If you have ever asked yourself ‘why can’t I find The One?’ ‘Why am I so needy?’ ‘Why is he so clingy?’ ‘Why is her work more important than me?’ ‘Why can’t I have a long-term relationship?’ Then read on….
Whatever your relationship status, knowing your attachment style will help you negotiate and understand the dynamics of relationships. Without it you may well be left utterly bewildered by some of your own reactions towards loved ones, family and friends and you might be repeating the same old patterns and getting the same disappointing results.
What is an attachment style?
Our attachment style is our deeply ingrained relationship blueprint influenced by our biology and the emotional availability of our caregivers in early life. It is not a conscious, thought out process, rather it’s an automatic survival response further shaped by infant and childhood experiences.
There are four categories of adult attachment style and, though they can shift, we usually have a particular core attachment style that we revert to which affects the way we are in relationships, who we are likely to be attracted to and our mental well-being.
Secure attachment: I’m okay and we’re in this together.
This is the ideal position to be in. In an ideal world our parents would have been attuned enough to our emotional needs to give us a sense that all is well in the world, others understand us, are available to us and being emotionally vulnerable in the presence of another is safe and ultimately soothing.
As an adult, if you are securely attached, you will be able to communicate well in a relationship, you’ll be comfortable with emotional closeness, and you’ll be able to tolerate periods of separation. In fact, you are more likely to stay in long term relationships than any of the other styles.
If you have a secure attachment style, when you are dating, you are less likely to dish out or put up with mixed messages or disrespectful behaviour because you know that ultimately you are okay as you are. You will still feel the distress of separation and conflict in relationships, but you are more emotionally resilient and there is a deep understanding that you’ll be okay.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we aren’t all lucky enough to have received enough consistent emotionally attuned parenting.
Anxious Attachment Style: are you there for me?
Being raised with inconsistent or overbearing emotional support can contribute to a blueprint of uncertainty about the emotional availability of our loved ones. Will they be there for me? Am I too much? Will they come back? This uncertainty results in a bodily state of anxiety – the fight/flight system kicks in.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you’ll notice that when you detect any sign that your loved one is distant from you, you feel a sense of unease or even distress. It can feel like every cell in your body is crying out for contact with this person and your mind goes crazy creating stories around why they aren’t available which further increases your distress! You may engage in what is sometimes referred to as ‘protest behaviours’ such as frequent texting, calling, nagging, crying or withdrawing in the hope you’ll be noticed and you’ll regain your loved one’s attention. If you get the contact you crave, your distress will likely be instantly eased, until the next time!
If you have a very intense anxious attachment style this can be quite destructive to a relationship because you will notice the smallest shift in attention from your partner which will trigger the anxiety response in your body.
If you have an anxious attachment style and you are dating, you are likely to become preoccupied with the whole process, you’ll struggle with those early dates when there is a lot of uncertainty, and you are more likely to attract someone with an avoidant attachment style (see below) which will further increase your anxiety!
Dismissive Avoidant: I don’t need anyone.
Another less than ideal situation is when a child has had their emotional needs overlooked or dismissed on most occasions. This could happen for a variety of reasons including the parent’s own attachment style, mental health difficulties and illness. Out of consciousness, the child detaches from emotions because there is no point in showing emotional needs, it gets them nowhere. Independence is the answer.
If you have this attachment style you will probably find long term romantic relationships difficult to sustain unless you can somehow maintain an emotional distance. Some people unconsciously enforce this distance by delving into projects, work, technology, and hobbies or choosing a long-distance relationship.
If you lean towards an avoidant attachment style and you are dating you might be longing for the romantic fairy tale where everything seems easy and right, waiting for The One. You will struggle to stay in relationships once they get past the initial few months when your date’s human flaws and emotions may become apparent. Recognising and expressing your emotions is difficult and you are likely to attract an anxious attachment partner which reinforces your idea that others are hard work and independence is best.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment: Come here, go away
This is the most confusing of all attachment styles to have and be on the receiving end of. You want to be in a relationship, feel the distress of separation just as someone with an anxious attachment style, but you can also switch into avoidant mode when the intimacy becomes too much. Out of awareness you are constantly trying to have the correct amount of closeness that doesn’t feel like too much or too distant. Diane explains: ‘When he’s not around I feel awful, I can’t stop thinking about him and go nuts trying to contact him. Yet when we spend the weekend together it can feel overwhelming and I push him away, I’m awful to him. What’s wrong with me?’
The difference between fearful and dismissive avoidance is that if you have a fearful avoidant attachment style you will feel the distress of emotional distance and separation. In fact you can feel overwhelmingly emotionally. Someone with dismissive attachment doesn’t usually experience such angst; they have disconnected emotionally to protect themselves.
Knowing your attachment style and becoming familiar with your responses is the first step in understanding why you react in the way you do. Reading about and understanding yourself is a good start. Seeing a good psychotherapist who is aware of attachment styles would also help you recognise what it is happening and how you can begin the journey to a more secure place within yourself and in relationships.