Recently a friend of mine and I had an intellectual and introspective conversation about the way we act when it comes to relationships. We discussed the ways we react to love, to break ups, to trust issues and to abandonment.
It was during this conversation that I started trying to identify our attachment styles because it was clear to me that ours were different, yet neither one of us had what I felt was a healthy attachment style.
As a clinician, I’ve always been aware of attachment styles, especially when it came to attachment disorders like reactive attachment disorder (RAD), but I never really gave them much thought when it came to my own life until I was having this conversation with someone who seemed so opposite, yet familiar.
What Exactly Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles are patterns of relating to others that develop early in childhood and they consciously and/or unconsciously continue to play a role in our relationships throughout life. We base much of our attachment style on the very early relationships we had with our parents (especially our mothers) or guardians.
The attachment style we operate from influences how we go about getting our needs met and how we meet or don’t meet the needs of others.
When we have a healthy attachment style we are confident, secure and easily interact with other people in a balanced relationship.
When we have an unhealthy attachment style we tend to be insecure, anxious, and/or detached and tend to find other people who fit into our unhealthy attachment style which generally means making bad choices in relationships because the people we choose tend to lack the capability to be good partners for us in the relationship.
We typically tend to project our sense of how we think relationships are, through our attachment style.
For instance, someone who has an insecure attachment style will likely seek out other relationships that confirm to them that they should be insecure. They will unconsciously seek out people who are unfaithful and friends who aren’t trustworthy, even when those relationships are clearly hurtful and destructive.
It’s helpful to understand what your attachment style is so that you can be aware of some of the unconscious factors that may be playing major roles in your adult relationships.
There are four basic patterns of attachment and we’ll discuss each one briefly in efforts to help you identify which style mostly resembles the way you relate to others, especially in your love life.
Lucky, the majority of of us have what is called secure attachment, which means that we grew up seeing our parents or caregiver as a safe and secure place, which allowed us to go out and explore our world as an individual.
People with secure attachment tend to have better relationships compared to the other attachment styles. They tend to find romantic partners who also have secure attachment. They feel connected, secure and do not try to control their partners or cut off their partners independency.
As adults they are supportive and aren’t afraid to ask for support when they feel they need it. Their relationships are generally more open, honest and fair because while they like feeling independent, they also like being connected with those in their life without hampering their independence.
The way they relate and love other people is usually more genuine and they act out of places of love, rather than fear or anger more often than those who have other attachment styles.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
People who have this type of attachment are often “starving” for love or attention. They tend to cling to people even when there is no real love and trust isn’t present. These people are usually looking for someone who “completes” them because they don’t feel complete by themselves and feel safer when they are in some sort of relationship. At the same time as they are clinging to others, they tend to do things that push them away.
Because these individuals are afraid of abandonment, they come off as anxious, insecure and desperate and do things to confirm their believe that they should feel this way such as becoming possessive, super clingy, demanding of time and attention and trying to control their partners independence. As a matter of fact, they may see their partners independence as rejection and confirming that they should be feeling anxious and insecure.
They may for instance see their best friends interest in other people as signs that they don’t want to be friends any more and will hurt them or if they’re in a relationship, they may see their partners interest in a “boys night out” as a sign that he doesn’t love her and wants to be with other women, therefor confirming their believes that they should be insecure and anxious.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment
People who have this type of attachment seem to be emotionally detached, especially when it comes to people they are supposed to love and care about. They tend to isolate themselves and create a false sense of independence, often times isolating themselves from family and friends. These are the people that may seem totally wrapped up in themselves and their own well-being.
However, their false sense of independency is just that, it’s not real and they crave real relationships with others just like all humans do. We are social creature by nature. People with dismissive avoidant attachments will deny the importance of real relationships with family, friends and other loved ones and will detach easily from the people in their lives often for little to no reason at all.
This is a psychological defense that they use to shut off their emotions, usually to prevent from getting hurt, feeling rejected or having to be vulnerable in anyway. For example, even when they are really angry or sad, they may look unfazed. They have an uncanny ability to not react and just shut off all emotions.
They may repeatedly chose relationships with unhealthy people so that they will be forced to detach and affirm that they need to be detached and distant because they will only get hurt if they allow themselves to be vulnerable. Even if they are in a good relationship, they are likely to run or cut off all communication at the slightest hint that they are allowing themselves to be exposed.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment
People who have fearful avoidant attachment are always at a point where they are trying not to be too close to other people and at the same time, they don’t want to be too distant from them either. They try to maintain this balance by hiding their fear, but it’s nearly impossible to do for very long.
These people sometimes come off as unpredictable or even “bipolar” as they try to maintain that balance and often react in overly emotional ways. They usually believe that you have to go towards other people if you want to get your needs met (love, attention, security, etc.), but also believe that if you get too close you will get burned.
The very people they want to run to and turn to for love and support end up being the same people they are extremely afraid of being too close to. You can imagine how this type of attachment would play out in familial and romantic relationships and the turmoil it could cause. Because of this, they usually aren’t very successful at truly getting their needs met by others.
For instance, a wife with this type of attachment may feel like she needs her husband to be more attentive to her, but is too afraid to admit it and therefore never tells him and is bitter when he continues to be inattentive.
In the worse situations, these people tend to be more likely than the other attachment styles to end up in abusive relationships. They tend to like the dramatic type of relationships that are like emotional roller coasters as they fear being abandoned by their partner, but at the same time have difficulty being emotionally available and intimate.
Knowing your attachment style, even understanding some of the dynamics that helped develop it, can help you learn to change the way you relate to others so that you can have more genuine, fulfilling and valuable relationships with others.
I believe my attachment style most closely resembles anxious preoccupied attachment. Now that I know that I can not only analyze my past relationships, but change my future ones for the better.
By recognizing the defenses that we use to avoid being emotionally connected with other people and challenging ourselves to enter into friendships and relationships with people who have secure attachment styles, we can work on our issues in those relationships.
If you want more information, there are plenty of good books on attachment, but I personally recommend Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Dr. Tim Clinton and Dr. Gary Sibcy.