Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. An attachment pattern is established in early childhood attachments and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood.
This model of attachment influences how each of us reacts to our needs and how we go about getting them met. When there is a secure attachment pattern, a person is confident and self-possessed and is able to easily interact with others, meeting both their own and another’s needs. However, when there is an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern, and a person picks a partner who fits with that maladaptive pattern, he or she will most likely be choosing someone who isn’t the ideal choice to make him or her happy.
For example, the person with a working model of anxious/preoccupied attachment feels that, in order to get close to someone and have your needs met, you need to be with your partner all the time and get reassurance. To support this perception of reality, they choose someone who is isolated and hard to connect with. The person with a working model of dismissive/avoidant attachment has the tendency to be distant, because their model is that the way to get your needs met is to act like you don’t have any. He or she then chooses someone who is more possessive or overly demanding of attention.
In a sense, we set ourselves up by finding partners that confirm our models. If we grew up with an insecure attachment pattern, we may project or seek to duplicate similar patterns of relating as adults, even when these patterns hurt us and are not in our own self-interest.
In their research, Dr. Phillip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan found that about 60 percent of people have a secure attachment, while 20 percent have an avoidant attachment, and 20 percent have an anxious attachment. So what does this mean? There are questions you can ask yourself to help you determine your style of attachment and how it is affecting your relationships.
Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. Children with a secure attachment see their parent as a secure base from which they can venture out and independently explore the world. A secure adult has a similar relationship with their romantic partner, feeling secure and connected, while allowing themselves and their partner to move freely.
Secure adults offer support when their partner feels distressed. They also go to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving toward each other. Securely attached couples don’t tend to engage in what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, describes as a “Fantasy Bond,” an illusion of connection that provides a false sense of safety. In a fantasy bond, a couple foregoes real acts of love for a more routine, emotionally cut-off form of relating.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
Unlike securely attached couples, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond. Instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger. They’re frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them. Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they take actions that push their partner away.
Even though anxiously attached individuals act desperate or insecure, more often than not, their behavior exacerbates their own fears. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner. They may also interpret independent actions by their partner as affirmation of their fears. For example, if their partner starts socializing more with friends, they may think, “See? He doesn’t really love me. This means he is going to leave me. I was right not to trust him.”
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment
People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They may seek isolation and feel “pseudo-independent,” taking on the role of parenting themselves. They often come off as focused on themselves and may be overly attending to their creature comforts.
Pseudo-independence is an illusion, as every human being needs connection. Nevertheless, people with a dismissive avoidant attachment tend to lead more inward lives, both denying the importance of loved ones and detaching easily from them. They are often psychologically defendedand have the ability to shut down emotionally. Even in heated or emotional situations, they are able to turn off their feelings and not react. For example, if their partner is distressed and threatens to leave them, they would respond by saying, “I don’t care.”
Fearful Avoidant Attachment
A person with a fearful avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state, in which they are afraid of being both too close to or too distant from others. They attempt to keep their feelings at bay but are unable to. They can’t just avoid their anxiety or run away from their feelings. Instead, they are overwhelmed by their reactions and often experience emotional storms. They tend to be mixed up or unpredictable in their moods. They see their relationships from the working model that you need to go toward others to get your needs met, but if you get close to others, they will hurt you. In other words, the person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. As a result, they have no organized strategy for getting their needs met by others.
As adults, these individuals tend to find themselves in rocky or dramatic relationships, with many highs and lows. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, then feel trapped when they are close. Oftentimes, the timing seems to be off between them and their partner. A person with fearful avoidant attachment may even wind up in an abusive relationship.
The attachment style you developed as a child based on your relationship with a parent or early caretaker doesn’t have to define your ways of relating to those you love in your adult life. If you come to know your attachment style, you can uncover ways you are defending yourself from getting close and being emotionally connected and work toward forming an “earned secure attachment.”
You can challenge your defenses by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style, and work on developing yourself in that relationship. Therapy can also be helpful for changing maladaptive attachment patterns. By becoming aware of your attachment style, both you and your partner can challenge the insecurities and fears supported by your age-old working models and develop new styles of attachment for sustaining a satisfying, loving relationship.
The Insecure Individual:
Heller and Levine describe individuals with insecure attachment style has having a “super-sensitive attachment system,” or a “sixth sense for danger” (79). This sensitivity has a profound effect on protest behavior, or “any action that tries to reestablish contact with an [attachment figure] and get their attention” (88). For example, a study was done in which women were asked to think about various relationship scenarios while undergoing an fMRI. Women with an insecure attachment style showed more heightened activity in areas of the brain related to emotion (when thinking of negative scenarios) compared to women of other attachment styles (89). Furthermore, women with insecure attachment styles showed less brain activity in regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation (societally appropriate expression and experience of emotion), when thinking of the same negative scenarios, than their differing-attachment-style peers. These results indicate that a person with an insecure attachment style’s protest behavior—how he or she would react to a perceived threat to closeness—involves higher emotional reaction and less emotional regulation than individuals of either secure or avoidant attachment styles.
