How You Attach to Others and Why
Why is an attachment style important?
Attachment refers to the way in which you relate to other people. Your style of attachment was formed at the very beginning of your life, during your first two years. Once established, it is a style that stays with you and plays out today in how you relate in friendships, intimate relationships and in how you parent your children. Understanding your style of attachment is helpful because it offers you insight into how you felt and developed in your childhood. It also clarifies ways that you are emotionally limited as an adult and what you may need to change to improve your close relationships and your relationship with your own children.
Why should you care about which attachment style is yours, or that you may impart on your children? Well, a 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.
Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress and to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.
Early Attachment Patterns
Young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for their social and emotional development to occur normally. Without this attachment, they will suffer serious psychological and social impairment. During the first two years, how the parents or caregivers respond to their infants, particularly during times of distress, establishes the types of patterns of attachment their children form. These patterns will go on to guide the child’s feelings, thoughts and expectations as an adult in future relationships.
Ideally, from the time infants are six months to two years of age, they form an emotional attachment to an adult who is attuned to them, that is, who is sensitive and responsive in their interactions with them. It is vital that this attachment figure remains a consistent caregiver throughout this period in a child’s life. During the second year, children begin to use the adult as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship is securely attached. Dr. Dan Siegel, an expert in this field, emphasizes that for a child to feel securely attached to their parents or caregivers, the child must feel safe, seen and soothed. 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 to 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
There are adults who are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They have formed an avoidant attachment with a mis-attuned parent.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment – A person with a fearful-avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state of being 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 towards 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.
Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time, they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.
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 an 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.”
When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: her survival instincts are telling her to flee to safety but safety is the very person who is terrifying her. The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from their consciousness.
Those who had avoidant attachments in childhood most likely have dismissive attachment patterns as adults. These people tend to be loners; they regard relationships and emotions as being relatively unimportant. They are cerebral and suppress their feelings. Their typical response to conflict and stressful situations is to avoid them by distancing themselves. These people’s lives are not balanced: they are inward and isolated, and emotionally removed from themselves and others.
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 maybe 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 defended and can shut down emotionally.
Children who have an ambivalent/anxious attachment often grow up to have preoccupied attachment patterns. As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In their relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent on their partner. These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.
People who grew up with disorganized attachments often develop fearful-avoidant patterns of attachment. Since, as children, they detached from their feelings during times of trauma, as adults, they continue to be somewhat detached from themselves. They desire relationships and are comfortable in them until they develop emotionally close. At this point, the feelings that were repressed in childhood begin to resurface and, with no awareness of them being from the past, they are experienced in the present. The person is no longer in life today but rather, is suddenly re-living an old trauma. These people’s lives are not balanced: they do not have a coherent sense of themselves nor do they have a clear connection with others.
Developing an “Earned Secure Attachment” – Can an attachment style that’s not working for you be corrected? Certainly.
The good news is, it’s never too late to develop a secure attachment. 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.”
One essential way to do this is by making sense of your story. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, attachment research demonstrates that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.” The key to “making sense” of your life experiences is to write a coherent narrative, which helps you understand how your childhood experiences are still affecting you in your life today. In an online course I’ll be leading with Dr. Dan Siegel, we will walk you through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help you to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen your own personal sense of emotional resilience. When you create a coherent narrative, you rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships.
You can also 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.
Because our attachment ability is broken in a relationship, it can also be fixed in a relationship. One of the proven ways to change our attachment style is by forming an attachment with someone who had a more secure attachment style than what we’ve experienced. We can also talk to a therapist, as the therapeutic relationship can help create a more secure attachment. We can continue to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences, allowing ourselves to make sense and feel the full pain of our stories, then moving forward as separate, differentiated adults. In doing this, we move through the world with an internal sense of security that helps us better withstand the natural hurts that life can bring.
Sharon Valentino, MA, ChT, CA LMFT, Psychotherapist, Behavioral Health
Calif. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, MFC51746
Masters Level Registered Addiction Specialist (MRAS) & Level IV Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor (CATC IV), Masters Counseling Psychology
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