Intuitively, one would consider an individual who is reasonably stable and secure to be a prime candidate as a partner in a healthy relationship. Such an individual may be assumed to be more than likely to have come from a stable and secure family experience, and to bring positive attitudes and behaviors to an adult intimacy relationship. "Adults who experience secure parent–child attachments are likely to experience greater social confidence, are more comfortable with close relationships, are more able to depend on others, and are more likely to have a higher sense of self-worth. They tend to view people as trustworthy, dependable, and altruistic (Collins & Read, 1990). In contrast, adults who experience insecure parent–child attachments tend to be extremely demanding of support and attention and are emotionally hypersensitive and volatile. At the same time they tend to be self-deprecating, excessively dependent on others' approval for self-validation, and overly dominant and demanding in relationships (Bartholomew, 1993). Consequently, individuals with insecure attachment may be at particular risk for hostile approaches to conflict" (Topham, 2005, page 104).
While two securely attached partners would seem to predict a more functional couple, two insecurely attached individuals would predict a dysfunctional relationship. A fairly common pairing may be of a seemingly securely attached partner with an insecurely attached partner. This pairing or pattern is that of the hero, rescuer, fixer, or gallant knight paired with some needy, impoverished, destitute, or weak person- a damsel in distress. The male version of the damsel in distress may be the male diamond in the rough that the heroine, rescuer, fixer, or "lady" nurtures to a polished social and intellectual gem. Same sex partnerships can also duplicate these dynamics readily. A mentor-mentee dynamic may occur. A superior and an inferior create a complementary pairing, but not necessarily a healthy pairing. "The hero/victim pairing may be intuitively perceived as a healthy/unhealthy or secure/insecure pairing. The concept of 'buffering' proposes that a partner with secure attachment paired with a partner with insecure attachment "may help the insecure partner use a more positive style of interaction. In general, however, behavior in couple interaction has been found to be related to the individual's own attachment style, not the partner's, and with no evidence of a buffering effect (Creasey, 2002: Paley et al., 1999)" (Wampler et al., 2003, page 502).
An individual may seem ostensibly functional but may do so in a rigid inflexible manner that breaks down in a longer-term relationship. Jimmy was Claire's "project." He was nice enough… decent looking enough… intelligent enough, but just a bit raw… a bit uncultured. Claire worked on Jimmy like a real estate house stager preparing for an open house. A bit insecure from neglect from a set of workaholic parents, Jimmy loved Claire's attention. He could not believe that she cared that much about him. She seemed out of his league. She was from an upper-class suburban professional family attending Stanford when they met at a club. Jimmy was working on his General Electronics Associate of Arts degree at College of San Mateo- a nearby community college. An AA degree would be the first college degree in his family as far as he knew. With Claire's support and guidance, Jimmy not only finished his AA degree, but also transferred to UC Berkeley and earned a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering Computer Science. Claire had finished her degree in Political Science and the job market being what it was, she was interning at a conservative political journal. Jimmy had landed a job at Pixar and would be working on computer generated animation software for one of their future movie projects. He was doing great. He'd already gotten a promotion and one of the senior engineers was mentoring him. Things were looking great. Jimmy was starting to think about making the big commitments: marriage, house, and kids. He was stunned when Claire said that they needed to slow down on the relationship.
Certain scripts with clearly complementary pairings become dysfunctional because of the rigidity of one person in a role while the other person has evolved out of his or her role. In a gallant knight/damsel in distress pairing or other hero/victim or fixer/fixee pairing, the ostensibly more functional or competent individual may have extensive ego needs invested in that identity. In order to feel good about him or herself, the hero needs to be heroic, the fixer to fix, and the rescuer to rescue. When the person needing growth becomes competent and able to fend for him or herself, fix or rescue him or herself, continuing to depend on a gallant knight to come to the rescue becomes demeaning and counter-indicative of an independent functioning self-definition. If the newly empowered person refuses to be condescended to and continue playing the old role, the hero cannot be fulfilled in the relationship. The relationship has become equal or equitable. This may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar to the hero. Such a gallant knight rides off to find another dragon to slay and another damsel in distress to rescue. The former fixee, now fixed, confident, and competent often holds the same love, respect, and appreciation for the fixer. Having achieved their mutual goal of growth for the former inferior, the empowered partner often cannot understand what happened to the relationship.
The therapist needs not only to help the partners recognize their dynamic, but the family-of-origin and other influences on Claire's need to be the hero or fixer. Unless that is identified and reconciled, Claire would not be able to enjoy the fruition of their journey together. The life partner Jimmy that he thought he had, would not be able to celebrate their mutual success, but would move on to find another project. Predictably Claire would become unfulfilled once again if the new partner or object of attention achieved the growth and goals desired. The therapist would focus on individual work to uncover Claire's deeper needs, probably her attachment issues. Individual development or health is more influential on the relationship functionality as opposed to one person "fixing" the other. "A systemic view would also suggest that partners have a strong impact on each other, both in ongoing interactions and over time. However, there was no evidence of 'buffering' in this sample, that is, where a secure partner might have a positive impact on an insecure partner" (Wampler et al., 2003, page 511). In the Claire and Jimmy scenario, Claire seemed to be the more secure partner. However, her assertive take-charge leadership was her compensation for a deeper insecurity. It gave her a role that she could maintain control and dominance. When the role was no longer necessary as their relationship evolved and Jimmy became more confident and competent, Claire could not adapt to a more equitable relationship. It is arguable that the secure/insecure partnership may actually be an insecure/insecure partnership. A more secure individual would not require an insecure partner to remain stably secure and would theoretically avoid or eventually quit an asynchronic relationship.