Zoe Coetzee (Press), 06.28.2017

Attached at the hip? How attachment styles play out in your relationship

Attachment styles can influence everything from who we are attracted to, how relationships develop, and even what can drive them to end. Your attachment style is formed in infancy but becomes a model upon which adult relationships are based. Breaking down the different attachment styles, we examine the ways in which they influence relationship blueprints and motivations. Having an insight into your own securities and insecurities can help improve the patterns in your dating life and safeguard your relationships in the long term too.

Attachment styles: what is an attachment style and why is it important in relationships? 

Your attachment style is a pervasive feature in your engagement approach with the people around you. An attachment style can be described as the way you relate to other people1. Originally developed and examined between infant and caregiver relationships,  research into attachment theory has evolved to explore how this becomes a template for adult intimate partner relationships.

Attachment theory was initially proposed by John Bowlby, who was interested in the highly distressed response of infants separated from their caregiver 2. Coming from a psychoanalytical background, Bowlby noted that this pattern of behavior was prevalent across a wide range of species, not just human. He proposed that being in close proximity with your caregiver was an evolutionary mechanism to ensure survival, and thus saw the attachment behavior system as a core motivational system for survival2. Researching and experimenting with colleagues, they determined that there were three basic categories of response: secure, avoidant and anxious.

Bowlby believed that the infant-caregiver relationship characterized the human experience ‘from cradle to grave’, influencing researchers Hazan and Shaver (1987) to take it a step further and apply Bowlby’s ideas to adult romantic relationships2. They confirmed several features are shared by both types of relationships; attached infant-caregiver and attached adult relationships can both be seen as functions of the same attachment behavioral and motivational system.  Since then, research into attachment theory has been greatly expanded and, because of the social and cognitive mechanisms which are activated during development, attachment styles tend to be quite stable.

Building on the research and different perspectives, researchers and psychologists gave rise to variations of attachment theory based on Bowlby’s work as a starting point. One of the most widely recognized models of adult attachment is the Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) model, laying out at its core, secure and insecure styles. These are then further separated into secure, anxious and avoidant styles3. To get right into the heart of the matter, these dimensions are further characterized as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful- avoidant. Now let’s see what each of these actually mean, and how it plays out in your relationship.

Attachment theory: relationship attachment styles defined

Before breaking it down, it is important to understand that these characteristics are viewed dimensionally and it can vary in degrees from person to person, with room for different individual positioning within a spectrum. These find genesis in an infant’s relationship with their primary caregiver, which then forms one’s approach to adult attached relationships and becomes a template of relating to others. This is your instinctive attachment style.

However, keep in mind that people are sentient beings, capable of change and growth throughout their lives. Although according to attachment theory, these responses are hard-wired into our emotional and cognitive functioning, people can adapt and change their attachment styles in adulthood for more functional and fulfilling relationships.

Now let’s take a look at the different types of attachment styles:

  • Secure Attachment: 

A secure attachment style is viewed as the healthiest of the four adult attachment styles and securely attached adults are generally happier and more fulfilled in their relationships. Having experienced a secure foundation in the relationship with their primary caregiver, they tend to feel secure and encourage positive relationship dynamics in adulthood, such as independence, support, and honesty3. They are comfortable to depend on others and equally support those around them, being emotionally present and engaged.

This reflects that the adult felt safe in their primary attached infant relationship, their caregiver being emotionally available, attuned to their needs and consistently there. Now in adulthood, a securely attached individual responds from a positive, confident and secure perspective, facilitating a strong sense of identity and close connections1. They tend to develop thriving and intimate relationships.

Statement sentence: “I don’t find it hard to be close to others, and don’t worry about being alone or rejected”.

  • Insecure: 

On the flipside of secure attachment, there are three different styles which fall on the insecure attachment spectrum.

1. Anxious-preoccupied attachment style

Children who developed an ambivalent/anxious attachment tend to become adults with a preoccupied attachment pattern. Coming from a place of insecurity, they seek out approval, battle to trust in relationships and fear rejection, which can come across as what is described today as a ‘clingy partner’.  Looking to their partners to complete or rescue them, they are motivated by fear of abandonment and can interpret actions as affirmations of their insecurities rather than believing or trusting their partner and their love3.

This can, in turn, become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing their partner away, and existing between an uncomfortable juxtaposition of dependency and anxiety. This interaction pattern arises from the primary caregiver who was emotionally unavailable and insensitive, resulting in distrust and self-doubt in adulthood.

Statement sentence: “I want to be close to my partner, but feel uncomfortable being too real with them. I’m worried that I value the relationship more and they will leave me”.

