How do you connect with your partner? Do you feel safe and secure or do you often worry about the relationship? Do you share your fears and vulnerabilities as well as your joys? Are you comfortable expressing your needs and are you meeting your partner’s needs? Can you each have times of independence without undue worry? If any of these questions ring through your daily thoughts; it’s important for you to consider your style of attachment and how it impacts your relationships.
What is an attachment style, and where does it come from?
The father of attachment theory, John Bowlby, describes attachment as “the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” We all need connection and relationships. This need is basic and hard wired in our brains. From an evolutionary standpoint, connection to others is part of survival. Your attachment style is driven by your way of trying to create a sense of safety in your relationship. Our attachment style developed early in life and was based on our relationship with our primary caregivers. The style we formed in childhood greatly influences how we connect in our adult relationships. Extensive research by Mary Ainsworth and subsequent researchers identified four basic attachment styles: secure, insecure, avoidant-dismissive and avoidant-fearful. This article focuses on adult relationships between romantic partners. Ones attachment style, however, plays out in all relationships.
Secure Attachment Style
Let’s look at each of the four attachment styles closely, staring with secure attachment. Note that while you will have one primary attachment style, you may well have some tendencies from other styles.
People who grew up with responsive, involved parents typically form a secure attachment to them, and, in turn, form secure attachments in their adult relationships. If you have a secure attachment style, you tend to have satisfying, trusting and long lasting relationships. You enjoy intimate relationships and are comfortable being close to another person. You treat your partner with respect and accept his/her minor shortcomings. You don’t play games or manipulate but rather openly share your thoughts and needs. You are comfortable depending on someone and having that someone depend on you. Simultaneously, you feel secure and are comfortable with your partner having their own independent activities. You tend not to become defensive when you two have conflicts, but are able to problem solve, apologize and forgive. Generally, you have good self-esteem and can tolerate the minor bumps that occur in relationships without undue anger or worry. You enjoy and are happy in your relationships.
Insecure Attachment Style
The insecure attachment style is characterized by chronic worry about your partner’s interest and love. This style typically evolves from a childhood in which caregivers are inconsistent in attending to a child and the child cannot know if his needs with be responded to. Someone with this attachment style typically craves and desperately wants intimacy but never stops questioning their partner’s interest. Chronic doubt about your partner’s love can lead to clingy, possessive or demanding behaviors. If this is your primary attachment style, you may find yourself being hypervigilant and highly attuned to your partner. To alleviate the high level of anxiety common with this style, you may play games or manipulate your partner to gain desperately needed reassurance. You may withdraw, provoke jealousy, threaten to leave, or become highly emotional. You may call or text your partner frequently, even if you have been asked not to. These behaviors are an attempt to gain a much needed sense of safety in the relationship. Sadly, these very behaviors often push your partner away, the very thing you fear most. It is so important to realize that the inconsistent and often unmet needs of your childhood are typically the root cause of this struggle. Have compassion for yourself. It is a painful way to be. Recognizing this way of being in relationships can be enormously helpful in shifting to a secure attachment style.
Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment Style
The hallmark of the avoidant-dismissive attachment style is a fear of being close to others. People with this style tend to keep emotional distance from others, including their partners. They typically deny the importance of connection and detach easily. People with this attachment style usually grew up in families in which their caregivers were detached and showed limited interest in them. Sadly, children in these families learn to deny their need for care and connection and often parent themselves. They may feel a pseudo independence. This, however, is an illusion because we all need connection and closeness with others. If this is your primary attachment style, you may consciously value independence and self-sufficiency over intimacy while deep inside crave closeness and connection. You may question your value or lovableness. You probably aren’t comfortable sharing your feelings with others. You may delay commitment and/or, once committed, engage in mental distance via ongoing dissatisfactions with the relationship. Other ways to keep distance in the relationship include behaviors such as flirting, making unilateral decisions, ignoring your partner or dismissing his or her feelings and needs. If the relationship is threatened, you may pretend you don’t have need for close connection and bury your feelings. While this distance feels safer, the deep yearning to feel close to your partner, to feel really known and cared about, is sacrificed.
Avoidant-Fearful Attachment Style
The core of the avoidant-fearful style of attachment is one of fear: both fear of being too close and fear of being too distant from others. An underlying and excruciating quandary of this style is a need to move close to one’s partner to get your needs met but a simultaneous fear that if you get too close, you will be hurt. This style usually develops from growing up in an environment of fear. The very person you wanted and needed to go to for safety was the same person you were frightened of as a child. People with this as their primary style of attachment often become overwhelmed by their feelings and experience emotional storms. They have alternating and unpredictable moods. They tend to have rocky relationships with many highs and lows. If this is your main attachment style, you in essence fear being abandoned and yet are uncomfortable with being intimate. You may cling to your partner when you are feeling rejected but then feel trapped when you are feeling too close. You are in an impossible bind and this puts much strain on your relationships. Once again, I cannot stress enough the importance of having compassion for yourself with both avoidant styles. You didn’t choose this way of being with others.
The Unfortunate Perfect Fit of the Insecure and Avoidant Attachment Styles
People with insecure and avoidant attachment styles are very often drawn to each other, I believe, for two unconscious reasons. One, we are all drawn to what is familiar and what confirms our core beliefs about ourselves. If you have an insecure attachment style, partnering with an avoidant style, because they are so emotionally unavailable, recreates and validates your fears of abandonment and deep seated beliefs about not being good enough or lovable. Likewise, if your primary attachment style is avoidant, a partner with an insecure style will confirm your strong need to withdraw and isolate. This partner will typically pursue you and often be possessive and demanding which triggers your withdrawal and isolation tendencies. The second reason I believe the two styles are so drawn to each other is that your partner displays in excess the emotional needs you have disowned within yourself. In other words, if you are an avoidant type person who denies having real relationship needs, the insecure style offers these needs in extreme. If you are an insecure type, the avoidant displays, in excess, the ability to have inner space and independence. The two styles form an unhealthy perfect fit. Further, the two styles set up an endless pursuer/distancer or cat and mouse dance. The insecure partner pursues and overwhelms while the avoidant partner feels suffocated and withdraws. This inevitably creates much frustration and a stronger divide between the couple and reaffirms each person’s attachment style.
Shifting to a Healthy Secure Attachment Style
The attachment style you developed in early childhood and continued to follow throughout your adult years does not have to define you today. You can alter your style and develop secure, long lasting and mutually caring relationships. By coming to know and understand your attachment style, you can uncover the unhealthy ways you are protecting yourself and defending against getting close and being emotionally connected. With awareness, you can then challenge the defenses, the fears, and the insecurities that your long standing attachment style keeps in place. In doing this work, you will learn to identify and express your emotional needs. You can then seek relationships with others who are capable of secure attachment. You can ultimately create secure, interdependent relationships rather than codependent or solitary bonds.
Therapy can be immensely helpful in changing unhealthy attachment styles. Working with a therapist, you can unravel and come to know your attachment style, why you developed this style, and how it blocks you from developing the relationships you want. Along with personal introspection, professional therapists can help guide you towards developing healthy behaviors within your relationships. The road to fulfilling relationships may seem daunting but with the right information and assistance you can have healthy, secure relationships.