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Breaking Down Attachment Styles 

 February 28, 2021

By  counselingwithnatalie

Imagine: you’re a small child, placed in a large, unfamiliar room with your mother. The room is littered with toys and other items to pique your interest. You spend some time exploring, until a stranger comes in the room. The stranger speaks with Mom. Mom leaves the room but the stranger stays. What do you do? How do you react?

Do you continue to explore the room? When Mom returns, are you excited to see her?

Are you not interested in exploring? When Mom returns, do you ignore her?

Are you hesitant to explore? Do you feel uncomfortable by the stranger’s presence? When Mom returns, are you angry with her?

Do you have conflicting feelings about Mom leaving? When Mom returns, are you resistant and/or confused?

Your response to the described scenario may be representative of your attachment style. In fact, early attachment theory researcher, Mary Ainsworth, created this situation as an experiment to identify and test children’s attachment styles. Ainsworth found that children typically responded in one of four patterns, or attachment styles:

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious
  3. Avoidant
  4. Disorganized

Attachment styles are dependent on the emotional bonds we develop for our caregivers in childhood. How and when our needs are met as children can alter our sense of trust in others, which in turn affects our relationships. Like many aspects of our childhood, attachment styles tend to follow us into our adulthood; however, it is completely possible to change an insecure attachment style (i.e., anxious, avoidant, disorganized) into a secure attachment style.

Researchers are finding a significant correlation between our childhood attachment style and their lasting effect on our adult relationships. Identifying your attachment style can be crucial to better understanding how you view your relationships, and how you can change maladaptive behaviors into more productive outcomes. Before we break down each attachment style, let’s get a better idea of your individual attachment pattern. Here are two quizzes you can take to test your attachment style: https://quiz.attachmentproject.com and https://www.scienceofpeople.com/attachment-styles/.

Anxious Attachment Style

Often referred to as ambivalent or resistant attachment, people with this attachment style consist of about 7-15% of the population. In Ainsworth’s study, children with anxious attachment became significantly distressed when their caregiver left the room. Children with this attachment style typically had unavailable parents, their needs were not consistently met, and they are unable to form a sense of dependency on their caregivers. As adults, anxiously attached people tend to worry excessively about their relationships, constantly fearing the loss of their partner or friend. They seem to put their relationship on a pedestal, tending to their partner’s needs before their own. Often, they are hyper critical of themselves and their relationship, and seek constant reassurance from their partner. Other manifestations of anxious attachment style include a strong sense of jealously, clinginess, and fears of negative evaluations and cheating. Individuals with this attachment style typically ignore red flags in a relationship out of fear of abandonment.

Fortunately, there are various ways a person can address their anxious attachment behaviors to become more securely attached. First, it may be helpful to work through past disappointments. Learning lessons from the past is a part of human nature; however, some past experiences may not serve as a tool to grow anymore. It may be time to consider letting certain situations go. Another way to address anxious manifestations is by identifying when you’re talking about your emotions to connect with your partner versus talking to regulate your emotions. Learning to make this distinction can make a huge impact on your relationship. Before talking to your partner about heavy emotions, ask yourself: What am I seeking? Am I talking about this because I want reassurance or regulation from my partner? Or am I talking about this to grow deeper and connect with my partner? Another strategy to use is recognizing when you’re seeking connection versus looking to vent. Often, venting to another person is a coping mechanism of anxious attachment; however, sometimes unloading on your partner without establishing boundaries may cause tension in a relationship. It’s important to ask your partner if they have the time/energy for this conversation, and to reciprocate by asking them about their life and struggles. In this way, you’re both being heard and fulfilled in conversation. I want to ensure I’m not mistaken—communication is absolutely crucial to a productive relationship. However, it is important to practice healthy communication skills to ensure a satisfying, mutually fulfilling relationship.

Avoidant Attachment Style

            Individuals with avoidant attachment style comprise of about 23% of the population. Children with this attachment style weren’t explorative in Ainsworth’s experiment, and showed little emotion towards their caregiver when they returned. These children tended to show a greater sense of independence and seemed unemotional. Avoidant attachments could be a result of childhood neglect or abuse, or children who were punished for relying on their caregiver. In adulthood, people with this attachment style tend to seem emotionally distant from their partner with an intense desire for independence. Individuals with avoidant attachment keep their partner at an arm’s length out of fear co-dependency. Avoidant attachment may also manifest in behaviors such as avoiding intimacy, staying reserved in their feelings, rejecting their partner, and dismissing conflict.

