Our Attachment Over Time.
A common theme that comes up during my clients’ therapy is the question of attachment styles. We often work around this theory due to the belief that a great deal of our success in relationships – or lack thereof - can be explained by how we learned to relate to others throughout our childhoods. The premise of Attachment Theories is based on the emotional attachment that we form with our parents early on and how the nature of this attachment can influence our attachment to romantic partners later on in our life.
For us to understand our attachment towards others, let’s first understand the different attachment styles. These styles differ in a number of significant ways, ranging from how we perceive and deal with closeness and emotional intimacy, our ability to communicate our emotions and needs, to listen and understand the needs of others, how we respond to conflict and our expectations about our partner and the relationship.
1. Secure attachment style
People with secure attachment are low on avoidance and low on anxiety. Comfortable with intimacy and not worried or preoccupied with the relationship. They are comfortable with being alone and independent and able to draw clear boundaries within their life and tend to stick to them. Secure attachment is as it sounds – secure, and will make individuals the best romantic partners, family members, and even friends. They are capable of accepting, rejecting and moving on despite the pain, capable of being loyal and sacrificing when necessary and they have few issues in trusting the people close to them or being trustworthy themselves.
Traits of individuals with an autonomous (secure) attachment style are:
· Comfortable in a warm, loving, emotionally close relationship
· Manages emotions well and does not get overly upset about relationship issues
· Communicates emotions and needs honestly and openly and does not avoid conflict
· Accepts their own and partner’s need for separateness without feeling rejected or threatened
· Trusting, empathetic, tolerant and forgiving
· Can depend on partner and allow partner to depend on them
· As a parent: sensitive, warm and caring; attuned to a child’s cues and needs
· Children who grow up with parents with secure attachment regularly get needs met, as well as ample quantities of love and affection.
2. Anxious attachment style
People with this attachment style are low on avoidance but high on anxiety. They crave closeness and intimacy and are insecure about the relationship. They need constant reassurance and affection from their partner. They don’t like being alone or single and may, in the some of the worst cases, succumb to unhealthy or abusive relationships. These individuals have trouble trusting people, even when they are close to them. Their behaviour can be seen as irrational or even overly-emotional.
Traits of individuals with the preoccupied (anxious) style:
· Constantly worried about rejection and abandonment; preoccupied with the relationship
· Needy; requires ongoing reassurance
· Feel they don’t need others for emotional support
· Takes others’ moods and actions too personally
· Highly emotional, can be argumentative, combative, defensive, angry and controlling.
· Poor personal boundaries.
· They generally have a positive view of peers, but negative view of themselves.
· Communication is not collaborative; unaware of own responsibility in relationships, seems to always blame others.
· As a parent may be inconsistent with attunement with children, creating them to be anxious
· Children of these style attachment parents only get some needs met while the rest are neglected .
3. Avoidant attachment style
As the style indicates, these individuals are high on avoidance but low on anxiety. They are uncomfortable with closeness and primarily value their independence and freedom. They are not overly worried about their partner’s availability and would do a lot by themselves. They are extremely independent and often uncomfortable with closeness or intimacy. They often construct their lifestyles in such a way as to avoid commitment or too much intimate contact.
Traits of individuals with avoidant (dismissive) attachment style:
· Emotionally distant and rejecting, keeps possible intimate partners at arm’s length
· Equates intimacy and attachment with loss of independence, prefers own autonomy over togetherness
· Not able to depend on partner and as such cannot understand a partner’s need to depend or lean on them
· Not comfortable talking about emotions; avoids conflict, may be explosive
· Narrow emotional range, avoids not only emotional contact with others but also with self.
· Holds a negative view of others but a positive view of self
· Relies too heavily on romantic relationships for own self esteem
· As a parent: may be emotionally unavailable, disengaged and detached
· Children of these attachment styles generally receive love and care with unpredictable sufficiency
4. Anxious-avoidant attachment style
These individuals are high on avoidance and high on anxiety. They are not only uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness, but when they are intimate are also worried and preoccupied about their partner’s commitment and love. They are fearful, which is why this type is also known as the ‘fearful type’. They are often found in dysfunctional relationships and may, in some instances, have a multitude of other emotional problems in other areas of their life.
