As social beings, we all form relationships. Yet, not all of us have the same way to relate or even love other people. As a result, sometimes, we find ourselves caught in toxic relationships over and over again. Other times, it may become tough to grow in intimacy with our partners.
About a century ago, Freud suggested that childhood experiences profoundly influence our behaviours and relationships later in life. Many aspects of Freud’s theory have been criticized or updated. However, the idea that our first relationship with our caregivers influences how we connect with others as adults remain widely accepted.
This post will cover the principles of attachment theory, the four styles of attachments we may develop, and how you can establish more meaningful and fulfilling relationships in your life.
What is Attachment Theory?
When we talk about attachment, we refer to a solid emotional bond between two people in psychology.
Our first emotional bond is created when we are born, and we immediately seek to connect with our parents or primary caregiver. From the moment we come to this world, our brains are wired to connect with that “special person” who will nurture, protect, and comfort us. That primary parent-child relationship will influence any future relationship we will have later in adult life—especially intimate relationships.
A glimpse into Bowlby's Theory
Attachment theory was developed in the ’50s by British psychiatrists John Bowlby. Bowlby believed that our brains are wired to form attachments for evolutionary reasons. When we are born, it would be impossible for us to survive independently, and even later, life can become much more complicated in the absence of supportive relationships.
As babies, we need someone who feeds us, who introduces us to the world safely, who comforts us when we feel pain, who protects us from threats, and who cuddles us to make us fall asleep. In short, we need someone who meets our emotional and physical needs and makes us feel loved. Our chances of survival widely increase by having that caring, nurturing, and protective figure by our side. This happens in the animal kingdom and with our human species.
Unfortunately, not every child counts on that form of secure attachment in their early life. Some caregivers may respond to their child’s needs by overly protecting them. Other caregivers may be absent due to life circumstances, cultural beliefs, or health problems. And sadly, some caregivers may react violently or in rejecting ways when their child needs them the most.
So, after him, Bowlby and other psychologists (including the great work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth) began to study the different types of attachment developed in parent-child relationships. These psychologists found out that these initial attachments style would impact the way we relate, love, and seek love from others as adults.
What Are the 4 Different Attachment Styles?
There are many attachment styles, just as many parenting styles or ways to love someone. However, we can speak about four attachment styles to have a common baseline. Perhaps you may relate fully to one of these categories or more than one.
Finding a therapist who can orient you to unpack your parent-child relationship and current adult attachment style is always a great choice!
This form of attachment results from caregivers who respond to their child’s needs or feelings of distress using unhealthy, violent, or neglectful ways. Think of the following two examples:
- A toddler is crying because he feels afraid of a dark room. Rather than holding his hand or talking to him about his fear, his parent pushes him into the room and tell him to stop crying because “boys don’t cry.”
Now, let’s see this other case,
- A baby cries non-stop every night before falling asleep. The caregiver, irritated, always yells at the baby to make her stop. However, this reaction causes the baby to feel frightened and tearful, and the adult becomes more frustrated and aggressive.
Parenting is hard. Depending on your cultural or family background, perhaps you were raised to become “a tough person.” In other words, no crying, no feeling-talks, and no showing affection; otherwise, people may think that you are weak. And there’s no room for weakness in this world.
Unfortunately, when a child feels distressed, and her primary caregiver does not respond in a healthy way, what happens is that the child does not learn how to regulate her own emotions and does not learn to see in relationships a base for safety, trust, and comfort. Instead, the child learns to fear others, ignore others, or fight against others. In her world, that is the language of love.
How does A Disorganized/Insecure Attachment Style look in Romantic Relationships?
- Adults who have developed a disorganized/insecure attachment style tend to establish or feel drawn towards love-hate relationships. You may find yourself battling between wanting to be loved but engaging in negative, controlling, or neglectful behaviours toward your partner.
- If you have been raised under this attachment style, you may find it difficult to trust or feel secure in intimate relationships.
Are you overly preoccupied with maintaining your independence in intimate relationships? Do you find yourself breaking up with your partners every time things get more “serious”? If that is your case, perhaps it may be a sign that you have developed an avoidant/insecure attachment style.
Let’s look at the potential root cause of this pattern of behaviours.
