Stuck in the Same Relationship Patterns? Take Control of Your Attachment Style
The Wellness Project has recently placed extra focus on the ways in which you provide yourself with self-care, and the ways you love. Self-care and our patterns of loving or being-with-others are intricately linked. The better you understand your patterns, the better the self-care you can provide for yourself! You know what needs you are hoping will be met, what boundaries you need to create, what patterns you need to watch out for or work more constructively with, and thus, what stumbling blocks you can avoid. You learn how to better communicate with others, and how to be more honest with yourself!
One powerful way to do this is to understand your attachment style. You may have heard of this term before. Attachment theory has been around since the 60s, gathering waves of attention over the decades as people outside of the psychology profession began to understand how attachment style influences relationships throughout your life. That’s important because for us humans, relationships are basically everything. We’re hard-wired for connection. The thing is, those wires can get a little bit tangled along the way. And this affects not only intimate partnerships, but our family dynamics, our friendships, and of course, the way we parent (in fact, parenting is where attachment starts…we’ll get back to that later). It also affects our other beliefs about the world, and even how we approach our career.
But let’s just say that as adults, there’s no place attachment style is more visible and acute than in our dating lives and long-term partnerships. And understanding your attachment style helps you understand both your strengths and vulnerabilities when ‘being with another’. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s understand better what attachment theory is all about.
The Basics of Attachment
Your attachment style is built in early childhood, and becomes the template for how you engage in relationships as an adult. It’s what you learned about how the world reacts (or doesn’t) to your needs, and how you can best get them met under those circumstances.
Here’s a little video to help you understand that better:
So, you’ll have learned there are 4 attachment styles. Let’s break them down on paper:
- Results from carers who are largely/predominantly sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs; attentive, supportive, and for the most part, consistent.
- As a child, they were encouraged to express and regulate their emotions, and were shown appropriate and healthy emotional expression by their parents. They believe they are deserving of love, and that others can be trusted.
- People with secure attachment usually have a strong sense of self, feel valued by others, are comfortable relying on others and experiencing intimacy, and are largely able to handle their emotions in a healthy way.
- They feel ‘secure’ and connected in their relationships while still feeling able to be independent and at ease on their own. They more instinctually offer support, seek comfort, and value equality in a relationship.
- They can create appropriate boundaries, approach conflict in a constructive rather than defensive manner, and exhibit resilience and positive coping skills when relationships go wrong and/or end.
Secure attachment is seen as the ideal, but keep in mind that studies indicate only about 50% of us are securely attached, and secure attachment doesn’t mean someone is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes and struggles. Securely attached people can have other issues and complicated or unhealthy patterns just like everyone else. Previous relationship history and other aspects of their personal history have impact too. The template they start with just happens to be the healthiest when it comes to the foundation of relationships.
Now let’s move on to the 3 kinds of ‘insecure’ attachment.
- Results from carers who were sensitive in their responses but whose attention and support was inconsistent/unpredictable, creating a sense of confusion about what to expect.
- Alterations by the carers between providing feelings of safety/closeness, and experiences of criticism, intrusion, and otherwise controlling behavior may have been common.
- This often leads to individuals growing up craving stability and emotional closeness and experiencing insecurity, oversensitivity or doubts in the relationships they form. As a result, they feel a need for more reassurance, contact, bonding, and approval, and can be perceived as ‘clingy’. They dislike or struggle with being alone.
- Often, rather than feeling real love or trust towards their partner, an anxious-preoccupied individual feels something like ‘emotional hunger’. They search for a partner to ‘complete’ them.
- More likely to have a vocal inner critic, experience doubts, persistent negative thinking when interpreting the behavior of others, and lower self-esteem and levels of trust. They fear rejection/abandonment.
- This can express itself as jealousy, and sometimes as seemingly manipulative, demanding, or possessive behavior to maintain a sense of contact. This behavior often results in relational consequences and outcomes that confirm or increase the fears that stimulated the behavior in the first place, and the cycle continues. This is often identifiable in a history of turbulent relationships.
- Often the result of carers who were detached, not attuned to their child, emotionally unavailable/unresponsive, and/or would easily become distressed and retreat. Emotional expression was not fostered/encouraged in the child.
- A sense of ‘distance’ is created as a result of not being able to create consistent emotional closeness. The lesson that is learned is that one must physically and emotionally take care of themselves.
- It is more difficult for dismissive-avoidant individuals to create emotional closeness with others. It feels unsafe to open up, trust, and nurture intimate connections.
