Connecting with others, being in a meaningful relationship, being loved, are needs we are born with because being with someone gives us more chances to survive. Shortly, we have a strong psychological need to attach ourselves to someone, a need even more important than to feed ourselves, according to research.
Attachment starts from the very first moments of life, but it can change during a lifetime. Every baby needs a caregiver to calm down when crying, and to grow healthy and sane. Babies need not only physical care (such as to be fed) but also emotional care (affection manifested by actions such as caressing when the baby needs it). This way, from the first days of life we become attached to those who care for us, and even our brain becomes “set” to seek the love of a significant person. Thus, we tend to continuously search until we get this love, and if later in our couple life our half fails to love us, we will continue the search until we get love from someone else. Or, we will look for other sources that seem to calm our “emotional hunger”, this generating compulsive behaviors (like abuse of alcohol, drugs that increase dopamine levels – caffeine/nicotine/cocaine, sex, power, money, sports, hard work, betting, games, shopping, etc.), which can turn into addictions to these various ways of “running away” and getting temporary satisfaction, which distract us from our painful unfulfilled need to be loved. A more appropriate “investment” is, in fact, cultivating self-love. We are born with the right to be loved, and the first step to being loved by others is to love ourselves.
Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby have identified in their research 4 types of attachment people have, which although formed in childhood (between 0 to 3 years), tend to be stable throughout life, including dictating the type of attachment in our meaningful relationships of adult life (for example, in couple relationships): Anxious, Securing, Disorganized, and Avoiding. Still, attachment style is rather a mix of all, with a high predominance of one of the 4 described, and does not mean one will be demonstrating 100% in all relationships/moments in time only one style. Your style of attachment can be different in terms of different relationships. You can have an avoidant attachment style with parents, but an anxious style with your romantic partner.
Attachment styles in adult life influence:
- our perception and how to approach emotional closeness and intimacy;
- the ability to communicate our own emotions and needs, respectively to listen and understand the emotions and needs of our partner;
- how we respond to conflict;
- expectations on our partner and our relationship.
Statistically, about 50% of people have a Secure attachment style, the others are 20% Anxious, 25% Avoiding, 3-5% Disorganized (or Anxious / Avoiding).
Our attachment style can act as distorting lenses, giving the impression that we are “speaking in a different language” with our partner, yet actually both partners have the same ultimate goal: to nurture their need for love. How our early caring experiences taught us to manage this need, can become automated and repeated in our adult lives, although those might not make sense anymore in present.
Anxious Attachment (Preoccupied)
This attachment style is found especially in those having a negative vision about themselves, but a positive one about the others.
Those who have this style are very concerned with relationships in general, and tendency to worry about the partner’s ability to love them back.
Anxious style people have a “super-active” way of attachment, respectively with strong emotions when their relationship is being threatened (or, most of the time, only perceive as being threatened). The most subtle indicator something is wrong will send their attachment system in “maximum alert”, and calming tends to happen only when the partner shows care and that the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, a partner with an Avoidant attachment style will not excel in reassuring them.
This style of attachment is found especially in those having a positive view of both self, and others.
This is the style of attachment we all strive for, both for ourselves and our partner. People having this style are comfortable with intimacy, love, affection, and thus preferable for long-term relationships.
A Securely attached person can be considered boring for someone with an Anxious attachment style because the “drama” in the relationship is missing. And drama tends to be misinterpreted as passion. Being with someone who can sometimes be perceived as an emotional rollercoaster is a strong emotion, but rather a consuming than a nourishing one.
Disorganized Attachment (Anxious – Avoiding)
This style of attachment is found especially in those having a fluctuating/unstable vision of both self and others.
Most people form this style as a result of psychological trauma. Intense anger and fear experienced in childhood are still alive, which is why they can dissociate from emotions in order to avoid pain. Thus, they are very little in contact with their own emotions and, consequently, it is very difficult for them to manage them.
For this reason, on the one hand, they do not tolerate intimacy and have low empathy (even narcissism, rebellion), on the other hand, they tend to form dysfunctional or even abusive relationships (because they recreate the traumas of the past).
Avoiding Attachment (Dismissive)
This style of attachment is found especially in those having a positive view of the self, and a negative view of others.
Modern dating suits Avoidants, because it offers them endless options of partners, through applications such as Tinder. They are the inventors of “ghosting” (becoming suddenly “invisible”).
Those with an Avoidant attachment style love their freedom, their independence, and tend to keep others at bay. They are the ones who break free from engagement and make salty jokes about engagements or marriage.
Basically, they (subconsciously) deny their needs for closeness and love. In reality, their unfulfilled need to be loved is so painful that they prefer to “emotionally anesthetize” themselves by ignoring their own emotions.
People with Anxious and Avoidant attachment styles – why do they tend to form couples?
Not so fortunate, many couples are formed of a partner with an Anxious style and one with Avoidant style. So, what is the reason why we can be less attracted to someone who is loving, honest, and loyal (respectively someone with a Securing attachment style), but being more attracted to someone who is emotionally distant (Avoiding attachment) or co-dependent (with Anxious attachment style)?
The reasons vary: beginning with specifics of each gender (women tend to have an Anxious style, and men an Avoidant one), continuing with the attachment patterns copied from parents/caregivers to a reluctance to end a relationship (enhanced by society). Society glorifies relationships and has long pressured people to be in relationships. Unfortunately, we are thus pressured to rather accept any kind of relationship (good or bad), versus the alternative of not being in a relationship at all. Similarly, there is social pressure from gender biases, such as “desirable women for a long-term relationship must … be faithful to their partner” or “real men must …have as many partners as possible”.
Think of an anxious attachment person mentally consuming daily concerns about their partner. This amplifies the idea that relationships are extremely important and, possibly, that there is only one person “out there” for them. The fear of being alone often leads to tolerating an inappropriate relationship.
Anxious – Avoidant couples tend to remain in a cycle of destructive relational tendencies. Anxious styles constantly want intimacy, while Avoidant ones want to move away from intimacy. And as our natural tendency is to seek intimacy and love until we get it, and an anxiously attached person has a stronger tendency to continue seeking until finding. An Avoidant will see this tendency as a threat to his independence. Thus, they will form a Follower – Followed relationship.
Can I change my Attachment style?
Yes, like any aspect of emotional intelligence, the Attachment style can be changed. It all starts with observing ourselves and realizing what style we have now and towards which direction we want to change. At the same time, a Secure attachment style can be built in a couple, or influenced by the partner you are with (respectively a Secure attachment partner can help someone with an Avoiding or Anxious style, to have a more Secure style). Even as an adult, you can change your attachment style to have healthier relationships.
Still, also those with a Secure style of attachment can become more Anxious or Avoidant if they are in a relationship with someone with such a style. If you think you have a Securing attachment style, try to keep it as much as possible.
What helps in changing our style towards a more secure one, is to think of a secure person you know and how they act, or to remind yourself of secure experiences you had (such as peacefully resolving a conflict). More details are mentioned also in the attached visual.
It is important to keep all these aspects in mind and to remember that these things can be changed in order to help us get as close as possible to the relationship having our dreams.
written by Psychologist Oana I.