Are you familiar with attachment styles? This psychological concept describes how people relate in their closest relationships. Sometimes folks of certain attachment styles are drawn to each other – which can make for an easier or more challenging time.
Understanding your attachment style and your partner’s attachment style can help break negative cycles in your relationship. And, in time, it can help you move toward a more compassionate connection in which you both can flourish.
Attachment Theory and Your Relationship
What does “attachment” mean? This is usually based on how you formed your earliest bonds in life – usually with your parents or other significant caregivers. Attachment refers to how you react when a person who is important to you is present – and when they’re absent.
The theory emerged from a study conducted with toddlers and their parents. Researchers noticed that, from a young age, children showed different reactions when their mother left the room.
Some cried for a bit, eventually calmed down, then got excited when their mother showed up again. Some cried and remained upset, even after she returned. Others seemed indifferent to their mother’s presence and absence. And some exhibited a confused mixture of reactions.
These observations formed the basic attachment styles. We’ll go through them below, although most people don’t fit neatly into just one.
In this attachment style, said to be exhibited by about 50% of the population, people are able to easily form bonds with others. They miss loved ones when apart but don’t feel extreme anxiety or fear about the relationship.
The next three attachment styles are typically categorized as “insecure.”
People with an anxious attachment style worry when their partner is away – but they also find it difficult to be present and receive love when they’re around. This style parallels the inconsolable child in the study.
Those with an avoidant attachment style may have trouble feeling their emotions and even, sometimes, their bodies. They learned to disavow their needs, because they learned that they couldn’t depend on loved ones.
I once heard another therapist describe avoidant attachment style as “covert anxious.” They crave connection just as much as their anxious counterparts, but they don’t make it known and, thus, find themselves reliving their original disappointment.
In fact, anxious and avoidant partners are often attracted to each other, since they confirm each other’s negative biases about relationships. The anxious partner doesn’t get affirmation from the avoidant partner, and the avoidant partner sees their pulling away as the abandonment and rejection they expected. This is commonly known as the anxious-avoidant “negative cycle.”
Very chaotic and/or abusive upbringings often breed a disorganized attachment style, although any sort of inconsistent parenting mixed with a particular child’s temperament could result in it.
A disorganized attachment style is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of confusing reactions. People with this style both want and fear connection. Partners will get numerous mixed messages, ranging from angry pushing away to desperate clinging. This style especially needs professional help to reach security.
Which brings up the question: can you develop a secure attachment if you’re not already there?
Help! Can I Change My Attachment Style?
The short answer: yes. You can move from an insecure attachment style to a more secure attachment style.
The longer answer: this is generally quite difficult to do alone. Since the original wounds happened in a relationship, they must heal in a relationship, too. Many people with insecure attachment will struggle on their own for years, as being overly self-reliant is a common defense.
However, for most people, once they decide to seek help, they can experience change by working with a trusted therapist. It takes patience and persistence to gradually open your heart again – but the reward of healthy, fulfilling connections is worth it.