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Is Your Attachment Style Working Against You?

Is It Keeping You From Getting the Kind of Relationship You Want?

Our Unconscious Relationship Patterns

An interesting aspect of psychological research is that if you have enough data on enough people over a long enough period of time that points to a persistent pattern, you can learn a lot about human behavior. We like to think that as individuals with free will, our behavior is our own, but in reality, humans do follow definable patterns.

You may have heard a little bit about attachment styles in romantic relationships, including terms such as wave and island, or anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Your attachment style strongly impacts your relationship quality. Among other things, it affects how you interpret your partner's behavior and how you react to that behavior. And as luck would not have it, it causes many of us to pair up with people with opposite styles that trigger the worst in each other. This creates patterns of behavior that cause nothing but pain.

Isn't it hopeful to learn that we can overcome these patterns? It starts by us understanding our own attachment style. That allows us, firstly, to differentiate between what tension is really being caused by our partner's behavior and what is due to our own unconscious baggage. That allows us to take responsibility for our part in things. And right there we have started to put the brakes on the cycle of pain. By recognizing the roots of our relationship behavior patterns, we can gain control over them, and, by extension, over our relationships.

Childhood Attachment Styles

Theoretically, a person's attachment style originally developed in infancy, and barring other influences, remains constant over their lifetime. As a practical matter, other influences do come into play, particularly later relationships and other life experiences, so that a person's original attachment style may change over time. So, the good news is that our attachment style is plastic and we can consciously work to change it for the better. In fact, some therapists prefer to use the term "attachment status" for that very reason.

Our childhood attachment style has to do with the type of bonding we had with our primary caregivers, that is, what level of nurturing and security we experienced that allowed us to feel confident that we would be kept safe and be soothed during times of distress.

We are wired for attachment. We know that human infants are dependent on adults for their safety, feeding and wellbeing. This requires that the infant have a strong instinct to stay connected to their cargiver, allowing for their very first interpersonal relationship to be formed. This innate mechanism is called the attachment system, and it becomes activated when the infant encounters something alarming. So, as the infant develops, they look to their caregiver to provide a "secure base" from which to explore their environment that they can return to when they become fearful, frustrated, or otherwise distressed.

As Dr. Martha Stout explains:

This arrangement promotes a sense of safety that will eventually be encoded in the baby's own memory, providing her with a portable version of what John Bowlby referred to in Attachment and Loss as a "secure base" in the world.

In providing this haven of safety, the caregiver offers attunement and soothing, which helps the child learn to regulate their emotions and calm down from distress.

According to Dr. Stout:

Research tells us that adequate attachment in infancy has many happy outcomes, including the healthy development of emotional self-regulation, autobiographical memory, and the capacity to reflect upon one's own experiences and actions. Perhaps most important, attachment in infancy allows the individual to create affectionate bonds with other people later on.

Some parents were better able to provide this secure base than others, based on what they themselves received growing up, their subsequent life experiences, and whether they've worked to change any intergenerational patterns.

Having a "good enough" parent, i.e., one who was mostly responsive and sensitive, generally leads to what is termed secure attachment. Children with secure attachment explore the world confidently, knowing that they have that safe haven to return to when things get dicey. That develops into the "portable version of a secure base" that secure adults have - the internal security that they can manage themselves in the world safely, and seek help when needed.

Working Models

It turns out that the quality of attachment we had with our primary caregiver determines the Working Model we have for romantic relationships which we unconsciously base our relationship behaviors on. It includes how we view ourselves and others, and our attitudes and beliefs about relationships, including the extent to which we expect our love to be returned, and our expectations about the availability and reliability of our partner.

Adult Secure Attachment

As adults, those with secure attachment feel worthy and lovable, and as such expect to give and receive love easily. Their working model places themselves and others in a positive light. In romantic relationships, they seek intimacy and closeness. They are interdependant, meaning that while they have their own independent identity and functioning, they are comfortable asking for and offering help and support when appropriate. In other words, they are willing to rely upon their partner and be relied upon by their partner.

Secure adults generally aren't reactive and don't take things personally. As such, they are able to de-escalate conflicts, apologize when appropriate, and problem-solve and negotiate to reach workable solutions. They are direct and assertive about their needs and feelings, with no need to play games or manipulate. In turn, they are responsive to their partner's needs, and treat them with love and respect without looking to find fault.

Roughly half of the population has a secure attachment style.

Many of us were not so lucky, and have one of the three insecure attachment styles.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

About 20 percent of us have what's termed anxious-preoccupied attachment.

