What’s your attachment style and why does it matter?
What’s it like for you to be in a relationship? How do you feel? How do you act? How do you react to your partner, friend, or co-worker? There are lots of ways that we consider ourselves in how we relate to others. Some people use astrology to understand themselves and how they are in relationships. Others use systems like enneagrams, love languages and many, many others.
One way to consider how we relate to others is to examine our childhood experiences. There is a lot of research around how our earliest relationships, the attachments we form to those around us, play a huge role in how we relate to others as adults.
Attachment Theory really really simplified
To understand your experience in relationships it helps to look at the theory of attachment. There is a lot of research that shows that as a child having a strong, secure, solid attachment to a caregiver is crucial to feeling safe in relationships both in childhood and as an adult.
What does this look like? An important characteristic of secure attachment is having a caregiver who consistently (not necessarily perfectly) shows up to soothe and support them when they are feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions and who are able to manage their own strong emotions as well.
When a child experiences this, they begin to develop a sense that they are OK and the world is OK. It’s OK to explore and try out new things and take risks. If something goes wrong in the world then they know that mom, dad or another caregiver will be there to help them, support them, and make sense of things.
Attachment and adult relationships
As a child gets older and moves into adolescence and then adulthood, that feeling of safety, that the world and the people in their lives are basically OK, gets internalized. Those beliefs and feelings are “taken in” and become the primary way that the adult then sees the world. The adult can explore, take chances, try out new things, engage in relationships with others, and know on a basic level that they are OK. They tend to be more comfortable with intimacy and have a basic sense that people in their lives will be there, show up and support them when they need it. Using attachment theory as a model, we can identify these people as having a secure attachment style.
Not everyone gets safety in childhood
For a variety of reasons, not everyone gets the experience of safety and security in childhood. Perhaps a child’s caregivers are emotionally distant or emotionally overwhelmed because they are dealing with significant stressors, substance abuse or mental health issues. Traumatic experiences like the sudden death of a parent can also challenge the attachment experience of a child. Some children experience their caregivers as distant or unavailable or perhaps not available in a consistent manner.
When a child doesn’t feel secure in their relationships with caregivers, they will do their best to cope with this. As they begin to sense that their caregivers are not reliably there for them or that the world is not safe, they identify behaviors to help them survive. There are a couple of primary non-secure attachment styles that show up and often continue into adulthood.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Individuals with an avoidant style often feel that they can’t rely on others to feel safe and secure and so they pull away from relationships. It feels safer to keep their feelings to themselves than to possibly be hurt by others if they become vulnerable. This means that they may avoid closeness or close relationships. It can feel safer to be alone than to be too close. They might end a relationship before they possibly get hurt.
Anxious Attachment Style
Individuals with an anxious attachment style often feel that they want to be close to others but that others don’t want to be close to them (whether or not this is actually true). They seek intimacy but often feel that they don’t get it and can get overly dependent on others in the hopes that the other will become closer to them. They are often worrying - worrying that who they are is too much or too little to keep a relationship going. Their actions reflect this and often result in driving the other person away.
Can you become more secure in your relationships?
The good news is yes. Certainly forming relationships with people who have secure attachment styles themselves can help you to feel more secure yourself. But that’s not always possible - you will most likely also have relationships with others who feel insecure as well. Understanding how you relate to others through your attachment style can be a start to noticing the thoughts and feelings and challenging behaviors that come up for you. You can learn ways to address these internal experiences and choose relationship behaviors that are less problematic and more healthy. Therapy can be really helpful to address this.
In future posts I will dive deeper into the insecure attachment styles and discuss how you can show up and manage relationships if you feel less than secure.
Want to learn more about your attachment style? This simple assessment tool can help give you an idea of your style of relating to others.
(disclaimer: this is a simple assessment tool to better understand relationship behaviors and not a mental health diagnosis)