2. Dismissive-avoidant attachment style

Children who experienced avoidant attachments with their primary caregiver can go on to develop dismissive attachment styles in adulthood. A key characteristic of dismissive avoidance is emotionally distancing from your partner, striving to create ‘pseudo-independence’, easily denying emotional connection and shutting down emotionally.

These adults pride themselves on being self-sufficient, but to the detriment of emotional intimacy. Often work and other projects are placed as a higher priority than romantic relationships, and in relationships, freedom is very important, some even choosing to be single rather than place themselves in a vulnerable position in a relationship. Avoidant parenting style gives rise to this type of pattern - a caregiver who was emotionally unavailable and not present and connected, thus forcing their child to take care of themselves from a very young age. Adults with dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be inward and emotionally shut down.

Statement sentence: ”Relationships are not that important, I can look after myself ”.

3. Fearful-avoidant attachment style

Growing up with the experience of a disorganized attachment in one’s primary caregiving relationship can result in a fearful attachment style in adulthood. Differing to a dismissive style, they desire close relationships, however when they become too close, they revert back to childhood trauma and withdraw 1. As a result, they desire to be both not too distant or too far from others. Rather than shutting down their feelings this causes high levels of anxiety, and can result in disorganized responses, the emotional rollercoaster seen in dramatic and turbulent relationships3.

Desiring to be connected but simultaneously fearing abandonment and hurt, they swing between connection and disconnection without a consistent understanding or strategy of how to get their needs met. This results in an ambivalent state that is difficult to balance out. This style is sometimes the result of childhood trauma or abuse, craving safety from a caregiver who is also the source of pain, resulting in a disorganized adult emotional response system.

Statement sentence: “I really want to be close to my partner, but fear that they will hurt me so can’t trust them”.

Which attachment style do I have? 

These characteristics fall on a spectrum, and a person can thus have a higher characteristic in certain areas, and lower in another. The four different attachment styles can be viewed in a quadrant upon which you can fall, and so these definitions exist on a scale, more loosely experienced in reality than the strict definitions on paper. You can even share certain characteristics, for example, if you were on the border of anxious-avoidant and secure. As people are so diverse, so is the understanding of each individual’s attachment style. This classification can be seen as a guiding post for your own style, not necessarily a strict definitions thereof.

Wondering which attachment style you predominately have? Take EliteSingles' attachment style quiz here:

 

Moving forward: how to develop a secure attachment style?

The good news is that although attachment styles tend to be quite stable, it is still possible to develop a secure attachment style, learning to strengthen your attributes and grow secure adult attachments, giving your relationship the best chance to succeed. We are always capable of growing and expanding our emotional intelligence, if we are eighteen or eighty years old, it is never too early or too late to develop an ‘earned secure attachment' 1. Although nurture does influence development, human beings are also autonomous creatures who can shape their future, choosing what kind of relationships to create and how their most important attached relationships progress.

EliteSingles’ top tips to reform relationships and strengthen a secure attachment style:

  1. Look back to your childhood narrative and make sense of your story. Look at your experiences honestly, and how it made you feel. What emotions can you identify in your life today that came from those fundamental moments? There are different approaches depending on the individual and your unique experiences – you could do it with self-reflection, meditation, with a life-coach, or therapist for example. Find a place you feel safe and can be honest.
  1. Laying out your narrative from an adult perspective gives you the chance for greater insight into your parents/primary caregiver’s emotional styles. Looking back at our childhood experiences gives you a chance to redefine your story with different eyes. This gives you a chance to heal those hurts and start building a new sense of security within yourself and with others. Feel the pain, acknowledge you are now an autonomous adult and have the power to redefine your story, and then start creating a future on your own terms.
  1. A good way to learn different relationship patterns is to choose a partner who is secure and challenge yourself to learn from them. Being aware of where your emotional reactions are coming from gives the space to step back and choose another response.  If you are not with a partner, observe those around you and learn from a healthy role model, friend or family member who is secure and comfortable in their own skin and relationships.
  1. Awareness and willingness to grow is the greatest tool to move forward with a new perspective.

Challenge yourself to build on your strong points. Take heart - just because you fall into an insecure relationship style does not mean you cannot have a successful relationship and that you cannot develop more secure relationship patterns.  Take this insight and use the knowledge to empower you to make the necessary changes and growth. Using attachment theory and developing your secure attachment style not only impacts your romantic relationships, but also filters into other areas of your life. It can grow your own sense of identity, confidence and independence, making it an invaluable venture to undertake. 

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