In this case the child is anxious due to an inconsistently responsive or preoccupied caregiver, but keeps trying to elicit a nurturing response during times of distress by displaying big emotions. These emotions are inconsistently attended to, meaning that the child is less likely to learn to soothe themselves in times of distress.

As adults, those with anxious attachment crave intimacy and closeness but feel insecure in their expectation of being loved. Their working model places themselves in a negative light and others in a positive light. In romantic relationships, they doubt their worthiness and their actions, are hypervigilant to signs that their partner may not return their love or be committed to them, and tend to make excessive demands that their partner be responsive and reassuring. They may become emotionally dependent to the point of clinginess.

Quick to get distressed by their partner's behavior, they may take things personally and assume the worst, getting angry easily and acting out. They may turn to manipulative behaviors to get a reaction out of their partner, such as keeping score, provoking jealousy, withdrawing, not returning calls, and threatening to leave.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

About 25 percent of us have what's termed dismissive-avoidant attachment.

In this case the child has given up on getting a nurturing response during times of distress, due to an unresponsive or rigid, distant or rejecting caregiver. Instead the child ignores the parent, and turns elsewhere to seek distraction as a soothing mechanism. Although they appear calm and self-sufficient rather than needy, studies show that these children experience distress at high levels, indicating that their attachment needs aren't gone, they are just suppressed.

As adults, those with avoidant attachment suppress their attachment needs by dismissing the importance of connection altogether. Some may distract themselves from any existing possibilities of connection by holding out for the impossibly perfect romantic partner. Their working model places themselves in a positive light and others in a negative light.

In romantic relationships, they are hypervigilant to actions that threaten their autonomy. They are proudly independent to the point of self-sufficiency, preferring neither to rely upon their partner nor be relied upon. They engage in distancing behaviors such as flirting with others, devaluing their partner, including engaging in negative comparisons of their partner to an idealized ex, and making unilateral decisions. Due to their feelings having being ignored, rejected, or penalized in childhood, they learned to cut off their emotional life. They tend to lack poetic/fantasy thinking, emotional intimacy, pillow talk, etc.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

The final 5 percent of us have what's termed fearful-avoidant attachment. (also called disorganized attachment).

In this case, the infant was disoriented with no organized strategy for eliciting a nurturing response from their caregiver, possibly because, as the founder of interpersonal neurobiology, Dr. Dan Siegel, puts it, the caregiver was either "frightened or frightening" (i.e., it was a case of mental illness or abuse). Their working model places themselves in a negative light and others in a negative light, as well.

As adults, people with fearful attachment behave in a disorganized push-pull manner. They desire intimacy and closeness but get easily frightened by it and pull away. They display some of the behaviors of each of the other two insecure attachment styles. Their relationships are often tumultuous.

Intimacy Avoidance and Relationship Anxiety

Some researchers have looked at attachment along two dimensions: intimacy avoidance and relationship anxiety (e.g. insecurity about a partner's availability and reliability and about where the relationship is going). Looking at attachment styles through that framework, here is how the four styles map out:

Secure people seek intimacy and have low anxiety about the relationship. Once the relationship is established, the level of intimacy is stable and reliable and the focus turns away from relationship problems (which are easily resolved) to experiencing life together. Secure people are nurturing and consider a concern for each other's emotional well-being to be a cornerstone of the relationship. They are flexible and adaptable, and work for win-win collaborated solutions when issues come up. In short, the relationship doesn't get in the way of having a happy life; it supports having a happy life.

Anxious people crave intimacy, but also obsess about the relationship, preoccupied by whether their partner loves them back, whether something they did might turn off their partner, or whether their partner has a wandering eye, for example.

Avoidant people feel uncomfortable with too much intimacy, valuing their independence more than the relationship. They aren't preoccupied with relationship issues beyond ensuring their own need for autonomy is not threatened; they don't worry about their partner's feelings about or commitment to them.

Fearful-avoidant people want intimacy in theory, but are afraid of closeness and only seek intimacy sporadically. They are also very anxious about their partner's reliability.

One thing to note is that more recent research points to an understanding that a person's attachment orientation may lie more or on a continuous spectrum than in a rigid category, (particularly with regard to relationships in general) so that the two-dimensional "intimacy avoidance and relationship anxiety" model should look look more like this:

Opposites Attract and Repetition Compulsion

A pattern those of us with insecure attachment seem to unconsciously replicate involves our choice in partner. Some of us repeatedly choose consistently similar partners who trigger our worst fears, such as feeling abandoned due to our partner's emotional unavailability or feeling trapped due to our partner's intrusiveness and controlling. A chronic pattern may develop, fueled by what is called "repetition compulsion."

