant with a list of hobbies to talk through. The baby-sitter and the restaurant bill are going to add up to about $100 for the night, but they try not to think about that. This is their marriage, and it’s worth it.
Lucy finds the conversation strained. Derek is excited about every possible hobby they could try together, but none of them feels quite right to her. She’d like to try golfing, but that’s just too expensive. And what she really enjoys doing at the end of a long day is just watching Netflix and cross-stitch, but Derek feels like when she does that she’s turning away from him. So she’s listening to him list off all the things she can do together, and she feels like her dream of having some time to herself is evaporating.
Derek find her lack of enthusiasm depressing. He gets her to agree to going on a hike on Saturday morning with the kids (she refuses any more baby-sitting money) and that actually sounds fun.
And it was! They go, and they genuinely enjoyed spending time together, and the kids genuinely enjoyed it too. They decide rather than dinner dates they’ll try to spend more time as a family in the outdoors (that’s cheaper anyway), but they still need a way to connect, just the two of them. They feel like they’re having more fun, but they still don’t feel like they know each other well. So they try…
Have sex for seven days straight cure.
Maybe the problem is just passion! If they had more sex, maybe they’d feel more connected. After all, that’s what Love & Respect said that Derek needed–sex to feel connected. Lucy wonders if she just gave Derek more sex if he’d stop suffocating her all the time.
So they have sex for seven days straight. They do laugh a lot, and Lucy does orgasm regularly, so that’s not an issue.
But it leaves them feeling rather empty. The sex was fun, but Derek feels that Lucy is still walled off. Lucy feels as if she put in all of this effort and Derek still isn’t happy. What’s it going to take for him to just be satisfied with her? Will she never be enough for him?
So they decide to turn to the spiritual…
Remember that marriage is meant to make you holy, not happy
They do a marriage study together that looks at the purpose for marriage; that they are two different people, doing life together, for a bigger purpose in God’s kingdom.
Marriage is meant to refine you, and it’s meant to be a lifelong commitment. It’s meant to show you your weaknesses and to point you to how you can be selfless anyway.
They leave the study feeling even more committed to each other and to God…but a little sadder. They were already committed to each other. They already knew they were in this for the long haul. They were just hoping that marriage wouldn’t be hard their whole lives and that they could overcome this. Instead, they feel like they’re supposed to embrace the fact that it’s hard and celebrate it. They figure this is as good as it’s going to get.
What if there’s another way that gets to the root of the issue?
What these five typical Christian marriage cures have in common is that they’re all focused on the marriage relationship. But we enter marriage with our whole histories, and the love styles that we had imprinted as children.
What if, by learning our love styles, we could also learn the path to growth for that particular style? And what if we could help the other grow?
That’s what happened with real-life Kay and Milan, and they’ve been teaching this ever since. I really love this approach to marriage issues, because I think it gets to the heart of what we’re really looking for: healthy connection. It addresses why you, individually, may have difficulty with healthy connection in a different way than your spouse may have difficulty. And it shows how you can overcome these and develop a secure connection with each other instead.
And it’s got nothing to do with gender assumptions, because both genders can have any love style. It’s just about you.
I highly recommend the book, and we’ll be looking this month at how we can put some of those growth tools into practice!
It really is an awesome book! And I hope it helps reframe some of your recurring marriage issues, too, so that you can deal with the root of it.
What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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Just a nit-picky note: the 5 Love Languages paragraphs use both Derek and Milan.
This sounds like a fantastic book!
Whoops! Fixed it! thank you.
I vacillate between secure attachment and anxious attachment. We have recently discovered that because of my husband’s extreme childhood abuse he has a disorganized attachment style, which totally explains why for 30 years he ran from me until he was exhausted, then came back and expected me to be there offering the connection he couldn’t offer. I’m sure my ability for secure attachment was attractive to him, but it’s no wonder I ended up disliking him and suffering from severe depression. No individual should be responsible for all of the connection in a marriage.
Your pattern of trail and error is what we did, too. Love languages, L&R, Wild at Heart, Power of a Praying Wife, sex, etc. I was hopeful for all of it and grateful that my husband was willing to try, too, but nothing curbed the desperate loneliness because nothing replaces intimacy and connection, and that was just lacking.
I’m going to order the book you recommend. We’ve read several others on attachment styles, but I like the marriage focus of this one. You can’t heal what’s not revealed, so I praise God for the chance to heal and experience intimacy.
Such a great topic! Thanks for addressing it!!
I think you’ll love the book! It’s really well done. And it does sound like these could be the answers you need. The good news is that people can grow. I hope your husband tries!
Isn’t it interesting that standard Christian marriage advice essentially forces women into the dysfunctional pleaser love style? (Which is much more obvious if you read the fuller description in the book or just go to their website.)
Yes! Really interesting observation.
That’s probably because women tend to struggle with self-esteem more often than men do. It’s a stereotype, to be sure, but it often does prove true. The Anxious attachment style has insecurity written all over it. Discovering that this was my problem has explained a lot.
