The 4 Powerful Forms Of Relationship Attachment
Attachment Theory: Are you Anxious, Avoidant, Disorganized, or Secure?
I have a question for you.
How do you see people?
With your eyes, yes. But what is it you feel when you see those people that are close to you?
There's a healthy way to see someone, and then there are unhealthy ways to see to someone - which lead to healthy and unhealthy ways of behaving around them. A secure way, and insecure ways. This is determined by our attachment system.
Let's find out where you stand on this spectrum of healthy relationship attachment and see just how insecure you may be.
Note: A secure relationship may not be your ultimate goal - you can be insecure and still be happy. And it is happiness that is the goal of any relationship.
Our Attachment System and Attachment Theory
The way you see your partner, as well as your close friends and family, is determined by your attachment style. We each show signs of all four, but tend towards one of these methods of attaching to others:
1. An Anxious Attachment Style
2. An Avoidant Attachment Style
3. A Disorganized Attachment Style
4. A Secure Attachment Style
These styles come from a concept called Attachment Theory, which basically assumes we all need emotional and physical attachment in order to grow as human beings.
When we feel our relationship with someone is at risk, our attachment system gets triggered, and we behave based on our attachment style as a means of dealing with it.
Example Attachment System Process:
Your significant other is seen hugging a stranger at a party,
you feel the risk of losing your partner to this stranger,
your attachment system gets triggered,
you start acting either anxious, avoidant, disorganized, or secure towards your partner.
Before we get into each style, let me ask you why we have insecure attachment styles to begin with. From an evolutionary perspective, why on earth are there still so many anxious, avoidant, and disorganized characteristics? How could someone insecure compete with someone secure in the race to pass on their genes? We may hear this in conversation like this:
"He's so insecure, there's no way he has the guts to talk to that girl"
"She's so insecure, she's going to push away any chance at love"
"They're so insecure, they'll never find someone to start a family with"
Yes, insecurity is something our society wants us to grow out of, and for good reason; not only healthier mental behaviours towards others, but also a happier attitude towards life. So why are we so insecure?
It turns out, showing insecure behaviours has actually helped our ancestors pass on their genes. And if any of the attachment styles work for you and your partner, there’s no harm the thought “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Let's take a look at each attachment style, explaining why they've worked for our ancestors, and how they look today.
Anxious Attachment Style
In the past, as we lived in harsher environments, it was a lot harder to stay safe alone. If we wandered off without protection, it was a lot easier to be attacked by other tribes, eat the poisonous fruit, or step into predator territory. The anxious individuals would combat this. They would keep a strong eye on their partner in order to protect them from harm and stay close enough to pass on their genes -- thus the anxious attachment style.
Today, we don't see many tigers roaming Main street, or hemlock at the grocery story, but we do still hold those same anxious attachment styles. Individuals with an anxious attachment style are characterized with:
Having an intensely persistent and hypervigilant alertness towards their partner's actions or inactions.
They love to feel close and have a large capacity to be intimate with their significant others, but tend to overthink whether or not their partner feels the same way.
They need to know what their partner is doing at all times and are easily sensitive and upset by small shifts in their partner's mood or behaviour.
The stakes always feel high in their relationship and tend to be on the edge of a break up at any sign of doubt.
Very minor inattentiveness and disregard in any form from their partners are seen as a threat to their relationship and thus tend to act out on impulse and say things they later regret.
Anxiously attached individuals become very demanding in their relationships because they need control and have specific expectations for what they need in order for to meet their "good relationship" standard.
According to John Bowlby, founder and pioneer of these attachment style studies, these anxious adult behaviours can be attributed to the way we were raised by coquettish parents.
In Bowlby's 1959 book Separation Anxiety, he coined the anxious attachment style by watching infants and their parents. When children were separated from their parent, a child would go through a 3-step cycle of:
1. Protest - cry, roll around, and anxiously be on the lookout for any signs of their parent coming back to them, and
2. Despair - lose all hope in being reunited with their parent and give up on finding them, then
3. Feel hope - when their parent returns, they feel that love that they lost.
But when the parent is out of sight or isn’t emotionally available, the child starts to protest, despair and go through the entire cycle again - often leading to regrettable behaviour. They're always scared their parent won't come back, regardless of how many times they actually do.
The anxious baby goes through this cycle, and ultimately grows up in to the anxious adult we've come to be familiar with.
Avoidant Attachment Style
On the other end of the spectrum, again on an evolutionary basis, the harsh environments of the past sometimes meant individuals weren't likely to survive long enough to rear offspring. It would have made more sense to quickly move on to other partners -- thus the avoidant attachment style.
Today, individuals with an avoidant attachment style are characterized with:
They would rather withdraw from any conflict than address any one problem.
They don't like to talk about specific issues about their partner and instinctively resort to saying they don't like them as a whole, grouping any good characteristics into bad ones.
