The Ways We Get Love All Wrong: Defenses Versus Boundaries, and Adult Attachment

I haven’t met very many people in the course of my work as a therapist and coach, as well as in my personal life, that approach the process of love, without first attempting to figure out how they might protect themselves from getting hurt.

In fact, I would say, even the most adept relationship therapists and coaches, as well as the most well-practiced and self aware people I know, are rather misguided around their “boundaries”. I place the word boundaries in quotation marks here, because I don’t believe most of us actually know what boundaries are, and how to put them into practice. Instead, we confuse defensive strategies for our boundaries, attempting to exert power, control, or influence, over another’s behavior and experiences, so that we might not feel so fearful and insecure, when facing conflict, differing needs, separation, or intimacy.

Early in my psychology education, I once had a teacher describe the difference between boundaries and defenses, and almost two decades later, do I feel I now understand what he meant. From how I remember it, which is certainly, he stated that boundaries have perforation in their psychic structure, are open to influence, and are a way to communicate to another what you need, and how you might feel if they say, do, or act a certain way. Boundaries help people get to know who you are, what triggers and wounds you have, and are a gesture towards connection and intimacy. Boundaries are a process and a conversation we continue to navigate with others. Whereas, defenses are solid and inflexible. Defenses are a way we seek to control another. If others trigger our defensive strategies, we punish them through a self-protective, often blaming, reaction. There is no way to connect with defenses, as they depend on blame and projection, are constructed of demands and threats, and they block influence. Defensive strategies instead cause us to perceive others existing and being a certain way toward us, as an offense or a threat.

I was confused when hearing boundaries are perforated, and defenses are solid lines. I thought this was ridiculous. I saw relationships in a much more simplistic way at that point in my life. I thought we had to protect ourselves from others either consciously, or unwittingly, using or exploiting us, and this was necessary for healthy intimacy, and day-to-day functioning. To determine whether I was being “perforated” or “solid” in this process seemed annoying. However, it really stuck with me.

I heard this in a lecture series that was in the midst of winter, in Colorado. I literally spent the next two months taking night time walks, imagining my boundaries as a perforated line around me, and trying to feel where my defenses felt like solid lines in my lived experience of relationships. When finishing these walks, I would reach my door step, and shift my thoughts to how to get warm, leaving this “line” exploration, outside the door.

Over the many years since then, as the thought of the relational, structural, and psychic difference between boundaries and defenses has continued to resurface and percolate, I have now begun to understand the nuances this teacher had described. This understanding of boundaries versus defenses became cemented further into my mind, as I continued to love, and mostly screw-up at love, over, and over, and over again. In fact, I had to fail at love and connection, miserably, in ways we might all consider tragic, foolish or stupid, before I started to open my eyes to the wisdom this teacher imparted all those years ago.

So, what exactly, am I saying here?

I am here to tell you that the ways you try to protect yourself, the ways you are trying to set “boundaries”, yet are attempting to control or manipulate another, in order to try to resolve your anxiety and fear, are the very behaviors that cause your love relationships to turn sour. We have a tendency to look outwardly, while identifying the potentially threatening elements of imperfection that our partner embodies, and we believe we need to either make them our project, train them, or insulate ourselves from being impacted by them somehow.

We all have our own unique set of defensive strategies we are deluded enough to believe are boundaries. When attempting to protect our self, and thus using defensive strategies shrouded in the label of “boundaries”, we try to either not love them as much, not need them as much, not have expectations or needs of them, not show as much vulnerability (or what we call weakness), or we try to woo or lure them into continued dependence, mutual admiration, or obligation.

Though we are each unique, we also have predictable ways in which we end up employing these defenses. Relationship researchers have identified that we all seem to portray certain patterns in forming attachments to others. These patterns are called attachment styles. In adult attachment there are three or four types of attachment, depending on what literature and research you investigate. In the first of the two models for adult attachment, these styles are Secure Attachment, Anxious Attachment, and Avoidant Attachment. In the second model for adult attachment, there is Secure Attachment, Preoccupied Attachment (the same as Anxious Attachment), Fearful- Avoidant Attachment, and Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment.

Generally speaking, researchers have encountered that people have a certain level of attachment anxiety, where they crave closeness, and panic in regard to real or imagined abandonment. These people would be categorized at Preoccupied or Anxiously Attached, or sometimes may be Fearful Avoidant.

