Do any of the following thoughts ring true for you when dating or in relationship?
I feel smothered.
She is way too needy.
They always leave.
He doesn’t respect my space.
I feel comfortable being close to my partner.
I feel anxious when I am away from my partner.
These beliefs in relationship held by you and/or your partner are best explained by attachment theory. I will be referring to Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.’s book, Attached, which in my opinion is the holy grail of attachment style books.
What is Attachment Style?
Attachment theory, originally ideated by John Bowlby in the 1930s and further developed by Mary Ainsworth’s, Strange Situation experiment in the 1970s theorizes that as infants we develop styles of attachment to our caregivers, which often informs how we attach to our loved ones as adults. Bowlby proposed that we have a biological need to depend on others for our own safety and protection. We remain safe by maintaining connection with our caregiver, who is responsible for providing nourishment and security as early as our development in the womb. This attachment mechanism is impacted by our bond, or lack thereof, with our primary caregiver. Genetically, we are programmed to maintain connection; however, if we do not have a predictable or secure environment, then maintaining connection to our caregiver or trusting that our caregiver will be dependable, may be less adaptive and interfere with developing a secure attachment mechanism. If I know that when I cry and scream, my mother will sometimes be able to soothe me and sometimes neglect me, then I may develop an insecure attachment, unsure of how to get my needs met. Across the life span, attachment style is based on our view of intimacy, how we deal with conflict, attitude towards sex, ability to assert our needs and communicate our feelings, as well as our expectations from our partners and relationships. Ainsworth discovered that there are three main attachment styles described below: Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure. Less common (in about 8-9% of the population) is a fourth attachment style; Disorganized (or fearful).
Making up about 20% of the population, anxiously attached individuals are often preoccupied with maintaining connection in their relationships and fear perceived or real threats to abandonment. Someone with an anxious attachment often desires a lot of closeness in relationship, expresses insecurities, fears rejection, and often negatively interprets their partner’s actions. They often have a sensitive attachment mechanism. In an attempt to reestablish connection with their partner, they might engage in “activating behaviors” also known as “protest behaviors.” These behaviors might look like tantrums or crying spouts as a child and as an adult they can look like acting out, picking a fight, withdrawing, threatening to leave, or trying to provoke jealousy. While their need for connection is valid, these behaviors can often push others away, reinforcing their fear that others cannot meet their needs for emotional safety and further emphasizing that they are destined to be alone.
Making up about 25% of the population, avoidantly attached individuals value their independence, are emotionally self-sufficient, and fear closeness in relationships as a threat to their emotional safety. These individuals, like anxiously attached individuals, also have an insecure attachment mechanism; however, it manifests differently. While avoidants also learn that they cannot depend on others, instead of activating or “getting louder” to get their needs met, they often prefer to withdraw and engage in “deactivating behaviors.” These behaviors include using distancing strategies (emotionally or physically) when their partner gets “too close,” thinking that they cannot trust their partner, difficulty committing to a relationship, shutting down, avoiding difficult conversations, and sometimes belittling or criticizing their partner. While their need for emotional safety is valid and while maintaining emotionally self-sufficiency has most likely been adaptive as a child, these behaviors create distance and thus conflict in relationships, which further reinforces their ingrained belief that they are better off alone.
Making up about 50% of the population, securely attached individuals are comfortable with closeness, accurately express their needs and feelings, are dependable, are flexible in their thinking, are comfortable with commitment, are trusting of others, are consistent in their behavior, and do not often feel threatened by boundaries and healthy distance. Secure individuals still have needs, as we all do, they are just better able to identify them, communicate them, and tolerate them when they are not met. Secure individuals also take partial responsibility for their partner’s well-being.
The commonly held beliefs, “You shouldn’t need to rely on anyone” and “Depending on others is unhealthy” are myths. There is a healthy amount of dependence on others that is essential for our survival and happiness from the womb all the way to the grave. The trick is to identify your attachment style and subsequently learn tools to replace ineffective, activating or deactivating strategies, with effective strategies. While our attachment style is fairly consistent across the life span, it is malleable and possible to move from an insecure attachment to an “earned secure” attachment. Stay tuned for skills in the next blog post for how to own your attachment style, improve your relationships, and even earn a secure attachment!
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find–and keep–love. TarcherPerigee.
Mcleod, S. (2023, June 4). Attachment theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theory explained. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html