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If you’ve dated for a number of years and have reflected on your past relationships, you may have realized that certain patterns continue repeating themselves. Perhaps you’ve often found yourself in relationships with emotionally distant men or women who were clingy. Maybe you find yourself pushing others away, or, in contrast, desperately begging for others’ attention.
Why do we fall into these patterns? Why do these relationship dynamics seem to play out time and time again? A psychological model known as Attachment Theory explains why many of us tend to encounter the same relationship problems throughout our lives.
Do you find yourself repeating the same behavioral patterns? Do you find that all of your relationships end in the same way? Learning more about Attachment Theory may help you uncover why you behave in the way that you do, allowing you to grow and enter into healthier relationships in the future!
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory is a psychological model developed by researchers Mary Ainsworth and James Bowlby, both of whom independently researched the ways in which humans form interpersonal relationships with one another. Put simply, the ways in which we connect with our caregivers as children shape the ways in which we form relationships later in life. Though our childhood attachment patterns do not explicitly determine the ways in which we connect to others as adults, there is often a strong correlation between our early experiences and our later attachment styles. Caregivers who do not connect with their children in secure, stable, and reassuring ways may set their children up for less secure attachment patterns later in life. Our attachment style affects the manner in which we connect with others on all levels, from platonic to romantic relationships.
Though the attachment styles are often described in slightly different ways, most professionals agree that there are three to four main attachment styles.
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style. It is estimated that roughly half of the population forms primarily secure attachments with others. Those with secure attachment styles primarily had healthy and supportive relationships with their caregivers during childhood. By forming secure attachments, they were able to explore their world and the environment around them.
Securely-attached adults have healthy connections with one another. They feel emotionally in-sync with their partners, neither stifling them nor pulling away. Secure adults support their partners’ emotional needs while also seeking out help when they need it themselves. Both partners are independent yet lovingly connected. In short, secure attachments are what we think of as “healthy relationships.”
Various studies estimate that 20-25% of the adult population has an anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment is often the result of childhood separation anxiety. If a child feels anxious and does not receive proper support and reassurance from his or her caregivers, this may lead to an insecure, anxious attachment style later in life.
Anxiously-attached adults struggle to feel relaxed in their adult relationships. They often suffer from low self-esteem and feel that they are unworthy of love. Believing that their partners will leave them, they often become clingy, frightened, or manipulative, ultimately scaring off potential partners. Anxious adults will often belittle themselves and put their partners on pedestals, becoming needy as they seek external validation for their self-worth. Being emotionally needy and seeking love to “complete them,” anxiously-attached adults often find themselves feeling empty and alone in the end. If you find yourself panicking whenever your partner lives their life independently from yours, it is likely that you struggle with an anxious attachment style.
Avoidant attachment tends to form when children and their caregivers struggle to connect with one another. A parent who fails to properly bond with his or her child may inadvertently cause the child to become avoidant themselves. Though an avoidant child internally seeks comfort and reassurance, they have learned that they will not receive this support from their caregivers. In turn, they behave in apathetic, avoidant ways, interacting with caregivers in a less direct manner, rather than actively seeking them out for support.
Avoidant adults tend to struggle with connection. They may resist depending on others or having others depend on them. Though the consequence is isolation, these individuals associate closeness with pain. Extreme self-sufficiency and independence lead these individuals to have unfulfilling relationships. Anxious adults may find themselves drawn to avoidant personalities, as these dysfunctional dynamics reinforce both individuals’ attachment styles.
Disorganized attachment is a fourth, looser category that may overlap with other attachment styles. Children who experience disorganized attachment may express contradictory behaviors in connecting with their caregivers. These children may express fearfulness, move in strange ways, or appear to freeze or dissociate. Those who express disorganized behavior patterns may ultimately fall into any of the other three categories.
Parents who have experienced loss or trauma may unintentionally trigger disorganized attachment in their children. A mother who has experienced childhood abuse and has not healed from her past, for instance, may struggle to properly bond with her child. In some cases, traumas experienced around the time of the child’s birth may contribute to this form of attachment. Children who experience abuse themselves are very likely to have a disorganized relationship dynamic with their caregivers.
Disorganized attachment may result in struggles with self-soothing and emotional regulation. Those with this attachment style may struggle to form trusting, stable relationships as adults; erratic and confusing behaviors may push friends and partners away. As a result of viewing the world as an unsafe place, these individuals struggle to establish secure and healthy bonds with others.
Forming Secure Attachments
Though overcoming maladaptive forms of attachment can be challenging, it is possible. Though the majority of us carry our childhood attachment patterns into adulthood, many adults also overcome these dynamics.
One of the most powerful tools in altering our attachment style is reframing the stories we tell ourselves. Psychologists recommend finding a way to create a “coherent narrative” of your past experiences. Though it may be difficult, delve into your past. If you have a chance, talk to your parents or childhood caregivers as well. Learn more about how your parents raised you, and the struggles they may have been facing during your childhood. Even if you can’t speak with your caregivers, try looking at your childhood through a different lens. By viewing ourselves and our caregivers with compassion, we can make sense of the narrative of our lives, healing our emotional wounds and our attachments with others. By understanding and healing from past traumas, you can break the cycle of experiencing as many triggering and upsetting situations in the present, resulting in a happier life with more secure attachments.
Forming healthy attachments in the present also has the potential to transform our attachment styles. Repeatedly entering into relationships with avoidant partners, for instance, may have left us feeling more anxious, jealous, and insecure. By bonding with a secure partner, however, we can learn more about how healthy relationships work. If we work on ourselves while bonding with a responsive and emotionally-attuned partner, we can ultimately settle into more secure bonds ourselves.
Perhaps the best way to work on your attachment style is with a professional. In a healthy, trusting therapeutic relationship, you can form a secure relationship with your therapist. Being able to work through past traumas in a safe space can help you form the confidence you need to abandon maladaptive attachment behaviors. Even those of us who are securely attached to our partners may still experience challenges as a result of our upbringing. Most of us could benefit from therapy. Developing greater inner security gives us the freedom to become our truest selves, benefiting both our lives and our relationships.
Though you may have struggled with your attachment style for decades, it’s never too late to reflect on your struggles and heal. Reevaluating your past and addressing any serious issues in therapy is a great way to set yourself up for success in your future relationships. By doing so, you can ensure that your future attachments will be happier and more secure.
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