Traits of the unresolved disorganised style:
· Unresolved mindset, frightened by memories of past traumas
· Often struggles to relate to peers.
· Seeks independence and intimacy at the same time
· Cannot tolerate emotional closeness but also unable to regulate emotions of not being close.
· Can sometimes seem antisocial, lack of empathy, rules or remorse. Aggressive, punitive, no empathy.
· Argumentative, unable to regulate own emotions, sometimes depressive.
· This style forms from abusive or negligent childhoods .
I always tell clients that everything falls on a scale. Take everything in psychology with a pinch of salt. Because I don’t believe that we easily and neatly fall into categories whether personality, disorders or even attachment styles. The point is, you can exhibit tendencies of more than one style depending on the situation and environment. Although we may fall high on the scale of one dominant attachment style - let’s say ‘secure’ - then we may still exhibit some avoidant or anxious behaviours.
So, what do we do with this information? Well, like I said previously, it seems to come up quite often in therapy. A lot of how we interact with the world, in relationships or socially and professionally may come down to our attachment styles as adults. While early experiences with our caregivers do have a considerable influence on how we relate to others, it’s not the only factor, and our attachment style can change over time. There is hope! I generally get the same question in therapy… “if I’ve been doing it for so long, will I even be able to change it”. Or many other derivatives of this question. My answer is always the same, there is always hope!
These different types of attachments tend to configure themselves into intimate relationships in predictable ways. In the simplest form, insecurity finds insecurity and security finds security. The first step in understanding attachment styles is understanding your own. If you don’t have an idea what your attachment style is yet, feel free to try the test here.
Understanding these for yourself can help you understand yourself better and guide you in your interactions with others, ideally resulting in more happiness in your relationships. Note, however, that you may be stable in secure attachment style with friendships but have some anxious or avoidant tendencies in other situations or relationships. It is not all or nothing.
Good news or great news first? I’ll start with good. Good news is that your attachment style can change over time…great news is that it is slow and difficult. Why is this great news? Because it gives you the time to work on you, to set down boundaries, to learn to communicate healthily, to perhaps not be so anxious or avoidant, and in time have secure attachments! And that IS great news. Research has indicated that anxious or avoidant types who enter long-term relationship with a secure type can be transformed into a secure type. It has also been shown that surrounding yourself with individuals who are secure and can support you within a secure style attachment and can help you learn to react in these ways too.
I have seen in practice that extremely negative life events may cause people to fall into insecure attachment types. The importance of this is that we need a greater awareness of attachment, it infiltrates and affects our lives in a multitude of ways. Understanding it, can help us overcome it.
Great…now tell me what to do with this information. Well, I can’t tell you what to do – that’s not my job – but what I can do is share with you what research has shown.
Research has indicated that secure attachment individuals hold a positive self-image but also positive perceptions of others. Anxious types have negative self-esteem but positive perceptions of others. Avoidants exhibit positive self-esteem and negative perceptions of others. Anxious-avoidants exhibit negative perceptions of themselves and just about everything and everyone else. This helps us on our own journeys. Once we discover which attachment style we fall into, we can use this as a roadmap to navigate ourselves to a more secure attachment.
Anxious types can start working on developing their self-esteem, creating healthy boundaries and forming a healthier self-image. Avoidant types can start to work on opening up to others, not having such rigid boundaries, allowing yourself to give and feel support from others.
And if you are reading this and thinking that your attachment style has served a purpose in your life – that it has worked out just fine for you - then my next piece of advice is quite similar to my first: I can’t tell you what to do – that’s not my job – but what I can do is share with you what research has shown, and research has indicated that secure attachment individuals are consistently happier, feel more supported, are less likely to become depressed or isolated, are healthier in general, retain more stable relationships, and become more successful than other attachment types.