- They are likely to restrict and avoid acknowledging their feelings, avoid communication, and isolate themselves.
- They value being independent, self-directed and self-sufficient, emotionally contained, and lacking in vulnerability. They find closeness ‘suffocating’, avoid commitment, and tend to prioritize other elements of their life over relationships (which is opposing to anxious-preoccupied).
About half the population are secure, as I mentioned, and about the other half are a mix between dismissive-avoidant and anxious-preoccupied. A very small percentage fall into this fourth category, which is the result of extreme negative childhood experiences.
- Disorganized attachment results from carers who severely neglect and abuse their child and/or oscillate between appearing loving/a source of safety, and scary/erratic. This results in the child experiencing heightened fear and ‘freezing’ or becoming ‘unresponsive’/dissociative. Often, the carer has a personality disorder or serious mental health issue of some kind.
- This leads to an adult who feels chronically unsafe, and unsure whether people can be trusted to come toward for closeness or need to be run away from.
- They are afraid of emotional closeness and intimacy, do not trust or feel valued by others, are unable to control their emotions, and use tactics of manipulation to receive contact or help in the ways they need.
- There is a notable ‘push-pull’ dynamic to their relationships because they are afraid of both being too close, and being too distant from others. They desire but resist intimacy.
- They want to avoid their feelings but cannot, and experience extreme unpredictable moods. Usually have ongoing inner conflict in relationships.
- Unlike all 3 previous styles of attachment, they were unable to create an ‘organization’ of attachment- a method of any kind- hence, the disorganized state. It is easy for a person with this kind of attachment (or lack thereof), to end up in an abusive relationship.
Now that we’ve broken down the attachment styles, here’s a video that gives a beautiful and succinct visual summary of the first 3 of them. It might help you understand your own attachment style even more clearly:
Still unsure what attachment style you have? Try this short quiz right now here.
Whatever attachment style you fall into, know this: Our life experiences make us who we are, and the key is finding a way to resolve the patterns in yourself that kept you safe at one point but no longer work, so you can create healthy relationships. There is such a thing as ‘earned security’, that comes from repeatedly secure intentional relational experiences later in life! We’ll discuss this more shortly.
Further, it’s important to know that while we have a primary attachment style, it doesn’t mean we are stuck in it all the time. Most people have various degrees of at least three of the attachment styles, which may change over time and emerge differently depending on the context, and the relationship, in question.
Also, if you are a parent or becoming a parent soon, dealing with your attachment pattern is particularly hopeful: attachment styles tend to be passed down from one generation to another, and when you heal, you disrupt that cycle. I will also add that if you experienced anxiety reading this (thinking about how perhaps you already formed an insecure attachment style in your child) remember this: There is no blame here. Most people do the best they can with what life taught them (after all, their own attachment style came from somewhere before them). People are resilient, and the opportunities for healing are always in front of us. Let’s look at that now.
Your attachment style doesn’t need to define or determine how you relate and form relationships in your adult life. You can take control of it, or make friends with it, in various ways. Once you are aware of your attachment style, how it formed, and thus, the ways you use it to defend yourself, you can work to challenge those defenses.
You can choose a partner with a more secure attachment style and work on yourself in that relationship. If you are with a partner who also has an insecure attachment style (anxious and avoidant often end up together), you can both work to be more honest and aware collaboratively of your individual insecurities and how they are activated and acted out in the relationship- so you can both change that dynamic and better support each other. If you are securely attached and with an insecurely attached partner who is working on themselves, you can learn to better understand their style of attachment and bring your compassion and security to the table. You can develop new styles of attachment over time. It takes work, communication, self-awareness, vulnerability, mindfulness, willingness to grow, and courage.
Also, therapy. Therapy allows for repeated uncovering, processing, and working through of your own history so it is not continuously re-activated in the present. It can be hard to work things through on your own, or to have the burden of that placed significantly on your partner.
Earned security comes from developing a secure attachment style over time by cultivating and seeking out more secure relationships and reconciling with your past. Because of the neuroplasticity of our brains, repeatedly secure relational experiences allow us to develop new responses and healthier defenses and coping strategies. It’s worth the work, because it means you break the relationship patterns that have kept you emotionally and mentally trapped. You open the door to greater happiness, and you set a very young, stuck part of yourself free. One step at a time. This is self-care.
And that’s all folks! If this has helped you in some way, you’ve discovered something new, or you’ve found unique ways to work with your own attachment style, please let us know in the comments. We love hearing from you.