Are you struggling with repetitive patterns of failed relationships? Does intimacy feel suffocating? Are you frustrated with only feeling chemistry with people who will inevitably hurt you and leave?
While many of us tend to think that who we feel (or don’t feel) those butterflies with is out of our control, it might be surprising to learn that how we feel and behave when we attach to someone is a direct aftereffect of our childhood experiences with our parents or caregivers.
These experiences create our attachment styles: our mannerisms of interacting with and attaching ourselves to others.
Many people spend a lifetime thinking there is something wrong with them or that love is painful or unattainable while believing it is out of their control. This is partially true; toxic relationship patterns are out of our control, but only for as long as we remain oblivious to the existence of attachment styles.
How do individual differences in attachment develop?
It is during our first year of life that we form our initial attachment style. As infants, we depend on our parents to regulate our emotions by responding to our cries and cues.
As we get a bit older, we continue to rely on our parents to provide us with the security and confidence which allows us to explore the world, knowing we have a safe place to return to when we stumble across perceived danger or feel overwhelmed.
Having the security of a stable relationship at home is what lets children interact with the world without excessive anxiety. Without this healthy sense of emotional security, children are forced to develop coping skills on their own. The relationship with our parents is what teaches us how to bond with others.
How our caregivers responded to our emotional needs directly affects our sense of self-worth as we become adults. Our primary relationships set the stage for what feels safe to us and defines how we act and feel with others throughout our lives.
We may think how we feel, in regard to intimacy, is human nature, but in reality, it’s likely our parents who influenced our ability to have fulfilling and satisfying relationships.
Knowing our adult attachment style can give us a better understanding of our actions, behaviors, and thought processes as we engage with others and is the first step in becoming more secure in ourselves. This knowledge is also helpful in understanding why our romantic partners behave in the ways they do.
Life becomes painful when we take other people’s attachment behavior personally, and more so when we shame ourselves for our own. It may sound like we are throwing our parents under the bus for ruining our love lives, but this is not the intent.
Our parents’ attachment styles were formed from their own childhood experiences, just like ours. Generations of families have been teaching their children how to break their own hearts without ever realizing that this is what they were doing. This conversation is both for us, our parents, and future generations, as we only know what we know, and nothing changes if nothing changes.
What are the types of attachment?
While Bowlby’s research focused on the behavior of infants after separation from their parents, it has been found that our attachment style continues to have a significant impact on our adult relationships. Due to continuing understanding and development of this theory, the different attachment styles have changed in name over the years.
This can make learning about attachment theory confusing and difficult for beginners. For this article, we will refer to the four attachment styles as:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment (also referred to as Preoccupied)
- Fearful avoidant attachment (also referred to as Disorganized)
- Dismissive avoidant attachment
1. Secure attachment style
In a perfect world, each child would be raised by caregivers who freely and consistently provide them with praise, love, support, safety, and affection. By having their needs consistently met, these children would then grow up with a healthy and secure sense of self.
They would not fear relationships, nor the loss of relationships, and they would attract other people with the same sense of security in themselves. Living without the fear of abandonment or rejection, they would simply be comfortable with who they are, within a relationship or not.
Related: Why is Self Confidence Important?
Sound too good to be true? It is said that roughly one-half of people do get to enjoy this type of connection. Those with secure attachment styles grow up knowing their worth, knowing they are lovable, and do not feel the need to seek validation from others.
Tension with a mate does not result in them feeling overly reactive, and expressing emotions is not shame-inducing. They believe their partner will be responsive to their needs and accept them as they are.
Secure attachers approach their unions with confidence and trust, generally having an optimistic view of their relationships. Having the ability to be upfront about their wants and needs, they have minimal anxiety about intimate bonds.
While no relationship is perfect, those who demonstrate secure attachment patterns find love to be satisfying.
2. Anxious attachment style
Known for falling in love fast, hard, and easily, those with anxious attachment styles find their unions to be a struggle, often resulting in heartache and self-doubt.
This style is a result of having childhood needs inconsistently met by caregivers. They may have been responded to with excessive love and affection at times, and other times not responded to at all.
Never knowing when their needs would be met, these children lived in constant fear of emotional abandonment.
As adults, they continue to have a significant need for validation, affirmation, and reassurance. Impulsive and highly emotional, they require high levels of contact and intimacy within relationships. Typically holding a negative view of themselves, they view most others in a positive light. Therefore, codependency is common.
Related: How to Break Codependency Habits
For them, there is no better show of value than to be needed by someone else. As they rely on others to regulate their emotions, the anxiously attached will pressure themselves to have relationships, regardless of compatibility. Red flags are ignored as attention, or being made to feel special, is all that is needed to trigger their attachment response. Once they feel those butterflies and sparks, they are instantly in love.
Little do they realize that the exciting feeling of chemistry isn’t chemistry at all – it’s anxiety.
Vigilantly monitoring their partner becomes an art form as they continuously look for subtle changes in behavior which, to them, are clues of impending abandonment. These small changes in their partners often get blown out of proportion as their attachment response is triggered.
Emotions hijack the anxious attacher, manifesting as clingy, jealous, or obsessive behavior. They might resort to manipulation, such as trying to provoke jealousy or not answering texts or constantly initiating communication and acting jealous themselves, all to get their partner to express commitment in the way they want them to.
