Do you know what attachment style you have? I would venture a guess most people don’t. Yet if you ever spent hours on the internet “googling” why your relationships might be struggling, then you have probably come across Attachment Theory.
Attachment Theory is an area of psychology that describes the nature of emotional attachment between humans. It begins as children with our attachment to our parents.
Our attachment style affects every aspect of our life–how we relate to people, how we view the world, how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end. The model of attachment influences how we each react to our needs and how we go about getting our needs met. Remember most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. Hence a great deal of your success in relationships–or lack thereof–can be explained by how you learned to relate to others throughout your childhood as well as later in life.
This is why learning about our attachment style can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities. It can also help us figure out why we struggle in our relationships. All our relationships (familial, professional, romantic, friendship) are all impacted by our attachment pattern. While your attachment style doesn’t necessary explain EVERYTHING about your relationships, it most likely explains a great deal about why your close relationships have succeeded or failed.
An attachment pattern is established in early childhood and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood. It develops when we are young children with our attachment to our parents. The very nature of this attachment, and how well it is fostered and cared for, will then influence the nature our attachment later in life. Often if a person has a difficult relationship with one of their parents and never works through this, they will struggle with their relationships. How you give and receive love is greatly shaped and influenced by one or two critical people in your life: your parents.
Attachment theory began in the 1960s. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth studied interactions between caregivers and their child. (Anyone who has studied human development or early childhood education certainly studied Bowlby and Ainsworth). These researchers found that the nature in which infants get their needs met by their parents significantly contributes to their attachment “strategy” and later studies showed how our attachment styles are reflected in our adult relationships. How emotionally available your parents were influenced the type of attachment we form with them.
There are 4 attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.
-People with a secure attachment stye are comfortable discussing their feelings, showing affection, and display a high level of self-confidence. These people are capable of accepting rejection and moving on but are also capable of being loyal and self-sacrificing. They are trustworthy and capable of trusting others they are close to. Secure people are comfortable being themselves, talking about what is upsetting them, and won’t worry about their partner leaving them. Secure people can offer support to their partner and tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. If you can see yourself clearly, stayed grounded, and talk through difficult things in an open manner without shutting down or getting emotionally flooded, you probably have a secure attachment style.
-People with a more anxious attachment style have more trouble trusting people, need constant reassurance, and have trouble being alone. They often fall into unhealthy or even abusive relationships. These people often look to their partner to complete or rescue them. Anxious types have more trouble forgiving, trusting people, and maintaining relationships. Their behavioral can be overly emotional, erratic, and irrational. They are the ones who will complain about their partner and probably burst into tears while doing it.
-People with avoidant attachment styles are self-directed, independent, and sometimes uncomfortable with intimacy. They often fear people are trying to control them and will distance themselves from their partner. Avoidants often design their life in a way to avoid too much intimate contact or commitment. These people prefer to keep to themselves, do not like to talk about their feelings, and don’t give their partner the chance to let them down. These people often respond to intimacy by feeling anxious, helpless, or distrustful.
-People who are anxious-avoidant are not only afraid of commitment and intimacy, but they distrust and lash out emotionally at anyone who tries to get close to them. Anxious avoidants are low in confidence and less likely to express emotions preferring to suppress them. They can have emotional outbursts when under stress. These people tend to find it very hard to be vulnerable with others.
I copied and pasted a link to discover both your attachment style and your partner’s.
From a developmental perspective, inconsistent parenting in childhood makes it difficult to make sense of the parent’s behavior. This is what leads to issues with developing a secure attachment. A child doesn’t understand why their parent is behaving in a certain manner. If a child lacks stability and cannot predict the future, then the child can’t feel secure. Hence why people who grew up in chaotic environments tend to struggle with attachment. Our attachment style affects how we experience ourselves, and in turn, how we are in relationships.
As a counselor, I often see attachment theory come to the forefront of sessions. Many people come into counseling because they are having a problem with an important relationship in their life. A person who is having chronic difficulties in their relationships in all likelihood does not have a secure attachment style OR is dealing with a person who is not secure themselves.
People with insecure attachment styles can be either anxious or avoidant or anxious-avoidant, but in a sense people with insecure attachment styles all have the same baseline starting point—they’re all very sensitive to attachment issues in the relationship and they’re not good at expressing their feelings and communicating.
As a clinician, I see a lot of preoccupied attachment style. A person who has a preoccupied attachment style works really hard to understand why THE OTHER PERSON did this, why it happened, etc. I find this to be particularly true of our romantic relationships. My client may think if they understand the why of what their ex did, they will be able to feel better or move on. The problem with this line of reasoning is what happens in our relationships with other people often involves people who have their OWN internal struggles and issues they may or may not be conscious of. I tell clients if you are trying to make sense of someone else’s behavior you are ASSUMING they are acting RATIONALLY and with CONSCIOUS intent. This is a bit of stretch as it is very common for people to act unconsciously especially in the throes of conflict or under stress.
It’s important to remember that even with effective communication, some problems won’t be solved immediately. What’s vital is the other person’s response–whether they are concerned about your well-being, have your best interests in mind, and are willing to work on things.
We have to keep in mind, the human brain does its best to understand the world by putting things in well-defined categories and this includes the people in our lives. We like to be able to predict the behavior of others (this is all a subconscious process).
Part of this process, it is scanning our environment for threat cues. If we detect a threat, we go into overdrive seeing whatever threats are out in our external environment. If it cannot justify what is going on in the present to justify the level of upset being experienced, the brain will start scanning our memories INCLUDING OUR CHILDHOOD MEMORIES. Every memory that comes up often triggers other memories associated with it. This is why often when we are triggered by someone, they may remind us of someone from our past.
Often, we cannot make sense out of our pain and the reason we are so hurt by a certain person. This is where exploring your attachment style can help to give you answers. THE TRUTH IS YOU CANNOT MAKE SENSE OUT OF OTHER PEOPLE’S IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR. AND OFTEN WE OURSELVES MAY BE NOT BE THINKING RATIONALLY. Attachment theory gives understanding to why so much dysfunction plays out in relationships. It also explains why we may have developed some dysfunctional patterns of relating to others.
My goal for all my clients is for them to be able to regulate their own emotions, without the constant reassurance, of another person. To be securely attached it to be able to manage all the relationships in your life, including the one with yourself, in a healthy way. Everyone should aim to be securely attached: to think clearly, to be authentic, and set strong boundaries.
Counseling can help to change maladaptive attachment patterns. Compassion is crucial when dealing with maladaptive attachment styles–you likely developed these habits to protect yourself as a child. First, you must become aware of your attachment style, challenge the fears and insecurities of your old model, and develop a new style for sustaining a loving, satisfying relationship–with yourself and others.
If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me:
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Theodorou therapy, LLC
590 Franklin Ave.
Nutley, NJ 07110