What is it called when you afraid of showing people who you are because you fear what might happen?
Probably the pleaser? You’d have to look it up on their site!
Interesting! I took the quiz this morning and I basically had a tied score between 3 of the kinds. Pleaser, vacillator, and the avoider. I’m curious what my husband is, but I need to do more reading before I can really understand and find it helpful.
Love languages was helpful because I have to touch people!
A 3 day spiritual retreat with hardly any physical contact? My body was craving human connection! (Near the end of the 3 days, I was having a moment and got hugs from random women there. That’s when I noticed how deeply I needed to touch other humans!)
I found that it really helps to read the descriptions in the book. They resonated with me more than my quiz results!
Pleaser checks out.
Thank you so much for these series! I will definitely check out the book, so helpful!
I am just wondering…in conservative evangelical circles the avoident style is praised and seen as spritially mature people I think. Someone who doesnt let emotions rule them and focuses on truth (facts) and not experience or emotions. Just slap some theological truth and hierarchy over people and relationships, this is seen as a solution to dangerous and scary things like intimacy and emotionally difficult situations. What do you think?
Absolutely. That’s a big part of what I’ve been talking about for the last few years: What churches often portray as healthy and mature is not healthy at all. And then the solutions they give to marriage problems are just ways to paper over people’s emotional immaturity or stagnation, rather than encouraging growth and real transformation. It’s a huge issue.
Wish I had found this before. At 64 years old in a marriage with a beautiful wonderful woman of 66 years old for the past 35 years, with absolutely little to no intimacy for the past 30 years, due to her being an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I wonder if it’s too late?
Sheila- thank you for sharing about How We Love. I took the quiz, and even ordered the MP3 for more info on my results.
I am a VACILLATOR. And although it was eye opening, it was also heartbreaking to listen to an hour long spot-on description of myself and how I’ve been a ticking time bomb to my husband of 11 years and my 9 year old son. As soon as I finished listening, I had to send a long apology text to my husband. It is exhausting being this way… Expectations are never met and I never feel totally loved. But it’s not for his lack of trying, it’s that my expectations are unreachable… The common trait for a vacillator. My biggest takeaway from the MP3 was a quote from a fellow vacillator who said she starts every day with “today is not going to be as good as you think it will be” and follows up with “this is not as bad as you think it is”
Exhausting, right? And it is just so sad!
I’m going to ask him to take the quiz as well… I’m pretty sure he is Avoider… not a good combo… From what their MP3 said, our styles together are apparently the most likely types to go to counseling. The vacillator drags the avoider to counseling… Which I’ve certainly contemplated after unsuccessful attempts at Sacred Marriage, Sacred Influence, Power of a Praying Wife, Love Languages, and countless more.
Hopefully my husband will be open to going through the How We Love book together.
I’m still trying to figure out how my childhood shaped me into this… I had a wonderful childhood, parents still married… Only thing I can think is I was never close to my dad? But I never suffered any abandonment or anything like that.. We just were never emotionally close. And still aren’t, conversations are just awkward between us.
Anyways, thanks again for writing about this book, and I am so looking forward to the Podcast with the authors!
I’m glad you found it so helpful! I think I was a Vacillator too (I think I’m quite healthy now?). I think sometimes kids just react to different things. It doesn’t always mean your parents did something wrong. Sometimes it’s just our personalities combined with our families and it all just goes a bit haywire!
I’d love to hear more about your personal growth journey out of the Vacillator style… All the marriage advice thus far has justified me as being emotionally mature vs my husband emotinally immature. (Aka God-given gender differences) Placing the blame on him to get more in tune with his emotions in order to understand me better. Needless to say, there has been a lot of tension emotionally in our marriage because of this.
Update: he took the quiz last night and is in fact the Avoider. Neither of us were surprised given his upbringing.
Turns out, we are BOTH very emotionally immature!! And we both need help growing out of these love styles!
I have this book, both the audiobook and the paperback. My husband also attended a marriage seminar back in 2020 based on this book (it was a webinar, thanks to Covid). At the time, I thought I was a pleaser, but I think now I lean more toward being avoidant, although I still have aspects of pleaser. My husband couldn’t figure out what he was. He thought he was all of them. We are currently in marriage counseling with a man who has done extensive work with attachment styles, and he has identified my husband as disorganized, but he is neither controller nor victim. We don’t have that dynamic in our marriage at all. He sounds more like a vacillator, and indeed he longs for connection but is terrified of the painful effort needed to achieve it. I just listened to all the chapters describing the different styles yesterday on the audiobook after talking to the counselor (he told me after my husband had left), and he didn’t sound like any of the ones in the book. But when I looked up disorganized attachment, it sounded exactly like him.
Anyhow, I still think the book is great. It just hasn’t helped us because it takes effort my husband isn’t ready to make. Or hasn’t been. There may still be hope. But I’m so tired of waiting that holding onto hope is exhausting.