Understanding what Attachment Theory is so useful in helping you to understand your own Attachment style and Romantic Relationships.
Do you struggle with romantic relationships?
Are you finding it difficult, to find the “one” whatever that is?
Even if you are in a relationship, do you find it hard to feel secure and connect with your partner?
Today I will introduce to you Attachment Theory and how depending on what your Attachment Style is, could provide some answers
You are going to need your Journal and a pen handy to help you to explore back using some of the questions I’m going to provide you.
How are your relationships?
Nothing causes us more angst than our romantic relationships. We may often look at our relationship history or the relationship history of the other people in our lives and wonder why it almost always goes so wrong.
I’m not talking about where there is clear abuse either physical or psychological. If that’s happening in your relationship, unfortunately, this podcast isn’t for you. What I’m talking about here is that if we are, to be honest with ourselves.
If we find that we are consistently dissatisfied in our relationships, never feeling secure, even not wanting a relationship. it would help to look back to understand your childhood experience as this would, according to decades of research, help you understand your relationship patterns and why this could be happening. Our own security in our relationships albeit our romantic relationships, work colleagues, friendships, etc.
Our sense of security comes from what is called our Attachment Style and depending on what our attachment style is, can determine why our relationships are successful or not. This applies to not just Romantic Relationships but to all types of relationships.
The thing is, if you look back on some of your relationships, you could find that you have had good times but many of us have many regrets if it is because of the partners we were in a relationship with, some of the things we said or did that we weren’t proud off.
We can’t change the past but we change our relationship patterns so we can eventually have the relationships we want for ourselves. Understanding what attachment theory is and what your attachment style and how it could have affected your relationships is a great start.
What is Attachment theory?
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth both Psychologists, wanted to research how young children and babies need to develop a relationship with one primary caregiver. At that time in the 1960s, it was mainly the mother.
They believed that the relationship developed between the mother and the young child affected their social and emotional development.
The attachment theory basically is about the child’s ability to seek safety and security from their parents as this forms the basis and foundation of how we are able to seek safety and security from others in our relationships as we get older.
What they did is artificially created stressful situations between the mother and child. They did this by separating the mother and child for a period of time and then watching how the child reacted when the mum returned to her baby.
What they found was that some babies cried and couldn’t be comforted they even went as far as rejecting their mum’s efforts to comfort them. They categorised these babies as insecure anxious attachment types.
They found that other babies more or less didn’t react at all when their mums came back to them. Some even showed little emotion. On the face of it to the untrained eye, this is OK but babies around the toddler age naturally have separation anxiety at the best and it is normal to expect them to be upset.
They were expected to react but those babies with the insecure-avoidant attachment style didn’t react at all.
The third category they found was the Secure attachment style. Here the babies reacted when being separated from their mothers and when their mums returned but their reaction wasn’t seen to be excessive. They were also quickly soothed after receiving the observable comfort, that they received from their mother.
There is however a fourth attachment style developed by the Ainsworth Strange Situation Procedure by Mary Main and Judith Solomon. It is the Disorganised Attachment Style.
Disorganised attachment style is usually found in children who have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from their parents in early childhood.
In their experiments, they found that the babies’ reactions to their mothers were inconsistent with the other attachment styles and would react in unusual, sometimes odd, and conflicting behaviors when their parents left and returns to them.
They found that sometimes the baby either showed a lot of distress during the separation, but then show indifference or even anger when their parent returned to them. In some babies, they found that the baby turned to strangers instead of the parents for soothing.
Other babies disturbingly showed signs of freezing or dissociation when with their parents when other babies were clearly afraid of their parents
What are the 4 Attachment Styles?
They are Anxious, Avoidant, Disorganised, and Secure. I will explain each one in more depth here:
Anxious attachment style
The parents of those who have the Anxious Attachment style were maybe inconsistent with their care and love of their child by responding well on the one side then being absent on the opposite side. Or as a child, you could have had someone else in their lives that provided the emotional support that you needed but for whatever reason, it was inconsistent
Those with an Anxious Attachment style:
- Can be very kind and thoughtful to those they care about.
- Doesn’t feel happy when not in a relationship
- Quite content to say how they are feeling
- Can blame others for how they are feeling
- Can feel fear and anxiety in the relationship especially if they are worried about how things are
- Even though they could be quite good at expressing how they feel, they often expect you to know how they are feeling or to guess.
- Can often make things all about themselves
- Can be preoccupied with the relationship
- Struggles to trust their partner
- Often pushes someone away because of their own fears and anxieties
- Has fantasies of the perfect relationship where their partner just gets them. Feels disappointed in the relationship when things don’t work out that way.
- Negative Scripts you have about relationships can include “I need them . . . but they will disappoint me.”
Avoidant Attachment Style
If you feel you have an avoidant attachment style, it is likely your parents, for whatever reason either you had to grow up too quickly and hardly anyone was there for you, you generally spent a lot of time by yourself with no emotional support so you learned pretty early on that you can’t depend on anyone, ever. You need to depend on yourself.
- Often sends mixed messages in their relationship
- Wants to remain independent
- Often devalues their partners
- Can use tactics emotional or physical to create distance
- Has really firm rigid boundaries
- They don’t like to talk about themselves very much
- Also have views and opinions which are often unshakeable of how a relationship should be
- Doesn’t trust others and worries about being taken advantage of by their partner
- Often doesn’t make their intentions clear of what they want from the relationship
- Will often avoid any meaningful discussions or confrontations
- If in a disagreement will try to avoid it or use anger to deflect what’s going on
- Can escape discomfort by using substances
- If you’re looking for a partner, you might prefer someone who “doesn’t take themselves too seriously” or is “easygoing.”
