Understanding Our Attachment Styles in Romantic Relationships
Adapted from the book: "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel Heller, Phd.
People vary greatly in their need for intimacy and closeness, and these differences can create clashes. Attachment theory offers us a way to look at romantic relationships.
It seems that an entire mosaic of factors comes together to create our attachment patterns: our early connection with our parents, our genes, and also something else -- our romantic experiences as adults. On average, about 70 to 75 percent of adults remain consistently in the same attachment category at different points in their lives, while the remaining 30 to 25 to 30 percent of the population report a change in their attachment style.
Researchers attribute this change to romantic relationships in adulthood that are so powerful that they actually revise our most basic beliefs and attitudes toward connectedness. And yes, that change can happen in both directions -- secure people can become less secure and people who were originally insecure can become increasingly secure. If you are insecure, this piece of information is vital and could be your ticket to happiness in finding relationships.
John Bowlby claimed that attachment is an integral part of human behavior throughout the entire lifespan. He understood that our need for someone to share our lives with is part of our genetic makeup and has nothing to do with how much we love ourselves or how fulfilled we feel on our own. He discovered that once we choose someone special, powerful and often uncontrollable forces come into play. New patterns of behavior kick in regardless of how independent we are and despite our conscious wills. Once we choose a partner, there is no question about whether dependency exists or not. It always does. An elegant coexistence that does not include uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and fear of loss sounds good but is not our biology. What proved through evolution to have a strong survival advantage is a human couple becoming one physiological unit, which means that if sheâ€™s reacting, then Iâ€™m reacting, or if heâ€™s upset, that also makes me unsettled. He or she is a part of me, and I will do anything to save him or her; having such a vested interest in the well-being of another person translates into a very important survival advantage for both parties. Three types of attachment styles are discussed here:
- Anxious: Wants a lot of closeness in the relationship. Expresses insecurities -- worries about rejection. Unhappy when not in a relationship. Plays games to keep your attention/interest. Has difficulty explaining what's bothering him/her -- expects you to guess. Acts out. Has a hard time not making things about him/herself in the relationship. Lets you set the tone of the relationship. Is preoccupied with the relationship. Fears that small acts will ruin the relationship; believes he or she must work hard to keep your interest. Suspicious that you may be unfaithful.
- Avoidant: Sends mixed signals. Values his/her independence greatly. Devalues you (or previous partners). Uses distancing strategies, emotional or physical. Emphasizes boundaries in the relationship. Has an unrealistically romantic view of how a relationship should be. Mistrustful -- fears being taken advantage of by partner. Has rigid view of relationships and uncompromising rules. During a disagreement, needs to get away or "explodes." Doesn't make his/her intentions clear. Has difficult talking about what's going on between you.
- Secure: Reliable and consistent. Makes decisions with you. Flexible view of relationships. Communicates relationship issues well. Can reach compromise during arguments. Not afraid of commitment or dependency. Doesn't view relationship as hard work. Closeness creates further closeness. Introduces friends and family early on. Naturally expresses feeling for you. Doesn't play games.
Attachment styles are not pathological.
Attachment styles are stable but plastic.
Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs.
Despite variations in the way people with different attachment styles learn to deal with these powerful forces--the secure
types embrace them and the avoidants
tend to suppress them--all three attachment styles are programmed to connect with a special someone.
The emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors automatically triggered in children in attachment situations appear similarly in adults. The difference is that adults are capable of a higher level of abstraction, so our need for the other personâ€™s continuous physical presence can at times be temporarily replaced by the knowledge that they are available to us psychologically and emotionally.
Mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in marriage, even for people who love each other greatly. If you are in such a relationship, donâ€™t feel guilty for feeling incomplete or unsatisfied. After all, your most basic needs often go unmet, and love alone isnâ€™t enough to make the relationship work.
It takes two willing individuals to create intimacy. People have very different capacities or intimacy. When one personâ€™s need for closeness is met with another personâ€™s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.
We alone are responsible for our emotional needs; they are not our partnerâ€™s responsibility. When weâ€™re in love and want to continue a relationship, we tend to ignore the contradictory messages weâ€™re getting. Instead of recognizing that someone who blatantly disregards our emotions is not going to be a good partner, we accept this attitude. We must constantly remind ourselves: In a true partnership, both partners view it as their responsibility to ensure the otherâ€™s emotional well-being.
When we compromise our self-esteem and happiness by ignoring our most basic needs and try to be someone weâ€™re not, we fail to experience the benefits of a secure bond.
When our partner acts as our secure base and emotional anchor, we derive strength and encouragement to go out into the world and make the most of ourselves.
Research on attachment repeatedly shows that when your need for intimacy is met and reciprocated by your partner, your satisfaction level will rise.
When couples disagree about the degree of closeness and intimacy desired in a relationship, the issue eventually threatens to dominate all of their dialog. This is called the anxious-avoidant trap
. The reason people in an anxious-avoidant relationship find it particularly hard to move toward more security is primarily because they are trapped in a cycle of exacerbating each otherâ€™s insecurities. People with an anxious
attachment style cope with threats to the relationship by trying to get close to their partner. People who are avoidant
have the opposite reaction. They cope with threats by taking measures to distance themselves from their partners. The closer the anxious
person gets, the more distant the avoidant
acts. One partnerâ€™s response reinforces the otherâ€™s in a vicious cycle, and they both remain within the relationship â€śdanger zone.â€ť
People with a secure
attachment style know how to communicate their own expectations and respond to their partnerâ€™s needs effectively without having to resort to protest behavior.
Our brain assigns our partner the task of being our secure base. We are programmed to seek their emotional availability. But what if they aren't emotionally available? If we feel secure with our partner, we can take risks, be creative, and pursue our dreams. If we lack that sense of security, and if we are unsure whether the person closest to us, our romantic partner, truly believes in us and supports us and will be there for us in times of need, weâ€™ll find it much harder to maintain focus and engage in life. There is an emotional price to connecting with someone who has drastically different intimacy needs from your own. Golden Rules for Deciphering Attachment Styles
1. Determine whether he/she seeks intimacy and closeness.
2. Assess how preoccupied he/she is with the relationship, and how sensitive to rejection.
3. Don't rely on one symptom; look for various signs.
4. Assess his/her reaction to effective communication.
5. Listen and look for what he/she is not
saying or doing. Secure Attachment: Effective Communication
People with a more secure
attachment style are less likely to play games. The important thing about a secure
approach is that if a partner treats us disrespectfully, itâ€™s indicative of his or her inability to be responsive in a relationship, and not of his or her own worth
. One of the tools most frequently used by people with a secure
attachment style is effective communication -- they simply surface their feelings and see how their date reacts. If their partner shows true concern for their well-being and a willingness to find a middle ground, theyâ€™ll give the relationship a chance.
Be available: Respond sensitively to their distress, allow them to be dependent on you when they feel the need, check in with them from time to time, and provide comfort when things go wrong.
Donâ€™t interfere: provide behind the scenes support for their endeavors. Help in a way that leaves them with the initiative and the feeling of power. Allow them to do their own thing without trying to take over the situation, micromanage, or undermine their confidence and abilities.
Encourage: provide encouragement and be accepting of their learning and personal growth goals. Boost their self-esteem.