"Don't leave when I'm talking to you!"
"This is so much pressure, I miss being single..."
"I'm afraid you don't care for me as you used to..."
"I need some space! You're suffocating me!"
These are some typical phrases of partners of insecure attachment styles and they show not only how they view their partner but also how they are trying to protect themselves in the relationship.
Have you heard of the term "attachment style" before?
Do you have a dismissive, preoccupied, fearful-avoidant or a secure attachment style?
If you do not know what this is all about, then this article is just for you.
Here we will explore attachment theory, discuss the different attachment styles and what each one of them means in adult relationships.
What is Bowlby's Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was initially developed in the 1930s by British Psychologist John Bowlby. Bowlby observed the relationships between infants and their main caregivers, usually their mothers. He investigated how their relationship was formed and how it developed during the years. Bowlby explored how the infant felt when their main caregiver was around and what happened when the caregiver was not present. Similarly, he analyzed the reactions of the infant when the caregiver returned. He achieved this by observing the emotional signals the infant sent to the caregiver, and also how the adults reacted to the infant's emotional signals. Building on Bowlby's theory and research, psychologist Mary Ainsworth categorized the different behavioral patterns exhibited by the infants into four different attachment style groups.
In this article we will not explore the relationship between infants and mothers, rather we will explore the impact of this relationship in our adult relationships. Bowlby and Ainsworth hypothesized that the emotional bond we form during our childhood years with our caregivers, will serve as a template for our adult relationships. That is, the style we developed during our childhood will affect how we relate to our partners and friends for the rest of our lives.
The 4 Attachment Styles
Attachment theorists categorized our styles into 4 quadrants. The quadrants were divided by a cross. Both axes in the cross relate to a different way we cope with perceived threats in our relationships.
These four styles are formed according to the degree we use these coping mechanisms of anxiety or avoidance. These four styles represent four different ways of relating or attaching to another human being. Four different ways in which we see our relationships, our own self-worth and how we respond to perceived threats in the relationship.
A. Preoccupied or Anxious Attachment Style
So, the first box of the quadrant that we will explore relates to having high anxiety but low avoidance. This style is called preoccupied/anxious attachment.
When a person has a preoccupied attachment style, it means that they feel really anxious when they are in a relationship but also when they are out of a relationship. They give a lot of importance and significance to relationships, and they feel that they have to be in a relationship, that there is something wrong with them if they are not. As you can understand, people with this style grow really dependent on being in a relationship and also become very dependent on their partner. They tend to express their need to be a part of a couple and to be approved in a very emotional way.
For example, when they want to make a request or claim, they become very emotional. They tend to get really angry and critical. They pursue their partner so that they can bring them back in the relationship, and they want proof of love, acceptance, and approval more often than secure attachment styles. They have an immense craving for intimacy and a longing for approval. This can sometimes be counterproductive. That is, a person with this style might push their partner away because it is simply too much for the partner. The partner might become reluctant to share emotions or become more intimate, as the person with the anxious attachment tends to pursue them in a very intense way. People with anxious attachments behave in this way because they doubt their worth as individuals. They feel scared that at any moment their partner is going to leave them and find somebody else.
People with this type of style tend to not feel as important in the relationship, and they act upon these feelings. They ask questions such as:
"Do you ever notice me?"
"Am I important to you?"
"Do you really love me?"
B. Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
In the opposite direction of the anxious style, we find a quadrant consisting of high avoidance but low anxiety. This is the dismissive-avoidant attachment style. This is the cool person, the person that seems really confident on the outside, the James Bond of the attachment styles. They tend to act as relationships do not really matter for them, and they seem that they can go from one relationship to another with no harm or cost for them.
People with the dismissive attachment style minimize the importance of relationships for them. They have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of other people, which means that they want to be independent, and they think that being dependent on relationships means that they will lose their identity. They have a longing for individuality, and this is often perceived as indifference by their partner. Partners of people with this attachment style tend to think that their loved one simply does not care. But, in reality, what is really happening is that people with this style do not feel comfortable sharing their feelings. They do not feel comfortable opening up and being vulnerable about their problems in front of others. They believe that when you trust people, you get hurt or rejected. Therefore, they cope with avoidance, with keeping a safe distance and not sharing much with others. They are afraid of getting too close to others and becoming too intimate. When the partner of a dismissive person asks for more intimacy, they tend to feel like they are suffocating and think that it is too much. As a result, it might take longer for a person with this style to commit to their relationship; they need more time to find proof that they do want to be committed to this relationship.
Individuals with this attachment style, hide their emotions not only because they are not comfortable with them, but because they have learned that showing their emotions will get them in trouble. Oftentimes they lack the emotional vocabulary to express themselves and think that if they share too much then they might hurt the other person, say the wrong thing, and harm the relationship.
C. Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
The third attachment style is called the fearful-avoidant style (also called "disorganised"), and it is similar to having a combination between the dismissive and the preoccupied style. They lie at the quadrant with high avoidance and high anxiety.
This attachment style can be very unstable and unpredictable. These individuals tend to have experienced major childhood trauma or other painful events during their formative years, such as loss or abuse. However, this is not to imply that the other styles are excluded from going through painful childhood experiences. Of course, people with other attachment styles could have also experienced traumatic events.
