We all come from differing backgrounds and environments in which we learned how relationships work and how to be in one. Sometimes those learned styles of relating with friends, family and romantic partners are secure and sometimes they are not. Understanding how we learned to be in a relationship, or “attach to another,” helps us to understand our own behaviors and the triggers that could have us in conflict with our loved ones or even struggling to stay in the stable, loving relationship we are longing for. Learning about attachment styles can also help us to understand those in our lives that we seek to be close to as well and even give us insights into our past relationships.
What are the different attachment styles?
In essence there are 2 main types of attachment, secure and insecure. In secure attainment we see the “FOUR S’s” of security: feeling Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure. In this style we are safe to be our authentic selfs with our loved one and trust the relationship to provide the four s’s.
In the insecure style we have or are missing 1 or all of the “Four S’s” and find ourselves relying on behaviors we have developed to survive in the world and relationships. This is not a bad thing necessarily! We have learned protective mechanisms to ensure self-security; however, these mechanisms can make it hard for us to then enter into relationships in an open, trusting way moving forward. We can end up sabotaging our selfs. Attachment styles are primarily formed by our caregivers in infancy and childhood. However, our attachment style can be changed by significant events in our lives or through our own work in change.
What insecure attachment in adults may look like:
Insecure attachments can make for an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized responsiveness to those we long to feel connected to. Let’s look at each:
Anxious: In this attachment we can look to be in constant need of validation from our partner which can feel smothering or needy. There is an underlying fear of abandonment and rejection that drives us to draw our partner near at all costs. It can look like co-dependency or hyper-fixation on the relationship as well as a jealous nature.
Avoidant: In this style we are fearful of over reliance on another that also leads to a fear of abandonment and rejection. However in this instance the reaction is to pull-away and be focused on independence and self-reliance. Usually there is a fear of deep emotional intimacy. We can be intimate and close at times though within our control of the when and how. But there is a pulling away from being pressured into closeness or commitment. The big driving factor is fearing being dependent on someone else for safety to inevitably be let down.
Disorganized: This style is the rarest and can look like a variety of combinations of the other two. Those with this style has feelings of being unlovable and unworthy with a strong fear of rejection. Often there will be the sense of a “push-pull” relationship. There is the anxiety for closeness and worry of what the other person is thinking/doing plus the avoidant pulling away when the vulnerability becomes too much causing strong independent reactivity. Most often there is significant trauma or neglect that occurred.
How do we overcome Insecure Attachments to mend relationships?
Of course therapy individually or as a couple can be very helpful in deciphering our attachment style and its origins. When doing this we can then begin to have an understanding of our natural tendencies in stress and take steps to modify those reactions by knowing our triggers. However here are some practical beginning steps:
- Improving nonverbal skills of communication
Learning to be aware of our own body language and others can help us in connecting. Bringing awareness to how our body is responding to situations also gives us a better insight into when something is triggering a negative emotion (agitation, stress, fear, etc.) within us. Recognizing these cues in others is also a step in developing emotional awareness.
- Practicing your emotional intelligence
The next step is now being able to more readily regulate our emotional responses to triggers of stress because we are more aware of what our bodies are telling us. We can now more easily find positive ways to manage our emotions as well as empathize with our loved ones when we see their emotional state.
- Seek relationships with people in secure attachments
By entering into relationship with secure individuals we can more readily focus on developing our own feelings of security. Even being in friendship with securely attached people can give us the confidence to create new patterns ourselves as well as be a great example.
- Work through childhood trauma (really any significant trauma in which behaviors changed)
Working though our past traumas is a significant piece in putting our past in the past and letting our bodies be more in the present. Often our bodies respond to perceived threats based on past traumas creating stress reactions. Without us even being fully aware that its happening! Working through traumas is key in disconnecting present situations with this past reactivity. It is fairly easy to see how traumatic experiences in relationships can make it very difficult to move into trust and security in a new one. There are many ways to work through trauma and we would love to help you discover the right path for you here at The Marriage and Family Clinic.
When you can seek to discover how your behaviors and your loved ones’ behaviors are an understandable response to an experience that occurred, we can then learn new ways of accepting ourselves and others. Further we can begin to let go of the past experience by seeing it for what it is, the past, in order to move forward into new patterns of thinking and behaving. The biggest thing is, you CAN create secure attachments even if you have an insecure style currently.
If you would like to start a deeper dive into attachment here are some great books to look in to:
- “Hold Me Tight” – Dr. Sue Johnson
- “Attachment Theory in Action” – Dr. Amir Levine & Rachel Heller
- “The Attachment Effect” – Peter Lovenheim
Robinson,L., Segal, J., & Jaffe, J. (2023). Attachment styles and how they affect relationships. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/attachment-and-adult-relationships.htm