Updated: Dec 15, 2020
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 quality of the emotional bonds that you formed when you were trying to get your primary needs when you were young.
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. Your attachment style has a strong influence on the success or failure of your intimate relationships.
From the time you entered your mother's womb, you were forming and ingraining your habitual attachment patterns. Based on how your parents or caregivers responded to your needs, wants, and desires, you developed 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. Anxious Attachment: If you have an anxious attachment style you will tend to be preoccupied with relationships, and you might fear that others do not love you enough. With an anxious attachment style, you will often experience anxiety in relationships because your early caregivers were inconsistent and ambivalent, for example, kind and warm at times, and unavailable at others. For this reason, you might fear rejection and abandonment.
Due to learned insecurity from childhood, you will tend to engage in behaviours that aim to pull others towards you. You might worry that your partner will abandon you. You might regularly crave closeness and intimacy, being overly dependent on your relationships with others, requiring frequent reassurance that people care about you.
2. Avoidant Attachment: If you have an avoidant attachment style you will fear intimacy, and so you will tend to avoid closeness with others. As a child, you may have had to fend for yourself emotionally or physically, and so you gave up on voicing your needs early in your life.
Because you do not yet know how to name and claim your own emotional needs, you will likely experience fear when someone gets too close because you will feel engulfed or overwhelmed by their needs. As a result, you will push others away or use distancing strategies to create space between yourself and others.
3. Secure Attachment: If you have a secure attachment style you will feel comfortable with closeness and intimacy, and are consistently caring for others. This is likely because you received reliable and consistent care as a child. From a good stable upbringing, you naturally have self-esteem. You trust intimate relationships and you invite social support.
If you have a secure attachment style you will rarely feel jealous. You will be comfortable sharing your true feelings with others. There is clarity around setting relational boundaries. You will be able to keep difficult conversations civil, and it is easy to find empathy for others.
4. Disorganized Attachment: There is also a fourth attachment style, later named by Mary Main, called disorganized attachment. If you have a disorganized attachment style you typically had caregivers that displayed frightening and inconsistent behaviours. Your caregivers likely offered both comfort and fear, which was confusing.
If you have a disorganized attachment style you will use a variety of attachment behaviours in attempts to get your needs met, but you will not have consistent coping mechanisms like the other three styles. You will lack a coherent approach to relationships. On the one hand, you want to love and be loved. On the other hand, you will be afraid to let anyone in.
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 your 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 you know what your attachment style is, you can start to look for patterns in your relationships. It is often helpful to look at who the "avoidant/distancer" is in your relationships, and who the "anxious/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."
Pursuing and distancing in relationships can feel very passionate and dramatic when you are unaware of your attachment style. When you are caught in the pursuer-distancer pattern, securely attached people can seem boring to you.
When you earn secure attachment, your relationships will no longer feel so filled with drama. Anxiety and fear are replaced with a steady sense of genuine security and love.
Healing Attachment Wounds
To heal your attachment wounds you will need to practice new behaviours in order to shift and change your unhealthy ways of relating to others. The easiest way to move towards an"earned secure attachment" style is to find someone who models secure attachment. This could be a romantic partner, a friend, a relative, a mentor, or a therapist.
Creating an earned secure adult attachment style involves reconciling your childhood experiences and making sense of the impact your childhood has had on your current relational style. To earn the feeling of inner security, you have to develop a coherent narrative about what happened to you as a child and learn how to soothe and reprogram your nervous system to feelings of safety, security and love.
In counselling, the therapeutic relationship can provide a container of secure attachment that can gently hold the emotions you cannot yet hold on your own. Within an atmosphere of secure attachment, you can begin to grieve your original attachment wounds of confusion, discomfort, anger, grief, shame, guilt or sadness in a space of safety, acceptance and care.
With much love and care,