To them, being independent and self-sufficient is way more valuable than being emotionally intimate or close.
Even if they do want to be close, they find it uncomfortable and don't like to open up.
Where the anxiously attached individual is highly aware of any threat to the relationship, those that are avoidant are very aware and sensitive to any signs of control or imprisonment of their freedom and autonomy.
Again, Bowlby attributes these adult behaviours to the way we were raised by our parents or caregivers. Just like the anxious individual, the avoidant individual goes through a cycle of:
1. Protest - cry, roll around, and anxiously be on the lookout for any signs of their parent coming back to them, and
2. Despair - lose all hope in being reunited with their parent and give up, then
3. Detach - they feel so lost and so helpless that they've completely detached themselves in order to feel better.
Where the anxious clings on, the avoidant completely loses any signs of wanting love. They feel any signs of attachment as dangerous and something to be fought against in order to feel sufficient. Secretly, they may truly just need a hug.
Disorganized Attachment Style
Then the third and least understood style, the Disorganized Attachment Style. If we look at the above examples we can see the anxious individual turning on their "fight" instinct, and the avoidant individual turning on their "flight" instinct. The disorganized individual turns on the third response in our sympathetic nervous system, the "freeze" instinct.
The disorganized freezes.
They're known to freeze under threat, and can swing between the behaviours of both anxious and avoidant without reason. This happens when the ones we love are also the ones that cause pain. We want to be close, but also understand being close will hurt us. This may come in the form of physical assault, household chaos, or confusing and petty communication (passive-aggressiveness). This is the most saddening to hear about in today's world.
Individuals with a disorganized attachment style are characterized with:
Sporadic random shifts in closeness and avoidance
Misinterpreting threat - acting safe in a dangerous environment
Misinterpreting safety - acting in danger in a safe environment
Stubborn behaviour - extreme controlling
Impulsive behaviour - little control
Continual sense of failure
This style, coined by Mary Main in 1986, was realized by infants who grow under fearful caregivers. Growing up, we want to be able to find safety in the people who raise us, but there are a few unlucky ones that grow up in harmful environments and with people who bring us fear. As we got close to these people, we were quickly dealt pain -- either physically or verbally -- and have grown up with a confused understanding of what closeness should be like.
For example, this verbal pain/confusion can stem from unclear messages from the parent, as in:
“If you loved me, you’d know when to do the groceries.”
“You’ve lived here long enough to know when to clean the floors.”
These are mixed signals that set up children for failure - a “come here” and “go away” message.
When these individuals grow up, they instinctively come to fear those who get close, and are triggered into a confused freeze, followed by behaviours of anxiety or avoidance.
Where the anxious individual is continually turned on to fight for security, the avoidant turned off to flee from pain into security, the disorganized freezes into an emotional unregulated jumble of either or. On the inside, the disorganized really just need to be clearly communicated to without confusion, and spoken to with a secure and sensitive voice.
But how do you communicate security?
Secure Attachment Style
Then in the centre of the above styles is secure attachment. Instead of either being too clingy, too cold, or both, a secure attachment style comes from, evolutionarily speaking, those raised in peaceful environments that afforded time to emotionally invest ourselves in another, reaping the benefits for both ourselves and our offspring.
Today, individuals with a secure attachment style are characterized with:
Being naturally warm and loving.
Open to communicating their problems and letting go of their ego in order to work things out. Not to mention being very emotionally aware and receptive to their partner's attachment needs.
They aren't easily upset and can approach things with a rational and emotionally intelligent perspective.
They understand they can take care of themselves and don't need to overreact to things that their partners do or don't do.
Successes and issues are easily shared without feeling too overpowering or too under-appreciated , and can thus easily grow the relationship.
As a child, these secure individuals were lucky to have attentive parents and could take their relationship cues from their secure childhood. The parent was good at listening to them, helped the child understand their feelings, didn't anxiously micromanage behaviour, taught the idea that problems could be tackled and didn't need to be avoided, and most importantly, gave the impression that they could securely take on life's hurdles without them.
From a secure parent-child bond, the child grew to endure times without being too needy for acceptance or reassurance, less distraught by defeat, and grew a healthy, secure sense of self-worth.
Obviously we'd all like to be secure in our relationships, but unfortunately we weren't all raised to be this way. We weren't all exposed to the healthiest people around us. Some of us grew up with busy parents, unavailable parents, and unstable households. Thus we see varying ways of attaching to people
Now this doesn't mean insecure individuals are incapable of happy and lasting relationships. In fact, the reason anxious, avoidant, and disorganized individuals are common is because they worked for our survivale. In future posts I'll be talking about how each attachment system can best be used to find and hold on to healthy and mature love.
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find--and Keep-- Love - Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller
The Power Of Attachment - Diane Poole Heller
Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships - Sue Johnson
Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families - Susan M. Johnson