Attachment style is all about how we typically connect to people in close relationships. Research is showing that we tend to do this in much the same way we did when we were infants and toddlers. We don't recognize the patterns or habits involved because they are so very familiar and were developed almost entirely before we could talk or think about what we were doing.
The problems this may create in our lives now doesn't do justice to the feat that you as a very tiny and inexperienced human being accomplished. You survived and have probably done fairly well all things considered. The problems however remain, they are real and sometimes they have a serious impact on our current relationships.
Just being more aware of what we tend to do and the styles of the people we tend to spend quality time around can make a big difference. We can also start changing our behavior and the way we look at what's going on to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.
This research started back in the 1950s after John Bowlby had worked with WW2 orphans and then Mary Ainsworth worked with infants, toddlers and their caregivers. It turns out parents can be classified as either Predictable or Unpredictable and also as either Attentive or Inattentive from the child's point of view. This leads to four possible categories of parenting behavior, potentially giving us four possible attachment styles:
Predictable and Attentive caregivers give infants the environment to create a secure style of attachment (60% of infants). This leads to so-called "Anchor" behavior in adult relationships.
Predictable and Inattentive caregivers give infants the environment to create an insecure, "covertly anxious," avoidant style of attachment (20% of infants). This leads to so-called "Island" behavior in adult relationships. It was called avoidant because the infants often acted like they preferred to be alone or not too close.
Unpredictable and Attentive caregivers give infants the environment to create an insecure, "overtly anxious" style of attachment (15% of infants). This leads to so-called "Wave" behavior in adult relationships. This style has also been called resistant or dismissive because the infant resists being soothed or angrily dismisses attention from their caregiver when the caregiver attempts to soothe them from the upset of being disconnected.
Unpredictable and Inattentive caregivers give infants the environment to create a disorganized style of attachment (5% of infants). People with this kind of attachment live with a very ambivalent mindset where they swing from being afraid of connection to overanalyzing it. They tend to get overwhelmed easily and have highly unpredictable moods. At one moment they can be very clingy or smother their partner, and at the next they can disappear for a day or two without explanation.
Attachment Styles in Adult Relationships
More and more research shows that adults who learned a particular attachment style as infants use that same style in their adult intimate relationships. It has also been somewhat surprising to counselors who work with couples just how many of them are Island-Wave pairs. It's as though we're attracted to a particular type of partner for reasons that aren't clear.
In the diagram below, the range of attachment extends from covertly anxious to overtly anxious with secure in the middle.
The goal for people on either end of the scale is to move toward the middle. It's important to know that these relationship styles usually only make themselves clear in intimate relationships, and then only when one or both of the partners is "triggered." This seldom happens until there is some measure of commitment in the relationship.
Anchors and the Secure Attachment Style
Anchors feel safe and "secure" in their relationships. If both partners have this style the couple tends to be happy and enjoy their time together. They've got a sense of "having each other's back." There's a lot of physical contact and not just sexual contact.
Islands and the Waves
Individuals at the two poles, "Islands" on the left and "Waves" on the right, deal with relationship stress very differently.
The Island styles tend to process stress internally and soothe themselves. They prefer to avoid conflict and minimize the intensity and pressure they feel in an argument by withdrawing in some way. They tend to feel better with less closeness for the time being. Too much closeness tends to feel overwhelming. They can seem like a desert island, completely self-contained and without any needs.
The Wave styles on the other hand seek closeness, reassurance and even more intimacy. They tend to try to resolve issues almost immediately and find it harder to soothe themselves. They usually like to (over) talk things through and become more anxious when there is less contact. They can be like a wave at the beach, crashing in only to recede soon after.
The Preoccupied-Anxious Attachment Style
This is a Wave style. Individuals like this in a close relationship may become preoccupied with the verbal and non-verbal cues they get from their partner. If there aren't very many cues, or it seems like there's none, they may remain in a vigilant aroused state in hopes of finally receiving a response.
They will try to regain closeness by starting a conversation, physical contact or some other action in the hope of feeling soothed and loved again. They are not good at soothing themselves after an argument and need a lot of reassurance that they are wanted. If they do not receive this after repeatedly trying, they will feel that they are somehow not enough, and that the relationship is in jeopardy. They will also tend to feel anxious, depressed or angry.
The Angry-Resistant Attachment Style
The angry-resistant style is the other Wave style. People with this style have been called "allergic to hope." They usually anticipate disappointment and failure in relationship and by using negative, angry behaviors to cope, tend to increase the chance that they will get exactly the disappointment and failure they expect.
Angry-resistant partners have an extreme need for closeness, to the point that their partners may think they can never satisfy them. The exception to this is when they feel rejected. They then become angry and tend to punish their partners. They are acutely aware of the signals or cues they are receiving from their partners. They believe their partner should fight for them. They may even set up "tests" for their partner in the hope they will prove they love them. If their partner fails any of these tests, and they will because the tests tend to escalate, they will then feel unloved and unwanted and may then lash out.
The Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
This is an Island style where an individual tends to behave in a very self-sufficient fashion. The person may be quite unaware of how extreme this can seem to their partner.
A person with this style often finds approach by an intimate other overwhelming to one degree or another and can find it difficult to adjust to. They may want another nearby but not too close. The other can feel "dismissed," either by callous behavior or just by being ignored. The other can feel undervalued.