People with this attachment style tend to possess a very unpredictable idea of themselves and of the world around them. They tend to react in uncertain and unstable ways toward their partners. Each day, the partner might interact with a different side of the person. For instance, one day they might wake up and the person with the fearful style might show their nice, vulnerable and intimate side. While another day, they can become distant and aloof. They go one step forward and two steps back. When they reach out to their partner because they would like to have more intimacy and closeness and the partner responds accordingly, then they suddenly feel scared, and they desire more time, space, and distance once again. This is inevitably very confusing for the partner, as they do not know what their loved one wants. Do they want commitment or not? Do they want to feel safe, or they don't? The person with this attachment style tends to send mixed signals in both directions, and this can be challenging for a person living with them. But, imagine what is happening with the person with this attachment style. They struggle every single day with their fears and their needs, as each one of them is canceling the other one out.
D. Secure Attachment Style
The fourth and last style is the secure attachment. It lays at the quadrant with low anxiety and low avoidance. When we discuss this secure style, it does not mean that the person with this style does not fight, is happy all the time, and is always confident. People with this style also break up, have conflicts, and fight with their partners. But they react emotionally in a very different way. Their idea of themselves, of their partner, and their self-worth is not completely destroyed when they have a fight or there is a threat in the relationship.
People with the secure attachment style manage to sustain their idea about the self and others, even during times of struggle. For instance, if they have a fight they do not immediately resort to negative thinking such as "Oh my god, he is going to break up with me, he doesn't love me anymore." They still think the same way about themselves and their relationship, they know they are safe and that this is just a fight that you can overcome together, as a couple. This is why it is called the secure style. People with this attachment style are able to maintain their feelings of safety, their beliefs that they are important human beings, and that they deserve to be loved even when their relationship is struggling.
Attachment Styles in Adult Relationships: An Example
Let's analyze an example of how some different styles tend to react to a particular situation. Imagine that this person's partner is going for a weekend away with their friends.
A person with a dismissive attachment style might state that it doesn't matter. This person feels scared deep down, but on the surface, they act really cool about it. They say that it is alright, that they don't really care, and that they do not need to be together all the time. They might even express that it is not necessary to call each other during the weekend and that a break would be good to breathe a little in the relationship. The person might dismiss their fears and feelings and tell their partner that "you don't need to think about me while you are there, I am going to be fine and don't worry about me."
On the other hand, the person with a preoccupied style will immediately enter panic mode. Their mind will start rushing, and they will excessively worry stating that "Oh my god it's going to be two days, what if you find somebody there, and you leave me?" They might become intense and ask how often the partner will text them. They might ask their partner to text them when they arrive, when they go to sleep, when they wake up, and so forth. And, when their partner is away, they will still be in panic mode. They will overthink why their partner is not replying, asking themselves if they saw their texts, and might even fight over this with their partner. Or if they do not voice their concern with their partner, they will call a friend and cry to them and express how much they miss their partner as if the partner was gone for two years, instead of two days. That is why this attachment style is associated with emotional turbulence and high anxiety.
A person with a secure attachment style is in tune with their feelings and feels okay with admitting that they will miss their partner. They express this in a healthy way by stating that they will miss their partner because they enjoy spending time with them, especially during the weekends. But also express that they understand that it is healthy for the partner to travel with their friends and spend quality time with them. They ask the partner to check in with them and that they will check in with them in return. They exhibit a healthy amount of worry and care but at the same time they feel complete and they can survive two days without their partner.
Relationship Dynamics Between Different Styles
There is considerable research into the relationship dynamics between different attachment styles. Some suggest that dismissive and anxious attachment styles are one of the most common pairings. During the beginning of their relationship, they see something in each other that they want for themselves. The anxious style regards the dismissive person as very confident, emotionally balanced, and cool. This is exactly what the dismissive style tries to show to the world. So, the anxious style might feel a little jealous and admire these qualities in the other person. They would like to have these qualities; they would like to learn how to contain themselves and self-regulate their emotions.
On the opposite side, the dismissive attachment style observes the preoccupied style and feels attracted to them. They admire how the anxious style feels so comfortable expressing their emotions. They look up to their way of expressing their fears, anger and how they have a vast emotional vocabulary. So, they feel they can learn something from this person, which invariably attracts them to each other. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong, attraction is okay, and learning from each other in relationships can be a wonderful thing. But at the same time, it is important to be aware of our triggers and understand how these dynamics work.
How To Change Your Attachment Style
Attachment styles originate in childhood, and they follow us in our relationships throughout our lives. We cannot completely change our styles, but we can become more aware and learn to manage our unhealthy patterns of behavior. We can work towards becoming less triggered, minimize our acting out, and try to shift into a more secure style.
First, it is fundamental to know your attachment style. As you become more self-aware of your style and how it manifests, it becomes easier to control it. Try to reflect on the behaviors behind your style. What are you doing? Are you criticizing, getting angry, becoming passive-aggressive? Giving the silent treatment or hiding behind your books or computer?
When you are aware of your style, explain it to your partner. Sit down and talk about it with your significant other. Discuss what your style is, where it is coming from, and why you react and behave in a certain way. This way your partner can also become aware and realize that when you are pushing them or distancing from them, it is not because you do not like them, it is how you learned to cope with perceived threats and fear. Then the discussion will not be about whether you like your partner or not, but about what you have experienced at this moment that scared you.
Last but not least, make sure that you find a partner who supports you in getting closer to a secure attachment. Your partner does not necessarily have to have a secure style, that would be ideal, but it is not mandatory. Try to find a partner who wants to travel this journey with you. Regardless of whatever style each of you have, find a partner that is committed to supporting you and building together a secure attachment style and rewarding relationship.
You don’t need to be alone forever, or jump from relationship to relationship.
Every time you are coming closer to your partner, you don't need to keep pushing them away and leaving relationships that could potentially give you all the love and care that you wanted.
You can work on your fear of commitment following the steps above.
And, if you need an extra hand, here at Antiloneliness we are happy to support you.
Alternatively, couples counseling can also be an option for you.
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