While our cave-living ancestors may have benefitted from this heightened activation, in the modern era this can become problematic. Not only can a insecure, super-sensitive attachment style lead to anxiety and emotional distress over something as simple as a partner missing a phone call, but Heller and Levine argue it can actually lead to a skewed understanding of affection altogether. An individual with an insecure attachment style is faced with the risk of mistaking an activated attachment system with feelings of affection or love. A super-sensitive attachment system is more easily activated, and when activated, evokes strong emotions. For instance, a delayed text response from a partner can evoke strong feelings of anxiety, and this heightened emotional response—despite its negative valence—can be confused as a side effect of intense passion. Therefore, the wrong partner, one that does not understand the relationship needs of an insecurely attached individual, can be conditioned to feel right; an insecure individual can “start to equate the anxiety, the preoccupation, the obsession, and those ever-so-short bursts of joy with love” (92). In reality, they’re just equating an activated attachment system with adoration.
The Avoidant Individual:
Have you ever known someone who wouldn’t know a good partner if it (hypothetically) hit them in the face? Or someone who can only see the negative in others and shows distaste for intimacy? An avoidant attachment style, which seems to contradict the evolutionary need for closeness, tends to suppress the need for intimacy. This style is believed to be the result of the need for self-sufficiency in times of limited resources or disease, for instance. The avoidants are not devoid of the need for closeness, this need simply manifests in a different way than that of insecures or secures. They tend “to think negatively about their partners, seeing them as needy and overly dependent…but ignore their own needs and fears about relationships”. They have blind spots that protect and shield the vulnerability that accompanies their own hidden needs; this in turn would have made them more self sufficient in ancestral times.
One study tested the receptiveness of avoidants to attachment issues. The researchers were interested in how salient certain feelings were to these avoidant individuals. Participants were brought into the lab and sat at a computer where words flashed quickly on a monitor. The researchers asked the participants to identify the words as fast as possible. If participants have activated schemas in their mind that are highly salient to them, then related words would be more accessible, and participants would be more quick to identify them and show a better reaction time (for example, if you feel angry, you would show a faster reaction time for the word “anger” than “happiness”). In the first trial, results showed that avoidants are faster to identify words such as “need,” and “enmeshed” in regards to their partner’s behavior, but slower to identify words such as “fight,” “loss,” or “separation” in regards to themselves”. Put simply, avoidants were shown to possess negative views about partners such as “dependent” but were seemingly unaware of those same needs for themselves.
However, in a second part of the studies, these findings were contradicted. When preoccupied by another task such as a puzzle, the avoidant participants were suddenly just as quick to identify words related to their own attachment needs (such as “separation,” “loss,” or “death”) as people of other styles. Heller and Levine explain that when avoidants were “distracted by another task, their ability to repress lessened and their true attachment feelings and concerns were able to surface”. In fact, other studies have shown avoidants to exhibit protest behavior strikingly similar to that of insecurely attached individuals when faced with a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one.
But how do avoidants manage to suppress their attachment system most of the time? They use deactivating strategies, which include avoiding commitment through avenues such as ghosting someone, even if time spent with them was enjoyable. These strategies keep their attachment system deactivated and, in turn, maintain an important sense of autonomy.
The Secure Individual:
Securely attached individuals are attuned to their partner’s cues as well as their own; “their emotion system doesn’t get too riled up in the face of a threat (as with the anxious) but doesn’t shut down either (as with the avoidant)”. They even have the tendency to enhance mixed-style relationships, meaning they manage to heighten relationship satisfaction for not only themselves, but their partner as well.
One marked characteristic of individuals with a secure attachment style is that they’re predisposed to assume their partners will treat them with kindness and love. To illustrate this, the same test run on the avoidants involving word reporting was run on a secure group. The study found that securely attached individuals have more unconscious activation towards concepts such as love and closeness and less towards things such as loss or abandonment. Even when distracted, (a condition that revealed the avoidants’ underlying concerns regarding relationships), the securely attached participants continued to overlook these negative concerns. Their positivity is genuine; “they simply aren’t as sensitive to the negative cues of the world”.
All attachment styles stem from our evolutionary need to be involved in close relationships—ones that would have helped to ensure our safety and protection in a more primitive era. Being involved in strong relationships would have increased an individual’s likelihood of surviving attack, acquiring enough food, and surviving in general. Despite the long passage of time since this primitive lifestyle, on an evolutionary scale, we have not graduated from this need for close relationships. Rather, they remain a very powerful drive in our everyday lives: we’re programmed to believe our lives depend on them.
It is important to note that there is no best or superior style; rather, understanding one’s own and the attachment style of others has the potential to help one more easily navigate adult relationships—from picking the right partners, to being attuned to the respective needs of those partners.