            An important concept for those with this attachment style to remember is that it is normal to depend on your partner to a healthy degree. While self-preservation can be valuable, allowing yourself to show vulnerability or intimacy to your partner creates growth in a relationship. Surrounding yourself with superficial relationships only deprives you of truly connecting with someone emotionally, physically, and spiritually. A key method to overcoming avoidant behaviors is to identify your “deactivating strategies,” or negative thought processes about relationships such as “I don’t need a relationship like others do.” These deactivating strategies downplay a person’s innate need for others to preserve their independence. Once identified, challenge these thought patterns. If your deactivating strategy is to romanticize your single life, question why you want to be single. Is it because your relationship isn’t fulfilling? Or are you fantasizing about being single to manage your anxiety about intimacy with your partner? Another common deactivating strategy is being hypervigilant of a partner’s shortcomings. Ask yourself: Are these shortcomings valid? Am I overanalyzing their behavior to compensate for mine?  It’s crucial for those with avoidant attachments to remember that intimacy is not the enemy of independence; rather, the two can coexist beautifully if you allow it.

Disorganized Attachment Style

Also referred to as fearful or disorientated attachment, disorganized attachment is the rarest of the four attachments, making up about 1-5% of the population. In Ainsworth’s study, children with this attachment style displayed a mix of conflicting behaviors, from confusion to rejection to clinginess. Their range of behaviors towards their caregiver could be attributed to an inconsistency in parenting, where the caregiver has become both a source of love and anxiety. This attachment style can also be indicative of childhood trauma or abuse. Children with this attachment seem to carry these conflicting feelings into adulthood. They may go to various extremes in a relationship, such as smothering their partner with love and affection one day but disappearing without a word the next. Individuals with disorganized attachment may be struggling to understand themselves and past experiences; thus, they may lash out at their partner or have difficult expressing empathy. Manifestations of this attachment may also include low self-esteem, lack of goal-directed behaviors, and an intense fear of abandonment.

Identifying triggers for the behaviors of disorganized attachment is foundational for improvement. Self-awareness is key here—start by asking yourself questions about your fears. When fears of abandonment or vulnerability begin to arise, what is happening in your life to trigger these fears? How is your body responding, physically and mentally, to these fears? Once your triggers are identified, practice self-soothing. Often, adults with disorganized attachment were not taught to self-soothe as children. Choose something that makes you feel a sense of calm or release—perhaps walking, stretching, or drawing. Say kind things to yourself to further this sense of calm such as “I am whole” or “I am present.” Learning healthy communication skills can also be beneficial to improving disorganized attachment. Instead of resorting to maladaptive behaviors, try sitting down with your partner and expressing what you need from them in those moments of fear. Remember, if you feel triggered or overwhelmed, come back to the present. Place your hand on your chest. Feel your heartbeat. Listen to your breath. Repeat after me—you are capable, you matter, and you are loved.

Secure Attachment Style

Secure attachment style is the most common of the four attachments, accounting for about 50-60% of the population. The securely attached child in Ainsworth’s experiment freely explored the room with little hesitation and were excited to see Mom return. Typically, caregivers of children with secure attachments are responsive to the child’s needs and provide comfort in times of stress, forming a dependable bond between child and parent. Adults with secure attachments connect with others easily; additionally, their relationships tend to be more satisfying and show healthy balance. Individuals with secure attachments are comfortable with mutual dependency and tend to value intimacy and vulnerability in a relationship. In addition, they are comfortable being alone and have a strong sense of self-identity. Other manifestations of secure attachment include actively seeking support from their partner, often reflective of their relationship, and express positive attitudes towards their relationship. The feelings and behaviors of securely attached people can be used as a standard for those with insecure attachments to reflect upon. Secure attachments are attainable and sustainable—you have the power to choose growth over habit.

We’re all working towards some goal in our relationships—whether it be learning to trust, creating healthy boundaries, or being more vulnerable with our feelings. You may not even realize it but you’re making strides towards your goal right now, by seeking more information about your attachment style and how to improve it. Remember, growth may not seem easy, but you are completely capable of achieving your goals. You have the tools you need—so let’s get to work!

By Missy Boyanton, Content Research Intern

References:

Cherry, K. (2019). What is attachment theory? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337

Graham, J. A. (n.d.). Relationships: the avoidant style. Atlanta Center for Couple Therapy. https://www.atlantacenterforcoupletherapy.com/relationships-the-avoidant-style

Gwer, D. (n.d.). Is your child securely attached? Parenting Science. https://www.parentingscience.com/strange-situation.html

Lancer, D. (2016). How to change your attachment style. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-change-your-attachment-style#3

Lang, J. (2019). 4 steps to help you heal from disorganized attachment style so that you can feel securely attached in your relationships. JLang Therapy and Consulting. https://jessicalangtherapy.com/blog/disorganized-attachment/

Ray, S. J. (n.d.) 5 ways to help anxious attachment and love. Therapy to Thrive. https://therapytothrive.com/2018/05/23/5-ways-to-help-anxious-attachment-and-love-more-securely/


Tags

Attachment Styles, Lifestyle, Mental Health


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