Going back to Bowlby’s theory, he considered that this form of attachment occurs when parents dismiss their child’s needs. For example, leaving a child unattended when crying, failing to feed the child regularly, avoiding interacting with the child, changing her diapers, soothing her before falling asleep, among others. In some way, these forms of neglect or rejection send the message that “no one is going to be there to take care of your needs.”
The difference between growing up in a disorganized or avoidant context is that…
- Disorganized/insecure -children may be wary of expressing their needs out of fear of suffering, both reprisal and rejection.
- Avoidant -children may stop expressing their needs to avoid rejection. So, they learn to take care of themselves as no one else would do that for them.
There are many reasons parents may engage in this rejecting behaviour. Some include depression, past traumas, health issues, unwanted pregnancy, financial constraints, substance abuse, etc.
How does An Avoidant/Dismissive Attachment Style look in Romantic Relationships?
- This type of upbringing may lead you to be cautious or skeptical about developing intimate relationships.
- You may find it difficult to accept that someone else will genuinely care for your needs. So, even if you dream of having a long-lasting relationship, you may find yourself putting your shield on every time things get too intimate. Deep inside, you may feel that you may be rejected if you open up to another person.
Okay, we have talked about disorganized and avoidant attachment styles. Now, let’s see the main characteristics of an anxious attachment style.
As the name suggests, this attachment is characterized by a relationship where an adult is overly protective, preoccupied, or worried about the child.
As a result, there is little room for the child to develop independence. Children may become more fearful when their parents are not around. But also, they may become clingy and agitated when their needs are not immediately met.
This type of attachment may give rise to an unhealthy form of emotional dependence that may cause the child to display the following behaviours:
- The child may increasingly crave more attention (engage in lots of yelling, crying, tantrums when adults are busy with other things),
- The child may need lots of reassurance to make things on her own,
- She may feel distraught when a parent/teacher shows discipline.
How Does An Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style look in Romantic Relationships?
- As adults, having an anxious attachment may feel emotionally dependent on our partners.
- We may tend to seek continuous approval and reassurance in our relationships, from the moment we start dating to years after.
- We may base our level of self-esteem and confidence on our partner’s opinions, resulting in adopting a more passive position in the relationship.
- In some cases, this attachment style may lead a person to become a victim of an abusive or manipulative partner.
Research suggests that secure attachment occurs when parents display four characteristics in their everyday interactions with their children:
- Being responsive to the child’s signals and communication
- Showing acceptance towards the child’s needs
- Being accessible to the child (listen to them)
- Cooperating with the child (helping them eat, play, bathe, and do everyday activities)
We know that parents always have to do a billion things a day in our modern societies. It is tough always to be there to meet a child’s needs. However, secure attachment is NOT about being perfect but being responsive and there for your child.
Research has shown that a child who has developed a secure attachment has enough confidence to explore the world independently but comes back to her caregiver to seek comfort. A secure attachment with a parent also teaches the child that people are trustworthy. So, she can feel safe and comfortable establishing healthy relationships with her peers, teachers, and other adults in her life.
Finally, this attachment style allows the child to develop healthy self-esteem and self-confidence. There is no inner fear of showing love or being rejected by others.
How Does A Secure Attachment Style look in Romantic Relationships?
When we talk about a healthy relationship, we talk about people who can develop a secure attachment with others. In romantic relationships, this looks like…
- A person who does not feel afraid to show affection to her partner, talk about her feelings or needs healthily.
- A person who can trust her partner and does not fear committing or developing an intimate relationship.
- A person who can spend time with herself without needing her partner’s reassurance all the time.
- A person who is open to establishing shared goals in the relationship creates personal goals.
- Last but not least, a person who is accessible to receive help and provide help to her partner in times of need.
What Is The Most Common Attachment Style?
Sometimes relationships are complicated, and finding the right person is not always easy. But, do not lose hope! Secure attachment is the most common attachment style in most societies. This does not mean that people are perfect, but that there are many people out there who are willing to be there for you, protect you, love you, and be open to receiving your affection.
But, what happens if you have identified that you or your partner have acquired one of the other attachment styles? What if you grew up in a challenging home environment where there was little room for love? Would you never be able to develop a healthy relationship? Would you be condemned to replicate your childhood experiences?
We cannot erase the past, but there is a point that we may be able to come to terms with it and allow ourselves to learn something different for our future. Yes, it is not easy! Perhaps you are carrying a lot of past traumas on your shoulder. Or maybe you married someone who grew up in a dysfunctional household with lots of yelling, violence, and neglect.