Those with a dismissive style may feel that they aren't cut out to be in a relationship, or they may minimize the importance of a relationship. They can feel pressured by their partner's desire for information or closeness.
The Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
This is the other Island style which looks something like the Dismissive-Avoidant style. The difference is that those with this style are afraid of being alone. While the Dismissive is more consistent in maintaining some distance, the Fearful is more of a "yo-yo", coming closer and then backing off.
The Fearful partner may feel they just can't get the relationship right and that too much is expected of them. They tend to have fantasies about other situations like being alone, being with an ex-partner or having an idealized version of their current relationship. They can find it hard to stay emotionally committed and present in the relationship.
The Fearful-Avoidant person may not fully commit to a relationship, feeling they need a lot of freedom or alone time. They may even end the relationship for that reason, but when they do, they may fear that they made a mistake and won't be able to find another person who will accept them. They then will try to return to the relationship without dealing with the issues and repeat the cycle.
How Social-Emotional Connections Works
Your brain has the capacity to be "rewired" through connection in a relationship. The relationship can be a "container" that holds the feelings that we can't hold individually on our own yet.
Our brains really are wired for connection and are strengthened by connection. Before we could talk, we communicated with our caregivers with a combination of movement, gazing at each other, and playful sounds. As a parent tuned into this "dance" they were able to tell the difference between the cries and coos to distinguish between things like sleepiness and hunger. Both parent and infant brains have been shown to actually change and develop through these interactions.
Parenting doesn't need to be perfect. In fact, research has shown that too much perfection doesn't help our brains and bodies develop as fully as they need to. When a parent makes small mistakes in responding to their baby, the child reacts with some distress. Our brains react to this "social loss" or "disconnection" in the same way it would physical pain. It engages the fight or flight response, too.
When a parent pays attention to the distress and "repairs it," the relationship can be reconnected. This cycle is understood to "tone" the nervous system and to create future expectations so that we can handle future disconnections and separations. This creates what we've called "secure" attachment.
What if this good-enough situation was not there for you? What if your early upbringing lacked this attuned, loving connection or only offered it inconsistently? We all have relationship vulnerabilities and imperfect attachments to some degree, and we all need each other to heal our wounds from the repeated painful disconnections of the past.
Unfortunately, many of us tend to recreate relationships that match what we've already experienced and know. Deep inside we may expect to be rejected and we bring this expectation about by either choosing a partner who is rejecting or acting in ways that make it hard for them not to reject us.
We can take responsibility for our part in keeping this cycle going. When we start to learn to tolerate stress, it begins to "tone" our nervous system and it helps us form new relationship expectations. These new expectations help us find more meaningful connections in the world. We get better at seeing, feeling, tuning into, and responding to another person. This takes time and effort because it's not easy to keep feeling the pain or shame that keeps coming up as we're learning how to do it.
Earned Secure Attachment
You aren't doomed by your attachment style. Awareness is the first and most important step. What are your patterns? Do you tend to pull away, smother or cling? Being honest with yourself and your partner is crucial. Second, it's important to treat your relationship as a foundation and develop it as a secure base.
People who change their attachment style are forming an "earned secure attachment." It's important to learn to avoid rocky relationships with frequent break-ups, fights, and roller coaster emotions that will destroy your chances to develop a more secure style. You also need to believe in growth and change because there is no such thing as a perfect relationship or a perfect partner. The more you understand that you can grow into deeper love, the more energy you can put into a relationship instead of doubting it or dismissing it.
If you aren't in a committed relationship, seek out partners with a more secure style. If you are, learn how to work with your partner to fix the bumps and bruises of your everyday disconnections and misunderstandings. You can become more secure together. Working with a professional counselor or therapist can go a long way in helping you get started.
As people become more secure, they start to seek out more of the support they need from their partners and other close people around them. They begin to really understand that their partner can be a resource and that they can work together to find problem solving ideas and begin using them.
Remember, there is no shame to an attachment style. Your style was developed and set in motion before you could talk or even think. You were just coping with what was going on around you as well as you could. As you got older, you learned to adjust your style to some extent and build out from it. As you become more secure, help the people around you count on you more as you learn to count on them more.
(Adapted from: https://www.therapyduo.com/resources/adult-attachment-primer, https://drarielleschwartz.com/how-relationships-change-brain-heal-attachment-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.XE-DXFxKhhE and https://www.scienceofpeople.com/attachment-style)
Questions for Journaling
- Who have you felt closest to in your life? How has it changed over time? Have the others changed? Have you?
- How easy is it to feel close to those around you? How easy is it to ask for what you really want in your relationship?
- What are the most important things to you in a relationship?
- How much “alone time” do you want? How much quality time together is important to you?
- How much time do you spend thinking about or analyzing whether or not you partner really cares about you or wants to be with you?
The School of Life, What Is Your Attachment Style?
Stan Tatkin, Relationships Are Hard, But Why? (TEDxKC)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (2012)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate (2016)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Relationship Rx (2018)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships (2013)
Patricia Love and Steven Stosny, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (2008)
Verses for the Week
1 Peter 4:8
Above everything, love one another earnestly, because love covers over many sins.
1 John 3:18
My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself.
Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another.
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to begin to love others and myself more equally. Help me see through the things that people do that frustrate, disappoint and anger me, so that I can continue to show them love and change our relationships. Help me notice the things that they do to show me love and to support me. I continue to want to be an example to those who know me. I want to show them that overcoming the past is possible. Amen.