Updated: Oct 1
Have you ever wondered why relationships can bring up so much anxiety? Your relationship successes and struggles relate back to how much consistent loving attention you received as a child. Your attachment style reflects the emotional bonds that you formed when you were trying to get your primary needs met.
Early experiences of attachment to your primary caregivers stimulated the growth of the neural pathways that continue to influence the relationship patterns in your life today. Your particular "attachment style" influences your social, emotional, and cognitive development. And, your attachment style has a strong influence on the success or failure of your intimate relationships.
From the time you enter your mother's womb, you are forming and ingraining your habitual attachment patterns. Based on how your parents or caregivers respond to your needs, wants, and desires, you will develop a certain style of attachment. Your attachment style influences how you view the world, yourself, and others.
The concept of attachment was coined by John Bowlby, a psychologist, in the 1950s. He suggested that each of us interacts in a relationship in three different attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure. Later, another attachment style was identified, and it is called disorganized.
The Four Attachment Styles
1. People with an anxious attachment style tend to be preoccupied with relationships, and they fear that others will not love them back. People with insecure attachment styles often experience anxiety in relationships. They may experience fear of rejection or abandonment. Due to this insecurity, such individuals often cling or engage in behaviours that aim to pull others towards them.
2. People with an avoidant attachment style fear that intimacy will lead to a lack of independence, and so they tend to avoid closeness. People with an avoidant attachment style often experience fear when someone gets too close. As a result, they may push others away or use distancing strategies to create space between themselves and their partners.
3. People who are securely attached tend to be comfortable with closeness and intimacy, and are consistently caring for others.
There is also a fourth attachment style, discovered by Mary Main, called disorganized attachment. People with disorganized attachment typically had caregivers that displayed frightening and inconsistent behaviours. The caregivers offered both comfort and fear, which is very confusing to a child.
4. People with a disorganized attachment style use a variety of attachment behaviours in attempts to get their needs met, but do not have consistent coping mechanisms like the other three styles.
Earned Secure Attachment
The wonderful news is that your attachment style is not fixed! It can change and develop over time based on your new experiences in relationships with others. It is possible to move from insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment to "earned-secure attachment."
Typically, earned secure attachment does not happen overnight. It has to be conditioned into our nervous system. Most of us do not arrive in adulthood with a secure attachment style. We have to earn it over time - with lots and lots of practice!
When we know what our attachment style is, we can start to look for patterns in our relationships. It is helpful to look at who the "avoidant/distancer" is in your intimate relationship, and who the "anxious-ambivalent/pursuer is. A common problem for both anxious and avoidant people (disorganized people are both anxious and avoidant) is falling into the “anxious-avoidant trap, "alternatively called the "pursuer-distancer pattern."
The "pursuing and distancing" in relationships can feel very passionate and dramatic when we are unaware of our attachment style. When we are caught in the pursuer-distancer pattern, steady securely attached people can seem boring. When we earn secure attachment, our relationships are no longer feel so filled with drama. Anxiety and fear are replaced with a sense of genuine security.
Healing Attachment Wounds
To heal attachment wounds we need to practice new behaviours to balance our old ways of relating to others. The easiest way to move into an "earned secure" attachment style is to find someone who models secure attachment. This could be a romantic partner, a friend, a mentor, or a therapist.
In counselling, the therapeutic relationship is the container of secure attachment that can hold the emotions you cannot yet hold on your own. Within the secure attachment of your therapy appointment, we can begin to embrace your experience of confusion, discomfort, anger, grief, shame, guilt or sadness in a space of safely, acceptance and care.
What is your attachment style? Take this attachment quiz below and bring your findings to your next session!
With much care,