Do you often find yourself at loggerheads with your partner or repeating similar patterns of behaviour with close friends or family members? It could be because of your attachment style.
Attachment theory is one of the best ways to understand your relationships. Established by Psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the ’50s, its key idea is that your attachment style is determined by the early bonds you form as a baby and young child with your caregivers. Once they’re transferred from your caretaker to you, they become a blueprint for your future relationships. The theory explains why people don’t always respond in the same way to emotional intimacy, conflict, communication, needs, emotions and expectations in relationships – both their own and their partner’s.
The way people approach intimate relationships, marriage and parenting can vary. The number of ways in which this theory can be applied or used to explain behaviour is magnified by the fact that relationships take two (or more) people; any attachment behaviours that you display will impact and be influenced by the attachment behaviours of other people. Given the many different types of behaviour, it isn’t surprising conflict and confusion exists in relationships.
These four behavioural styles could explain why you fall into certain patterns in your relationships.
If this is you, you’re generally more likely to see others as supportive and helpful, and yourself as competent and worthy of respect. You relate positively to others, are resilient, and are more successful in the workplace and your interactions with your colleagues. You’re also better at considering things from another person’s point of view and tend to trust others. You’re more likely to be satisfied with your relationships, and feel secure and connected to your partner without needing to be with them all the time. You’re honest, supportive, independent and share a deep emotional connection with your partner.
Do you find it hard to manage stressful situations? Perhaps you’re withdrawn or resistant to seeking help? Both of which can inhibit you from forming satisfying relationships with others. You show more aggression and antisocial behaviours, such as lying and bullying, and you tend to distance yourself from others to reduce emotional stress. You may feel that you don’t need to connect with other people to survive or thrive, and insist on being independent of others. You shut down emotionally when a potentially hurtful scenario arises, such as a serious argument with your partner or a threat to the continuance of your relationship.
- Anxious or insecure
You’re on the opposite end of the spectrum to those who’re anxious-avoidant. When you were a child, you probably lacked self-confidence and stayed close to your primary caregivers. You may display exaggerated emotional reactions and keep your distance from your peers, leading to social isolation. Having formed a less-than-secure bond with your partner, you may feel desperate for love or affection, and that your partner must complete you and fix your problems. While you long for safety and security in your romantic relationships, you may also be acting in ways that push your partner away rather than invite them in. This can manifest as clinginess, jealousy and getting upset about trivial issues.
If this is your attachment style, you tend to avoid your feelings in case they overwhelm you. Your moods may be unpredictable or abrupt, and you may fear being hurt by your romantic partner. You’re drawn to a potential partner, but you’re also afraid of getting too close. It’s no surprise that this makes it difficult for you to form and maintain meaningful and healthy relationships with others because you come off as ambivalent.
Behaviour, not personality
These styles are on a continuum of attachment behaviours, which means they don’t define a specific type of person. If your attachment style is usually secure, you may, on occasion, display behaviours more suited to other peoples’, but if it’s avoidant, you may cling to a particular person. With this in mind, attachment styles are a way to understand your behaviour, as opposed to describing your exact personality.
Identify and overcome
Once you understand these behaviour patterns, it should be obvious which style is yours. Think about how you respond when your partner goes away on a work trip. Do you become clingy or hostile towards them? Or are you relieved when they return, so you can get on with your life? It’s helpful to think about your behavioural patterns in more than one relationship – with a parent, romantic partner or close friend. The first step toward overcoming your attachment issues is becoming aware of them. All of us should aim to be as secure in our relationships as possible. If you fall into one of the non-secure attachment styles, it can lead you into a negative cycle. For example, if you grow up believing that people are going to leave you, you behave in ways that push people away. If you don’t understand why this is, you automatically think it’s your fault, when it’s really the cycle in operation that’s to blame. Once you understand the theory and reasoning behind the way you’re feeling, you can take steps to heal.
Change is possible
If your attachment style in your romantic relationships isn’t secure, but you’d like it to be, rest assured that things can change. Attachment styles aren’t static, which means they can change as you get older. Plus, you can exhibit different iterations of your attachment style within different relationships. People can have varying degrees of attachment styles at any one time, and these can appear in contrasting ways depending on who they’re talking to.
The best way to get there? Enter into a relationship with someone who’s already secure. Think of it as like having a built-in relationship coach. If your style is anxious, but your partner’s is secure, and they offer you lots of love and reassurance, you’re less likely to be preoccupied with where you stand in your relationship. If your style is avoidant but your partner’s is secure and they give you space and independence, you probably won’t feel the need to push them away. And know that none of the relationships in your life, be it with your mom, dad, varsity boyfriend or most recent girlfriend, is the sole influence on your present attachment style.
Other people (besides your caregivers) can influence you. We’re all malleable, highly sociable creatures. If you experience something contrary to your beliefs for long enough, you’ll change.
Not Secure? That’s not your fault
The attachment style you learned or developed in childhood, and throughout your experiences growing up, was the best way to cope or manage with your circumstances at the time. If you align with an attachment style associated with insecurity, it’s not because you did something wrong. It’s merely the one your caregiver passed on to you. As humans, we have built-in survival instincts. You formed your attachment style as your best means of self-protection. It’s how you balanced out the insecure caregiving provided to you.
Now you can begin your journey of self-compassion, healing, and moving towards a more secure attachment style – which will ultimately lead to healthier, more rewarding relationships.