Researchers have also encountered a trend where some people are considered higher in attachment avoidance. These people are fearful of engulfment, or invasion of space and loss of autonomy, and tend to distance from or avoid closeness or intimacy. These people would be labeled with Dismissive Avoidant Attachment, or sometimes Fearful Avoidant Attachment.

There are also some people who show symptoms of both high attachment anxiety and avoidance. These people might pretty consistently fall into the Fearful Avoidant Attachment camp.

In the midst of the many ways fear of intimacy, rejection, separation, closeness, and love may manifest in each attachment style, people form defensive strategies to protect or buffer themselves from having to feel and face the fear, and their resulting negative beliefs they form about themselves, others, and the world, based on this fear.

For instance, someone with a high tendency towards attachment avoidance (someone with Avoidant Attachment), when beginning to date someone, might demand that their romantic interest first show them how independent they (the partner) can be, and how tolerant their counterpart is in honoring the freedom and autonomy of the Avoidant person, by not placing any expectations or demands upon them. Those of us with higher attachment avoidance believe this is a boundary- to make it a requirement someone not have needs or expectations of us, for anything. Then, when our partner gets triggered, upset, or somehow does not respond the way we would want, we criticize them, lecture them about how needy and demanding they are, and distance ourselves. Notice that this “boundary” is a way to keep distance between the self and others, and places a requirement of someone being a certain way, in order for the Avoidant person to desire to be open and available to their partner. The person who comes up against the Avoidant person’s defensive strategies, receives a clear punishment when they do not perform the way the Avoidant person would like them to, through this Avoidant person withholding, or withdrawing from, love, connection, affection, attention, and adulation. This is a traditional defensive strategy that those with Dismissive Avoidant Attachment employ in romantic relationships.

In another example, someone with high anxiety in their attachment patterning, may portray a different defensive strategy, yet equally effective and destructive. Someone with Preoccupied/Anxious Attachment may demand that their new love interest be in frequent or almost constant communication. They may want to see the other a lot, may give a lot of attention, gifts and acts of service, to this person, and may manipulate the other to dominate the other’s time, attention, and energy. These defensive strategies are to ensure that the other doesn’t pull their attention and affection away from them, and thus trigger their abandonment and insecurity. The Preoccupied/Anxious person may innocently believe their “boundaries” are that the other need to listen, be attentive, be caring and considerate, and treat them with the same devotion and generosity they show others. However, if their partner does not want to give them this attention and time, or does not accept their gifts and adulation, in the ways and pacing they want, they may feel rejected and panicked, and may become very emotional, critical and demanding. This then sends the implicit message to the other, that to defy the Preoccupied person, means a punishment, and others begin to feel manipulated into altering their behaviors, needs, and expressions, in order to prevent future conflicts.

All of us, with our given attachment styles, and defensive strategies, get frustrated when our “boundaries” don’t work. The truth of the matter is that these defensive strategies masked as boundaries only work in so far that they protect us from having to feel the truest cause of our pains and insecurities. However, they ultimately don’t work, because they don’t make love feel any safer, or any better. These defensive strategies promote further pain, conflict, and disconnection from the self and one’s partner.

These defense strategies help us believe the problem continues to be our partner. They promote us only viewing ourselves and our partner and the relationship, in a way that reinforces our belief that love is dangerous. We act out these defenses, our partner responds in a negative way, we feel even more hurt and scared, and then we continue to believe love sucks. When, in fact, love doesn’t harm us, it is fear that harms us.

So, where do we go from here?

To overcome the tendency to use defensive strategies in the place of where we might benefit from using boundaries, we must face our fear and insecurity. To face our fear and insecurity, we must overcome our phobic response to encountering, feeling, and processing through our fear and insecurity. For many of us, this involves facing (and taking full responsibility for) core beliefs and traumas centered around unworthiness. In other words, once we learn to be present with, make meaning of, shift our belief around being unworthy, stop projecting and blaming, and change the behaviors associated with this, we cease to need to fearfully protect ourselves, and naturally begin to set boundaries, rather than employ defensive strategies. When we naturally set these boundaries, we drop the need to control others to make our self feel better (or avoid our feelings), we respect others in their unique growth and healing processes, we can tolerate their differences and feelings, and we don’t tend to feel threatened by navigating the complexities and disappointments of intimacy.

Only then, can true, safe, secure, deep love can exist!

I wish you the best in your healing and growth!

Coach. Psychologist. Writing about new perspectives, love, relationships, Narcissism, healing, transformation, & culture.

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