This behavior feels primal and uncontrollable and can be shame-inducing for the anxiously attached. The constant need for assurance of love can often be what causes their partner to do the one thing they fear the most: leave.
Wanting intimate relationships so badly, their overwhelming efforts end up perpetuating the life-long cycle of fear of abandonment, as the obsessive nature of relationships with these individuals causes their mates to feel smothered and pressured. It is a stressful pattern of heartbreak.
3. Fearful avoidant attachment style
Those with fearful avoidant attachment styles might have been raised by parents who ignored their attempts to be intimate or withheld praise and affection. They may have experienced abuse or neglect.
The caregivers they loved were a source of pain. Therefore, as children, they internalized the belief that they could not depend on that relationship, and this belief was transferred to all other relationships.
As children, their coping skill for dealing with unmet needs was to act as if they did not have any needs at all, even though they craved an intimate bond. By avoiding intimacy, they felt they could not be hurt by the love they so desperately wanted.
The fearful avoidant can be found in chaotic relationships. Afraid to be alone, yet also afraid of connection, it is difficult for them to trust others or themselves. Balancing the need for love with the fear of intimacy proves nearly impossible.
The fearful avoidant feels unsettled when both partnered and alone. Often appearing pessimistic, with inconsistent codependency behavior, this constant conflict causes them to feel jealousy while simultaneously feeling uncertainty about their own feelings towards their partner.
As they fear invalidation, the requirement of expressing vulnerability within the context of a romantic relationship triggers their attachment response.
These people have high levels of anxiety. Though many might feel desperate for affection to the point of obsession, they usually end up feeling trapped in a situation which to them, will likely result in abandonment or pain.
They alternate from one extreme to another, offering affection then pushing their partner away, hoping to avoid the neglected feelings which they are so accustomed to. This “push-pull” lifestyle evolves into chaos, as there are no successful attempts at drawing healthy boundaries on either side.
Their partners end up confused and frustrated. Filled with self-doubt, they enter and exit relationships quickly, holding within them the certainty of knowing that no relationship will last. It’s a sad cycle of stepping outside of their comfort zone and then sabotaging love before it can be taken away.
Until they learn about their attachment style, they will, unfortunately, be correct: relationships will not last.
4. Dismissive avoidant attachment style
Like the fearful avoidant, those with dismissive avoidant attachment styles recognize that vulnerability is dangerous. However, there is no push-pull dynamic with these seemingly cold and distant non-attachers.
Wary of commitment, they pride themselves on independence. If they do find themselves in a relationship, it is kept at surface-level only.
The dismissive avoidant was likely raised by emotionally unavailable parents who either rejected the child who sought emotional support or who did not allow the showing of emotions. The child learned that people could not be relied on and emotions are shame-inducing.
Due to this conditioning, they simply stopped seeking or expecting anything from anyone. Unlike the fearful avoidant, they do not crave intimacy. There is no inner conflict. They are simply not interested in deep connections.
As an adult, the dismissive avoidant becomes extremely self-sufficient. With a positive view of themselves, they frequently keep busy with whatever keeps intimacy away: work, projects, hobbies, or socializing with friends who are always kept at arms-length.
Not wanting to be tied down, relationships come last on the list of priorities and never make it past the casual stage. Rarely exhibiting vulnerability, public displays of affection are non-existent. Often, these non-attachers will choose someone unavailable to partner up with to guarantee emotional space.
By getting involved with someone who is married or geographically distant or satisfying their sexual needs with one-night stands or prostitutes, they ensure the intimacy boundary. In times of relationship stress, the dismissive avoidant simply walks away.
Like the anxiously attached, the dismissive avoidant vigilantly monitors their partner’s behavior, though they are looking for any clues of being controlled. There is no push-pull relationship dynamic with the dismissive avoidant, as emotional intimacy is naturally off the table.
As far as they know, they do not need deep relationships, though the sad reality is that they just don’t know how to be in one.
Can trauma change your attachment style?
Whether incurred in childhood or as an adult, trauma can change attachment styles. Many traumas affect one’s view of the world and those who live in it. This is particularly true in the context of domestic abuse. Experiencing abuse from a source of love is shame-inducing and confusing.
A secure person may become avoidant, as the trust they once felt with others has been broken, or they might become codependent as they falsely believe that putting their needs aside will make them lovable again.
The after-effect of trauma influences not only the behavior of its victim, but all those within their circle. This can change how the victim feels they are viewed by those they love or change how they express love to those with whom they are intimate.
The silver lining to the effects of trauma on attachment styles is that it proves we can change our relationship behavior. This means it is possible, with help, time, and patience, to change an insecure attachment style to one that is secure.
If we can be taught that love hurts, then we can also be taught that it does not.
The commonalities of attachment styles
Though manifestations among the insecure attachment styles differ, they all share a root cause: fear of rejection.
As the anxiously attached confuses chemistry with anxiety, the avoidantly attached confuses intimacy with pain. Fear and anxiety have hijacked the emotional control center of the insecurely attached, who are oblivious to this dysfunction.
Each time they react to their attachment response, they perpetuate the cycle of unsuccessful relationships.
Regardless of attachment type, these painful and extreme patterns of behavior will continue until one learns there is an alternative way to live. A healthy relationship based on emotional closeness is something that can be experienced by us all, with the knowledge of attachment theory.
Imagine a world in which we don’t break our own hearts.