In it, we replay the dynamic we had with our parents -- their emotional unavailability, inconsistency, rejection, or even abuse -- with the unconscious motivation that we can finally heal the wound, either by fixing the other person or by behaving in an ideal way, ourselves.

In terms of attachment styles, this often plays out as an attraction between those with anxious-preoccupied attachment and those with dismissive-avoidant attachment.

You can see how a relationship between a person with avoidant attachment and a person with anxious attachment would have a built-in cyclical conflict pattern. The avoidant partner is fiercely independent, shuns emotionally intimacy, and is non-reassuring. The preoccupied partner becomes demanding, clingy and even angry, which causes the dismissive partner to pull even further away.

This dynamic is played out in the simple example of whether or how frequently the avoidant partner checks in during the day, or alerts the anxious partner that they will be late, and how agitated the anxious partner becomes when that level of communication is deemed insufficient.

The Adult Attachment Interview

The gold standard assessment and research tool for adult attachment style is the AAI, the Adult Attachment Interview. In it, the person is asked pointed and unexpected open-ended questions about their childhood.

Those with secure attachment can build a "coherent life narrative,"one that includes the nuances of both the good and the bad aspects. Even when their childhood included some abuse or neglect, they are able to convey their parent's mindset and the context of those difficulties dispassionately.

Those with insecure attachment tend to provide answers that include absolutes, rambling, inconsistencies, and even contradictions. They might assert that they had a "great" childhood and that their parents really loved them, then give rambling descriptions of a history and environment with inattentive or controlling caregivers or even neglectful or abusive ones. In some cases, there is little or no memory of long periods of childhood, which happens when those periods contained trauma.

Earned Secure Attachment

The good news is that people can gain "earned secure attachment." Some methods of gaining earned secure attachment include:

1. Attachment-based therapy

This involves a safe, attuned connection with a therapist to process through and heal the attachment trauma you experienced, and gain better emotion regulation. (This does not equate to reliving any abuse you may have suffered.)

It turns out that by working to heal the unresolved trauma we experienced, we can gain the ability to build a coherent life narrative as we achieve earned secure attachment.

In addition, we can gain the emotion regulation we need in order to prevent our reactions from fueling impulsive relationship behaviors that undermine our relationship goals.

The therapists at the Therapist Uncensored podcast have created this Attachment Spectrum diagram to show dismissive-avoidant, secure, and anxious-preoccupied attachments on a cold-hot spectrum and how we should be working to move away from the extreme behaviors towards the center:

2. Couples counseling using the PACT method

PACT, or Psychological Approach to Couples Therapy, was developed by Stan Tatkin, who uses the wave and island metaphors for anxious and avoidant attachment.

3. Sessions with a coach who deals with adult attachment

Find a coach who can teach you how to find a secure partner and how to develop secure relationship behaviors.

(I do this in my practice. Participate in a free discovery session with me to meet me and learn more about what I offer.)

4. A long-term relationship with a secure person

Their steadiness, non-reactiveness, and nurturing, with a capacity for true intimacy, will keep your attachment system from becoming activated and can eventually help decondition your understandable but self-defeating attachment-based behavior.

That is, if you don't turn them off with demands and anger or with insensitivity and coldness first.

But if you're looking for a person with secure attachment to date, be aware that, according to author Jeb Kinnison, the percentage of secure persons in the dating pool shrinks significantly with age. That's because they find partners early in adulthood and don't tend to divorce. When a relationship does end, they don't stay single for long, since unlike the dismissive-avoidants, they aren't looking for the ideal, impossibly perfect partner.

The type that dominates the singles' world in the later years are, naturally, the dismissive-avoidants, and for obvious reasons, they don't date each other for any length of time.

Putting It All Together

We all have an attachment style, and for the 50% with an insecure attachment style, your history is getting in the way of your present and future relationship satisfaction. The good news is you can work to change your attachment style to being a secure one, and build the kind of relationship you want with a secure person who shares that same goal.

It does take time and dedication to develop a secure attachment style, and is most successfully done when working with someone who can help you understand the roots of your unsatisfying relationship patterns and learn how to overcome them, so that you can build the healthy relationships you want in your life.

While, based on the graph above, it might seem like it would take several relationships to find a secure partner, the reality is that secures recognize other secures, and they easily filter out the non-secure prospects. The key is for you to become one of the secures. Due to the paucity of secures in the dating pool, it might take a little longer to find a suitable match, but you'll need to be ready yourself. You can use that time to work with someone who can guide you towards changing your relationship behaviors to better match your relationship goals, so that you can both be, and gain, a healthy partner.


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