“We do as we have been done by.”
― John Bowlby
Have you ever noticed yourself repeating certain patterns of behaviour in your romantic relationships? Perhaps you wonder why you always attract the same kind of person, or why you often end up in the same negative cycle when you fight with your partner. Many of these behaviours evolve from your attachment style, a way of relating to others that stems from your early childhood and subsequent relational experiences.
Attachment theory is a psychological understanding of human behaviour in relationship. Many psychotherapists will talk about it, or at least consider it, when working with clients. Attachment theory is centred on the understanding that our first relationships as infants set the foundation for our subsequent relational experiences throughout our lives.
Of course that first relationship is most often with our parents, and the primary bond is with the mother. There may be cases where this is not the case, such as when a parent has to be absent and another family member steps in. But whomever was primarily responsible for you as an infant and toddler can be considered your caregiver and was deeply influential in the attachment experiences you now have.
The First Attachment Experience
You don’t remember it of course, those initial months and years of your life. Memories may be present from around the age of three or four but nothing much before that. Strange, isn’t it, how those first few years have such a profound impact on who we are and yet we remember just about none of it?
You weren’t even able to talk for those first few months, and yet you were very aware. You knew when your caregiver was present for you; you knew when you felt scared or alone; you knew when your needs were being met and when they weren’t.
What we know now, that we may not have known 20 years ago is that the bond between mother/caregiver and infant is so vitally important that it sets the stage for the rest of our lives. It informs whether we feel safe around others and trust them; whether we feel loved and protected; and whether we feel comfortable in our own skin. If that bond was “good enough” (that is, if your needs were met MOST of the time) then you likely developed what we refer to as a SECURE ATTACHMENT. If your needs were rarely met or only met some of the time, you likely developed an INSECURE ATTACHMENT, of which there are three types.
The Four Attachment Styles
The child who develops secure attachment has their needs met most of the time. That is, when they cry they are tended to; when they are hungry they are fed; when they need nurturance they are held. Of course, when a child is pre-verbal we may not know what they specifically need. However, if a mother is attuned to her baby she comes to know his signals and needs fairly quickly.
The secure child feels loved and safe in their environment. He is so sure that the world is trustworthy that he feels safe enough to explore it without his mother, knowing he always has a safe haven to return to. He experiences his mother as warm, responsive, sensitive, and dependable, and has a sense of security both in her presence and when alone.
Naturally, a child who experiences this kind of love and security takes this experience into his future relationships. As an adult he feels that same sense of security in his romantic connections. He is able to express his needs and be vulnerable, as well as share his hopes and dreams. He also tends to have a higher sense of self-worth and doesn’t doubt his loveability.
The child who is avoidantly attached did not experience an ongoing positive connection with her caregiver. He came to learn that his mother could not be trusted to be there for him and so develops coping strategies that help him to feel safe and in control of his environment. Such behaviours include ignoring his mother, detaching from his unsettling feelings, and avoiding any kind of challenging emotional interactions. A useful umbrella term for this attachment style is “detached.”
As an adult, the avoidantly attached person is uncomfortable with intimacy in a relationship and will often struggle to commit. Vulnerability feels scary and brings up anxiety. This person has learned that depending on themselves and not needing others is the best way to move through the world. He dislikes having a partner depend on him and is not concerned about their availability. He values his freedom and finds it challenging to trust others. If he is drawn into situations that require high levels of intimacy, he will feel very uncomfortable and begin to distance himself. He becomes rejecting and leaves his partner invariably wanting more connection.
This attachment style is also sometimes called “preoccupied” or “ambivalent.” The anxiously attached infant experiences inconsistency with her caregiver and develops a strong sense of insecurity. There are times when she experiences her mother as loving and warm, and other times were her mother is absent. The child develops anxiety because she doesn’t know from one hour to the next whether her mother will be there for her and meet her needs. She comes to doubt her loveability and feel unsafe in her environment carrying these beliefs about herself and her world into her subsequent relationships.
In romantic relationships she tends to be needy and wants to “merge” with her partner. She also requires constant reassurance that her partner loves her and will not abandon her. Such behaviours can scare her partner away and result in the self-fulfilling prophecy that she is unlovable and will always be abandoned. She is also highly emotional, unpredictable, moody and argumentative, often connecting through conflict. This attachment style tends towards rumination over the past which can become a projection onto current relationships.
Disorganized attachment occurs when a child experiences his caregiver as a source of danger. Given that he is dependent on the caregiver to have his needs met, this creates impulses to both avoid and connect with the source of his fear. As a result of such a terrifying predicament, the child becomes disoriented. The child’s internal belief tells her to expect pain from the parent. She doesn’t feel safe and believes she is worthless and unlovable. Many children who show signs of disorganized attachment have been abused by their parents. In romantic relationships the disorganized individual will struggle to tolerate emotional intimacy and may fly into sudden rages. He struggles to regulate his emotions and tends towards abusive (as both abused and abuser) and dysfunctional relationships. To avoid the painful memories of the past, he may dissociate or enter prolonged silences. This attachment type is at higher risk for personality disorders in adulthood, including narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder.
If you Have an Insecure Attachment Style
Do you see yourself in any of the attachment style descriptions?
It’s important to note that people are rarely all of one attachment style. Most of us have a dominant style with elements of one or two others. It’s also important to know that as you experience different relationships in your life your style may become more of one or another. For example, an insecurely attached person is likely to become more secure when they experience relationship with a securely attached partner. Likewise, if you are a securely attached person and enter into a relationship with an abusive partner, you may well become more insecure.
Certain attachment styles may also yield a more healthy or unhealthy partnership. An anxiously attached person will feel highly insecure in a relationship with someone who is avoidant because their needs are almost opposite. As the anxiously attached person tries to draw closer to her avoidant partner, he feels smothered by her need for intimacy and pulls away. The more he detaches the more anxious she becomes and tries harder to connect.
If you have an insecure attachment style, know that there is nothing wrong or broken about you. Your early experiences in life have created certain needs for connection and these are all perfectly normal. Knowing your style gives you helpful information about yourself and your partner. Once you understand each other’s style, you understand why your partner behaves the way they do and can begin to work with one another rather than against.