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Attachment styles and relationships

Have you ever wondered why some people are able to cut off an ex and move on, while others are ‘clingy’ and need constant validation from their significant other?

Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself: you’re moving along in what seems to be a perfectly happy relationship when suddenly your partner becomes cold and distant without rhyme or reason.

The way we experience relationships and intimacy in adulthood directly ties into the type of attachment style we have.

Attachment Theory:

Bowlby a British psychologist introduced the idea that the early bonds we form with caregivers play a pivotal role in the way we view, behave, and treat relationships for the rest of our lives.

Children who experienced parents and caregivers that responded quickly to their needs as well as communicated and played with them often formed healthiest bonds, while the children who were neglected or had parents that failed to interact with them had a damaged sense of trust and safety.

These early attachments follow us well into adulthood and often manifest in our romantic relationships, as we attempt to heal and repair from childhood wounds.

The Four Types of Attachment Styles:

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious
  • Disorganised

Avoidant, anxious, and disorganised attachment styles are all seen as insecure – for different reasons. If a child has a bond with their parents growing up that was strained, neglectful, or emotionally absent, the idea that we cannot rely on others to meet our needs follows us well into adulthood.

Secure Attachment Style:

Childhood:

If you grew up in a stable, trustworthy, and predictable home, it’s likely you’ll grow into an adult with a secure attachment style.

Secure attachment develops as a result of feeling seen, heard, and loved by our caregivers. The care and nurturing is consistent as we feel safe knowing our needs are always going to be met.

While as a child you likely felt the urge to be near your parents or caregiver, you also recognised their promise to always be there as your anchor – making you feel safe enough to explore the world around you. This helped you mould and shape your independence and grow into an emotionally healthy individual.

Adulthood:

Secure attachments learned in childhood are essential for helping us as adults learn how to manage and cope with a range of emotions, as well as feel confident in their own skin.

An adult with a secure attachment style may look like:

  • Ability to trust others
  • Ability to regulate emotions
  • Developed communication skills
  • Ability to seek out emotional support
  • Comfort being in relationships or alone

Avoidant Attachment Style:

Childhood:

This type of insecure attachment is rooted in the fear of intimacy.

If you as a child grew up experiencing a parental figure that was either neglectful or unresponsive to your needs you may have developed the mindset of never needing to rely on anyone, in the end avoiding any type of relationship or closeness with others.

All babies and children have a deep desire to bond with their caregivers. However, they quickly learn to suppress their needs or outer emotions to keep the peace.

Children with avoidant attachment styles often have learned not to express any needs whatsoever, a problem leading well into adulthood.

Adulthood:

If you struggle greatly in relationships (that is, if you even choose to enter one), avoid any level of intimacy, or feel suffocated and restricted being with another person, you may have an avoidant attachment style.

A strong sense of personal freedom is particularly important to adults with this particular attachment style, as they learned at a very young age they can only rely on themselves. Due to this extreme, they may accuse their partners of being “overly attached” or “clingy”.

Adults with avoidant attachment styles may look like:

  • Being uncomfortable with physical touch
  • Having a difficult time expressing emotion
  • Refusing help or support from others
  • Feeling as though closeness with a partner will always end in emotional pain

Anxious Attachment Style:

Childhood:

Created by a deep-rooted fear of abandonment, an anxious attachment style forms if you grew up realising your caregiver was unpredictable.

Oftentimes in this situation, your parents will display love and affection one minute, while turning cold and aloof the next. This probably became incredibly stressful for you as you attempted to predict how their behaviour will be in the future.

This inconsistency may have caused you to become confused about the nature of your relationship, as mixed signals were common. This confusion leads to anxiety and may have caused you to become clingy and in some cases, disruptive or whiny.

Adulthood:

As an adult with an anxious attachment style you may think quite highly of others, yet suffer from a low self-image.

While feeling unsure and unconfident in yourself, you still tend to be aware of others’ needs, often prioritising them before their own.

Due to the strong emotional fear of abandonment, you may come across as overbearing, jealous, and need constant reassurance – even if you don’t mean to.

Often marked by constant doubt and worry, you may seem as though you’re “overly attached” and require consistent validation, as you often need the affection of their partner to calm their fears.

Disorganised Attachment Style:

Childhood:

Also known as the fearful-avoidant attachment style, this type of attachment may be the most confusing of them all.

If you had a caregiver that was once a source of love, then somehow became a source of fear, you might suffer from a disorganised attachment style.

This may be due to abuse or childhood trauma – either done to you or witnessed by you. However this is done, you no longer trusted your caregiver, causing extreme fear and stress that you may not have your needs met.

Disorganised attachment style combines the fear of avoidant attachment, with the desire for intimacy in anxious attachment. Often children that develop this type of attachment style want to be close to others and simultaneously avoid it at all costs.

Adulthood:

If you have a disorganised attachment style, it’s likely incredibly difficult for you to feel content in a relationship. On one hand, you long to be intimate, while also paralysing themselves in fear of letting anyone in.

While you don’t specifically reject emotional intimacy, you fear it. Maybe you find yourself waiting for the pain, disappointment, and rejection to come, feeling that it is inevitable.

If you suffer from disorganised attachment styles you often try to distance yourselves from a relationship if you feel hurt or betrayed, rather than communicating with your partner.

In addition, due to your unwavering certainty of heartbreak, you may begin to self-sabotage as a way to complete your self-fulfilling prophecy. 

As an adult we can practice earned attachment style.

Adults with earned attachment styles have identified their previous unhealthy attachment styles and have done the work to improve and overcome them. These adults have risen above their childhood trauma and made a conscious choice to break toxic cycles of jealousy, fear, and avoidance of love.

Earned attachment adults are able to talk about their unhappy or traumatic childhood with grace and understanding and have learned the ways their upbringing negatively impacted their adult relationships.

A few ways to overcome your previous attachment styles and work towards being an earned attached adult are:

  • Learning to identify and embrace your emotions
  • Learn new coping strategies to work through past negative emotions
  • Practice activities of self-acceptance
  • Educate yourself on your specific previous attachment style
  • Learn to separate the childhood emotional response from the present of with help of an experienced professional psychologist.

Final thoughts:

While many of us grew up in households that were less than ideal, the beauty of our current understanding of attachment theory is that trauma and unhealthy behaviours are not set in stone. No matter how long you’ve struggled with a negative attachment style, there is always work that can be done to overcome it.

Allowing yourself to make sense of the past from your adult viewpoint and making a conscious effort to change are all the steps in the direction of becoming a secure, earned adult.

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