Have you ever wondered why every time you’re about to get close to someone, you shut down emotionally? Or why your jealousy flares even when you know you’re being irrational? On the other hand, perhaps you’re the type of person who slides easily into a relationship – jump in with both feet and then wonder why you find yourself surrounded by drama?
It turns out, we each have an attachment style — or styles.
Attachment is the strong emotional connection we form with others to fulfill our basic human needs. When we’re children, we’re dependent on caregivers for our health and well-being. And then for all that adulting we have to do later, we crave a support system that mimics what we had in childhood.
Relationships Make More Sense Once You Know About Attachment Theory
Our attachment styles shape the way we approach, communicate in, and effect our relationships. It might even predict the quality and duration of those relationships.
The influence of attachment even goes beyond relationships. It impacts the way we interact in various social contexts (even at work) and most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves.
Our main attachment relationships, especially those in our earliest stages of life, have a unique influence on how we handle other relationships later on. An important role that these attachment relationships have is to teach us healthy affect regulation.
Emotion regulation is especially important when we encounter negative experiences. As infants, these negative experiences are a key opportunity to cultivate this skill. It is also in these moments that we learn how, or to what extent, we can rely on our caregivers to support us. Thus, if we don’t feel protected or understood by our caregivers, this can teach us that they are not reliable sources of safety or love.
We learn emotion regulation and relationship skills directly through our caregivers’ behaviors. We mirror our caregivers’ actions; for instance, if we notice that our cries bring about distress in our caregiver, we feel greater distress in return. Thus, an infant develops a sense of self by assessing their impact on their surroundings. If their caregivers consistently react to the child negatively or neglect them in some way, the child will develop a distorted version of themselves and their capacity to interact with their environment.
What Attachment Style Are You?
Before we get into attachment styles, let’s first determine if you have a secure attachment style in the relationship or if it’s anxious, avoidant, or fearful. CLICK HERE to take the Attachment Style Quiz. Then, let’s dive into the four attachment styles adapted from The Attachment Project:
1. Secure Attachment
Secure attachment is characteristic of people who easily trust others. These individuals are attuned to their own emotions and can easily attune to those of others. They are comfortable with intimacy and can easily communicate their thoughts and feelings.
The secure attachment is characterized by the ability to:
- Handle conflict calmly
- Feel comfortable both in relationships and on your own
- Differentiate thoughts from feelings
- Maintain a balanced sense of self and confidence
The Conditions for Secure Attachment
Recently, a study designed to specifically examine secure attachment identified the conditions necessary to raise a securely attached child. If these conditions are not met, an insecure attachment style is likely to develop. The five conditions for secure attachment are as follows:
- The child feels safe.
- The child feels seen and known.
- The child feels comfort, soothing, and reassurance.
- The child feels valued.
- The child feels supported to explore.
On the other hand, the following experiences can lead to an insecure attachment to form during childhood:
- Perceived inconsistency: The child feels incoherence in whether their needs are met. This inconsistency can be confusing for the child, who will feel that their caregiver(s) are ultimately unreliable.
- Felt rejection or neglect: Even though the caregiver(s) may not do so purposefully or knowingly, the child feels that their needs, particularly their emotional needs, are not being met. They may feel that they are not appreciated or understood for who they are.
- Sense of fear: A sense of fear can come from truly alarm-inducing situations, such as a traumatic event. However, a sense of fear also arise from seemingly simple situations that induce feelings of rejection, neglect, or that result in the sense of being unloved.
2. Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment (or preoccupied) can often be identified in people who essentially have an extra-sensitive nervous system. These individuals may struggle with hyperactivation of emotions, as well as hypervigilance for something going wrong. The scariest thing they can imagine is being abandoned by their loved ones.
Most likely, their attachment anxiety stems from an inconsistent parent who would be attentive at times yet misattuned at other times.
The main signs of anxious attachment are the following:
- Catastrophic thinking, such as picturing things going very wrong, very easily
- A positive view of others, but a negative view of themselves
- Putting great effort into relationships, to the extent of self-sacrifice
- Immense difficulty with receiving criticism and rejection
3. Avoidant Attachment
Avoidant attachment (or dismissive) is often present in individuals who tend to downplay their emotions or dismiss them completely. These people are typically highly independent and self-reliant, and their greatest fear is usually intimacy and vulnerability.
This attachment style tends to develop when caregivers were not emotionally attuned to their child or who were generally emotionally distant.
The main tell-tale signs of an avoidant attacher are:
- Difficulty seeking support and admitting they need help
- Extreme self-reliance and independence
- A tendency to have a positive self-view yet a negative or critical view of others
- Maintaining or increasing distance when others try to connect emotionally
4. Disorganized Attachment
Disorganized attachment (or fearful-avoidant) is typically identified in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse. The disorganized attachment style is characterized by demonstrating inconsistent behaviors and having a hard time trusting others.
This style develops in children whose caregivers were a source of perceived fear, instead of safety and connection.
Disorganized attachment can be identified from:
- Inconsistency and unpredictability
- Oscillating between avoidant and anxious behaviors
- Their caregiver, or their main source of safety as infants, was also their main source of fear
- Struggles with intimacy and building trust in others
How to Move From Insecure Attachment to Secure Attachment
None of us have control over the way we were raised. The best we can do as adults is make an effort to understand our own stories and use that information to grow as partners and friends.
To get to the root cause and pinpoint your triggers, couples or individual counseling can assist you in the journey of exploration of your attachment style, beginning in childhood and offer awareness in developing a new attachment style.
We have only scratched the surface here in this article of understanding attachment styles and how they affect our adult relationships. If you are struggling right now, let’s talk. You can book an in-person or virtual visit.
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