Disorganised Attachment Style
Unfortunately, this attachment style is not talked about often but this is an attachment style I had often witnessed amongst clients when I worked in Drug and Alcohol Services. Those with a disorganised attachment style tend to:
- Have chaotic, intense, or unpredictable relationships
- Individuals could also suffer from other mental health issues, such as substance abuse, depression, or borderline personality disorder
- incorporates both the anxious and the avoidant styles.
- Have extreme fear of rejection alongside difficulty connected to and trusting other people
- Can be aggressive towards partners or those who care for them
- Can fear their partners
- Has extremely low self-image and self-worth
- Can experience other mental health issues or personality disorders i.e. Borderline Personality disorder at the extreme end
- Feels unlovable, inadequate and unworthy#
- Once they have a relationship, however, they tend to reject or push away the other person out of fear.
Secure Attachment Style
The Secure attachment style is often seen as the ideal place to be the panacea for all relationship difficulties. But everything with those who are securely attached isn’t always perfect. It is just that they are more capable of problem-solving. It doesn’t mean they don’t feel anxious at times or avoid things when they need to be more confrontational.
Those who are securely attached would more than likely notice their behavior and then make attempts to rectify any issues if they can.
It’s a bit like how their parents would have behaved as there isn’t a parent around who can be or will be perfect all the time. It is like Donald Winnicot says, they are able to repair any ruptures in their parenting. They can problem-solve or repair any damage they have done to minimise the consequences.
This is good for the child as number one it helps the child to be more resilient in their relationships. So now they are problems then act on them to resolve them in the best way they can.
The child then learns that the parents can be relied on. They learn to trust their parents and know how to spot when some are good for them also. They also know how to give as well as receive in order to keep their relationship balanced.
They are also:
- Reliable and consistent
- Know how to compromise in disagreements
- Not afraid of depending on someone else
- Know how to build intimacy or are not afraid to learn
- Don’t play games with their partner
- Is quite open-minded about how their relationship should be
- Intouch with their feelings
- Understand their feelings
- Able to show a range of emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, etc when appropriate
Examples of Attachment Styles in Relationships
To help you understand more what attachment theory is, consider these scenarios that I’ve just made up for each of the attachment Styles: Anxious, Avoidant, Disorganised, Secure:
Example of an Anxious Attachment Style
Kevin is thirty-something and after a string of what he calls “unsuccessful relationships”, he has now managed to meet someone of that “ticks all the boxes” as they say.
Kevin is basically happy with his relationship but at times feels anxious about how the relationship is and worries that he will get dumped again. Because of his anxiety, he worries about challenging his partner about issues that affects him as he feels that upsetting the apple cart would cause his partner to end the relationship.
Unfortunately, because he often suppresses his feelings, his feelings often burst out in inappropriate ways that are affecting his relationship anyway.
Example of an Avoidant Attachment Style
Mia has just celebrated her fiftieth birthday and had an amazing party with family and friends who all adore her. She looks amazing for her age and many people think she is at least 15 years younger. Despite all her success in her life as a whole, one thing that has alluded to her is finding the one.
She has had a few long-term relationships including a marriage that lasted five years. Her thoughts about men, in particular, are that they will always let you down and you can’t and shouldn’t rely on them.
She is fiercely independent and vulnerabilities are a no-no for her. Her saying is “Trust no one and you won’t get hurt”.
Example of a Disorganised Attachment Style
George has been married to John for five years now. Unfortunately, their relationship has been full of alcohol misuse and violence often perpetrated almost equal to each other.
George says that he often feels overwhelmed in his relationship and finds it difficult to articulate his emotions. He also finds it hard to know what he needs and how to express what he needs.
This often boils over and then leads to an argument and fight. Alcohol lowers their inhibitions then things come out in the worst ways.
He also has a history of abusive and violent relationships. Sadly he says that he even feels more comfortable with them as he finds “normal people” boring.
Example of Secure Attachment Style
Barbara, also in a long-term relationship is struggling at work at the moment. Her manager is a bully and micromanages her work. Due to financial difficulties, she and her family need her to be in work, to manage the family finances.
She and her partner sat down and worked out what they needed to do to work through her difficulties at work and decide what they needed to do for the future.
Her partner offered to manage the household finances for the short term, even though it would be difficult, so she could look for work.
She accepted her partner’s offer, love, and support then reciprocated by finding another job that fitted their needs better.
What is your attachment style?
Can you see yourself in any of them, can you relate to any of the scenarios?
Write down in your journal why you think you can relate to them and what you think about what we have talked about so far.
Just to explain the different attachment styles further and how they show up in adult romantic relationships.
Can you Change Your Attachment Style?
The short answer is, Yes you can. You most certainly can change your attachment style. I’m not saying it would be easy but with Self-awareness, learning about yourself why you are you, and learning to be more self-compassionate is a great start.
Whilst a therapist who understands how your childhood experiences will impact your relationships would be preferable. A Therapist who is reliable, compassionate, honest, and consistent is more important.
The reason why I first suggested therapy is that what is needed is reparenting from a trusted consistent person. Many of us unfortunately haven’t learned to build friendships or relationships that can provide that.
Pete Walker suggested finding a team of people as it were to help you meet the different needs in your life.
Remember also, there are a ton of books available that will go into this subject. I have linked some below.
In others words, not one thing will help but a number of things together, by starting small, will mount up to help you in your healing journey.
I provided information on the Four different Attachment Styles: Anxious, Avoidant Disorganised, and secure.
The main thing to get there is that not everything is black and white whether you have it or you don’t. A lot of the symptoms and traits I mentioned here is on a spectrum from Mild to very severe in some cases
Also remember, like with everything else, your attachment style can change, but it starts with understanding yourself first.