But, whether you or your partner have developed an unhealthy form of attachment, there is room for change!
Note: If you were wondering which is the less common form of attachment, the answer is the disorganized-insecure style.
Can Your Attachment Style Change?
Changing your attachment style is possible, but it requires a conscious effort. As mentioned in the previous section, your attachment style is learned from childhood. So, it is well-rooted in your brain, just like it takes time to replace an old habit with a new one. It takes time to replace a disorganized, anxious, or avoidant attachment style for a secure one.
The question is, how can you start?
How Can I Overcome My Attachment Issues?
Step #1: Awareness
Before you even start making any changes in your life or relationships, it is always important to become aware of what you want to change. When you think about your attachment style, have you identified which category you fall into?
For example, do you see yourself overly dependent on your partner (anxious style)? Or perhaps you find yourself engaging in super controlling, jealous, and harmful behaviours (disorganized)? Or have you been jumping from one relationship to another every time things get too serious?
Becoming aware of your attachment style and how this attachment has impacted your past or current relationships is essential as a first step to start your healing journey.
Step #2: Improve Your Communication with Your Partner
Most problems in relationships start with communication issues. For example, do you find yourself continuously yelling at your partner? Or expecting that the other person figures out your own needs? Speaking aggressively or being passive is not the best way to relate to others. Communicating your needs more assertively is always a great starting point to improve your attachment style. If you do not know how to be assertive, start using the “I”-statement.
In other words, talk about your needs and not about what your partner has done or failed to do. But, then, try to be as honest as you can. And be open to listening without immediately jumping into a heated argument.
Step #3: Surround Yourself with People Who Has A Secure Attachment Style
If you are already in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style, that is great! Make sure to observe and learn from that person! If you are searching for a partner, try to engage in a relationship with someone who has secure attachments. Relating with a person willing to trust you, comfort you, and provide you with a sense of stability is essential during your healing process.
Our brains imitate some of the behaviours we see in others, especially those who belong to our close circles. So, the more you engage in healthy relationships, the easier it will be to reproduce those same healthy behaviours.
Step #4: Start Thinking About the Needs of The Other Person
Our insecurities often lead us to be focused solely on ourselves. Most people with unhealthy attachment styles tend to ignore their partner’s needs and become too self-absorbed in their need of being worthy of love. Self-absorbed behaviours create lots of obstacles in any relationship. After all, for a relationship to work, the needs of both partners need to be taken into account.
It would be best if you took the time to learn how to express your needs effectively and listen to your partner’s needs in your process. For example, when was the last time you took care of your partner or said “I love you” to that person? Has your partner been feeling rejected or ignored by your behaviours or lifestyle? Have you made changes in your life to meet your partner’s needs, or have you been asking your partner to make all the sacrifices?
Step #5: Seek the Help of a Therapist
Although it may seem scary or uncomfortable, talking to a professional can be an excellent resource to have during your healing journey. Changes are not easy. Most of the time, we give up from pursuing our goals because we do not know how to overcome obstacles. Other times, we quit because we do not have someone by our side to support us in our journey. Individual or couple’s therapy can help you or your relationship in various ways:
- Therapy may help you become aware of the behaviours and thoughts that may impact your healing process.
- It may help you improve your self-esteem and self-confidence to be more open and honest in your relationships.
- Therapy can also help you to improve your communication style and problem-solving skills.
- Therapy can offer you a space to be yourself and talk about your worries, traumas, fears, past or current relationships without being judged.
You Are Not Alone
We all have inner wounds and imperfections, but that does not mean we are unworthy or less valuable. On the contrary, we all deserve to find someone to love and be loved. So if you think you have developed an insecure form of attachment that affects your relationships, don’t worry; you can change! We are always open to learning new ways to behave, live and love. But remember, you do not have to go through this process alone.
At Well Beings Counselling, we have a compassionate team of therapists and professionals who can accompany you during your healing process. Sometimes, having a supporting and non-judgmental person by your side during challenging times can do wonders! If you want to know how our therapists can help you, please do not hesitate to schedule a free 15-minutes consultation.
At this time, our team is formed by therapists and counsellors specialized in working with people who have experienced abuse, domestic violence, past trauma, codependency, divorce, separation, family conflict, adult romantic relationships, among others. If you want more information about each of our therapists, check the “our team” section.
We hope you have a bright and peaceful day!
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