Have you ever asked yourself why you push your partner away during arguments? Do
you find yourself overwhelmed with the fear of rejection during times of conflict in your
relationships? Or do you notice yourself having difficulty developing closeness with others? If
you have, you’re not alone and you’re not crazy. These behaviors are actually a reflection of your individual attachment style.
Our attachment to our early caregivers shapes the way our brain develops—from our
ability to understand cause-and-effect, to how we develop and maintain relationships. These
caregivers may be parents, extended family members—such as aunts and uncles, or foster
parents. Regardless of who our caregivers are, our attachment to them shapes our ability to
identify and regulate our emotional state. Attachment is built over time as our caregivers attune to and respond to our needs. From this foundational relationship, we develop beliefs about the world and relationships. We determine if others can be trusted to meet our needs and if the world is a safe and predictable place. Understanding attachment can fundamentally change the way we approach our relationships with our children as well as our partners.
There are four basic attachment styles which are formed through our experience of our
caregivers recognizing and responding to our needs. These unique styles are blueprints for the
way we think about, feel, and behave in our relationships. While these styles have shown to be
consistent throughout the life span, from infancy to adulthood, they are not unchangeable. We
can heal our attachment style by forming new relationships in which we can learn to identify and express our needs and trust that those needs will be met.
Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to form and maintain close relationships with others. According to a journal article by Spencer, Keilholtz, and Stith, these individuals are able to establish and an overall balance of closeness and independence in relationships. Through interactions with early attachment figures, they have developed internal tools to identify and manage their emotions. It’s likely that the caregivers of these individuals were able to recognize and respond to their needs on a consistent basis, teaching them that relationships are safe and others can be relied on to respond to emotional and physical needs.
The anxious attachment style is characterized by a fear of rejection and abandonment, as
well as difficulty handling emotions and coping with triggers. Spencer, Keilhotz, and Stith
suggest that these fears are triggered as closeness increases in the relationships. This tendency can often lead to minimizing or denying one’s needs for the sake of the relationship. This may sound like “I will make this relationship work, no matter what it costs me.” Anxiously attached folks may have learned early on that attachment figures could not be relied on for consistent care. This often leads to a pattern of ignoring or abandoning their own needs for the sake of “closeness” in relationships.
Similar to the anxious attachment style, individuals with an avoidant style struggle with
close relationships. However, in contrast to folks who are anxiously attached, people who have
an avoidant attachment style often have difficulty developing intimate relationships. As stated by Spencer, Keilhotz, and Stith, these individuals generally fear emotional closeness with others.
Those who fall within this style often find it difficult to identify and express feelings, and can
therefore be uncomfortable with emotional sharing from others.
The disorganized attachment style typically develops from unpredictable or unstable
experience with early caregivers. It can also develop in individuals who have experienced
attachment trauma which is characterized by disruptions in attachment relationships through
death, removal, or cut off. As a result, Spencer, Keilholtz, and Stith state that individuals who fall
into this particular style often have difficulty engaging in relationships in predictable or stable
ways. They may experience intense emotions and have a hard time both identifying and
controlling them. This style may be illustrated by a push-pull attitude such as “I hate you, but
don’t leave me.” Disorganized attachment is characterized by an internal conflict in which the
individual both fears and craves closeness.
So how exactly does attachment style impact us in our daily lives, outside of our
relationships? As mentioned previously, out attachment forms through our relationships with our caregivers and our experience of their ability to meet our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs on a regular basis. According to an article by Fall and Shankland, we develop what is referred to as the Internal Working Model through our experience of these interactions. This internal model represents the way we view ourselves, others, and our connections. It’s essentially our road map that we use to navigate our interactions and relationships. Fall and Shankland suggest that we use this model when we assess the trustworthiness and reliability of others to effectively respond to our needs. Of course, while this model is generally stable throughout our development, it can be changed. Safe, healthy relationships can provide a corrective experience and help us heal our attachment style to become more secure.
Understanding our attachment style can allow us to recognize areas for growth in our
relationships—with others and with ourselves. Similarly, understanding the attachment style of
our partners, close friends, and family members can provide us with more compassion for certain behaviors or ways or relating. By becoming conscious our of own style, we can work towards healing and learn to identify, regulate, and express our needs and emotions in healthy ways. This leads to more satisfying relationships and a deeper connection to self. If you’re curious about learning more about attachment or identifying your own attachment style, there are a number of resources that can assist you. The list below will provide further resources to learn about the science of attachment and determine your style. You might also want to discuss with your therapist to explore what may have impacted your style and how you can work towards becoming more secure.
“Attached” by Dr. Amir Levine Ph.D. & Rachel S. F. Heller M.A.
“Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for Individuals, Couples,
and Families” By Susan M. Johnson
Attachment Theory in Action with Karen Doyle Buckwalter