How Understanding our Attachment Style Can Help Us Love Better
WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW MY ATTACHMENT STYLE?
It’s no secret that how we were treated as children has a profound impact on how we navigate the complexities of adult life. Like the foundation of a home, our childhood experiences form the foundation of the rest of our lives.
Attachment theory refers to how the dynamics of our early relationships with caregivers orients our perspective towards adult relationships, particularly when it comes to romance. Being overly demanding, feeling smothered by regular displays of affection, strategic emotional distancing, and commitment phobia are some of the many ways attachment styles manifest in relationships.
Understanding our attachment styles can be enormously beneficial; gaining insight into how our early experiences have shaped our point of view of how love should look allows us to learn how to manage conflict better, communicate easier, and increases our understanding of ourselves and our partners1.
So – what is attachment style, and how can we utilise it to enhance our lives and relationships?
THE 4 ATTACHMENT STYLES
There are four main attachment styles. They are:
- Secure attachment
- Avoidant (Dismissive) attachment
- Anxious (Preoccupied) attachment
- Fearful avoidant (Disorganised) attachment
WHAT IS ATTACHMENT STYLE?
Attachment theory, originally coined by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, proposes that the relationship between children and their primary caregivers determines their social and emotional development “from the cradle to the grave”2.
According to attachment theory, our attachment ‘style’ begins forming in the initial 2-3 years of life, when a rapid succession of synaptic connectivity occurs. Fostering a safe environment where needs are consistently and sensitively responded to is fundamental to infant exploration and growth, and sets the scene for an adult personality that is well-rounded and emotionally balanced.
Children who are provided with this sort of safe and reliable environment are statistically more likely to develop into responsible adults with a strong identity and secure self-worth – in other words, adults with secure attachment3. While roughly half of our population are securely attached, the rest of us fall into the other three types of insecure attachment.
SECURE ATTACHMENT: TRUST, STABILITY & BALANCE
Secure attachment types are identified by their stable sense of self and balanced relationships with others. Some common presentations of secure attachment in relationships include:
- Resilience: Able to ‘bounce back’ from negative experiences
- Positive and balanced view of relationships
- Manages conflict in constructive ways: Emotional reactions are appropriate for the situation
- High self-esteem and stable identity
- Rarely experiences jealousy or envy
“I don’t need you, I’m fine on my own”
For various reasons, some parents can be distant or emotionally unavailable in their parenting, with indifference or insensitivity towards the child being the result. To appease parents, children in this environment learn to suppress their negative feelings in expectation of rejection, and become overly self-sufficient, resulting in an avoidant attachment4. Avoidant attachment may present in relationships as:
- Struggling to give or receive affection
- Avoiding relationships or apprehensive about closeness
- Shutting down and becoming aloof during conflict or confrontation
- Rarely or never asking for help
“Are you mad at me? Please don’t leave!”
Parenting that is unpredictable – varying between warm and nurturing, and emotionally unavailable and insensitive – can result in adults with anxious attachment issues5. This type of attachment tends to manifest in relationships as:
- Insecurities and preoccupation with worries of abandonment
- Requiring constant or over the top reassurance
- Overly emotional and hyper-vigilant of partners’ emotions
- Low self-esteem and harshly self-critical
- Coercive tactics during conflict (passive-aggressiveness, blame, or guilt)
FEARFUL AVOIDANT-(DISORGANISED) ATTACHMENT:
Fear and Instability Personified
The consequence of a child consistently feeling dread or fear of the caregiver in a toxic home environment can result in the least common, but most complex attachment type – disorganised attachment5. People with this type of attachment typically:
- Have unstable and chaotic relationships characterised by ‘push-pull’ intensity
- Strive for love and belonging, but struggle to trust people
- Fearful of intimacy and proximity to others
- Tend to prematurely self-sabotage relationships due to fear of abandonment
HOW YOU CAN IMPROVE YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE
Now for some much-needed good news!
Changing your attachment style as an adult has been proven in contemporary science to be possible.
When made conscious, our unresolved traumas can become an exceptionally handy blueprint for healing through new corrective relationship experiences.
Neuroplasticity studies have shown that, though childhood trauma has a substantial influence on the developing brain, rewiring neural pathways to reflect a more balanced, secure, and stable perspective on relationships is totally achievable.
RECEIVE HELP WITH ATTACHMENT STYLE
The first step to learning how to love and live better is to discover and understand what attachment style you are, which you can learn by completing our free Attachment Style Quiz (click the link: no email required).
Increasing your self-awareness of where you sit on the attachment spectrum is instrumental to providing a clear starting point for your secure attachment journey.
Once you’ve gotten to know your attachment pattern, finding a therapist with expertise in the area is your next step. Having an expert guide makes all the difference – especially if you are partnered, or alternatively, if you’re looking for love and want to put your best foot forward.
Attachment-based therapy aims to specifically target the thoughts, feelings, communications, and behaviours that we have learned to suppress, avoid, or amplify due to our early attachment experiences.
By cultivating a safe, secure, and transparent therapeutic space, the therapist works with the patient to reclaim and reshape these capacities, resulting in a healthier way of approaching both the Self and the Other6.
The Hart Centre has a plethora of trained therapists who can help you with navigating your attachment type. Click here to enquire about attachment-style-trained therapists in your area.
DOES ATTACHMENT STYLE MATTER?
Lastly, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of pathologising yourself!
Just because you fit into an insecure attachment style does not mean your needs for closeness and intimacy are unwarranted, unreasonable, or silly. We are all unique social creatures who seek connections with others.
Learning our attachment style may at first feel confronting and perhaps even a little overwhelming; but remember – knowledge is power! Gaining insight into the underlying facets of how we operate can be an empowering process of self-discovery.
Attachment theory is a valuable and scientifically credible framework that we can all use to improve how we treat ourselves and those we cherish most.
- Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Gillath, O., & Nitzber, R. A. (2005). Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(5), 817-839. https://doi.org/1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
- Doyle, C. & Cicchetti, D. (2017). From the cradle to the grave: The effect of adverse caregiving environments on attachments and relationships throughout the lifespan. Clinical Psychology: A Publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, 24(2), 203-217. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12192
- Cassidy, J., Jones, J. D., & Shaver, P. R. (2013). Contributions of attachment theory and research: a framework for future research, translation, and policy. Development and Psychopathology, 25(4). 1415-1434. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000692
- Carvallo, M., & Gabriel, S. (2006). No man is an island: the need to belong and dismissing avoidant attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), 687-709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167205285451
- Gallo, L.C., Smith, T. W. (2001). Attachment style in marriage: Adjustment and responses to interaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(2), 263-289. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407501182006
- Costello, P.C. (2013). Attachment-Based Psychotherapy: Helping Patients Develop Adaptive Capacities. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.