When there is tension between my husband and I, I think, “More talking about what is happening is the only way for us to come to an understanding and get close again.” My husband – “less talking is the only way to help this situation settle so we can get close again.”
Some of you are thinking, “she’s absolutely right.” Others of you are thinking, “he’s absolutely right.”
As much as I want to be right (and am most certainly convinced of it in the thick of it), it doesn’t serve either of us to think there is a Right and a Wrong. The reality is, each of our nervous systems is responding and sending messages to our brain about how to take care of our activated system that wants to stay closely connected to our loved ones. Additionally, the behaviors we established in the past were often useful in keeping us safe. We did what we thought we needed to do to maintain a connection with our caregivers.
The way in which our brain codes disconnection is based on both our individual biology and experiences we have had since birth. This is especially true in close relationships. The patterns that develop are what formulate our “attachment style.” The theory that our early relationships and bonding with our primary caregiver, often a parent, create an individual’s expectation and behavior in adult relationships is called Attachment Theory. Understanding our attachment style – and our partner’s – is key to improving patterns of connection.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was developed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1960s and later expanded on by Canadian-American psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby defined attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” The theory explains that the way an infant bonds (or does not bond) with a caregiver informs how they will form romantic bonds as an adult. When we learn in early infancy and early childhood that a caregiver will respond with compassion and warmth, we more easily trust that a romantic partner will do the same.
These conditioned responses and the behaviors they create fall loosely into four main attachment styles. These are:
- Secure Attachment
- Anxious Attachment
- Avoidant Attachment
- Disorganized Attachment
People with caregivers who were responsive and sensitive to an infant’s needs are more likely to develop a secure attachment style. Characteristics of a secure attachment style are:
- Natural fears of rejection and abandonment are tolerable
- Comfort with intimacy within their relationships
- Ability to build trust and allow closeness with a significant other (or friend)
- Comfortable being single or alone
- Can accept rejection, setbacks or failure
- Ability to engage in committed, long-term relationships
- Able to have difficult conversations
The other three attachment styles are known as insecure attachment.
The key characteristic of an anxious attachment style is the overwhelming fear of being abandoned. Anxious attachment is developed when a child has an unpredictable or insensitive caregiver. Having an inconsistent caregiver causes confusion and uncertainty since they do not know what behavior will get a positive reaction. As an adult, they carry the same confusion about how they should behave with their partner.
A person with anxious attachment style may:
- Push, poke, or criticize when they sense disconnection
- Feel insecure or preoccupied about the condition of their relationship
- Experience jealousy
- Lack the ability to trust another person
- Be more likely to be “clingy” or “needy”
- Fear rejection and failure
- Have a low or negative self-view
People with an avoidant attachment often fear closeness and intimacy. This style is commonly found in children whose parents were emotionally distant. Children in this environment learned to rely on themselves and that needing support was a weakness.
A person with an avoidant attachment pattern will:
- Avoid emotional conversations
- Disregard the feelings of others
- Experience others of being “too needy”
- Struggle with commitment or long-term relationships
This style is also called the “Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style” or “disorganized.” It is a combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. It is common among children growing up in an abusive, traumatic, or chaotic home environment.
A person with disorganized attachment will:
- Avoid intimacy and commitment to escape rejection or pain
- Distrust or push away anyone who wants to have a relationship
- Suppress any emotion as a form of coping
- Struggle to regulate intense emotions
- Alternate between clingy/needy tendencies and avoidant /aloofness behavior
- Have a negative self-view
Can I alter my attachment style?
The first step is to become aware of your attachment style. By exploring your triggers and patterns in a relationship, you can learn to develop a sense of trust and safety in close relationships. Here are three ways to set the tone for a more secure relationship in the future.
- Seek therapy. Work with an attachment-based relationship counselor who can help you explore your internal experience and responses in close relationships.
- Practice self-acceptance. Forgive yourself of your past and adopt a growth mindset. Know that you have done the best that you could with the experiences you’ve had and you can learn a new way of relating. In fact, the patterns you developed likely kept you safe in past circumstances.
- Expand self-awareness. Be curious about your thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns without judgment. Recognize patterns at play in your current close relationships.
- Be open to conversations about your attachment patterns with those close to you. Lean into relationships with those who are willing to grow with you.
Contact us to learn how you can create a secure attachment style and build a better connection with those you love. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation on our contact page to learn which of Heartswell’s offerings are best suited to support you in your journey to emotional freedom.