Against the bedrock of our personality, much of our day-to-day emotional landscape is carved and shaped by the different streams of our interpersonal relationships—be that with our parents, within marriage, business partnerships, family, or friendships.
Do you ever feel anxious and insecure about a friend or a date not texting back immediately after you have reached out to them? Or do you feel suffocated by a family member who seems to need your attention all too often for your taste? Do you think that in some of your relationships you give more than you receive, and as a result you feel down and depressed?
By contrast, do you experience comfort and safety when you come home after a difficult day and can sink into the embrace of your significant other? For me, sharing breakfast and conversation with my husband makes me feel not only loved, connected and secure, but also centered and ready to tackle whatever the day may throw at me. Still, I do require my “alone time” in order to be able to give back to our relationship. When on weekday mornings I hand my husband his lunch bag and usher him out the door with a kiss – looking forward to some peace and quiet to think and write – my husband often jokes: “Aha, business hours are over!”
The way we operate within and feel about our relationships is very much determined by our individual attachment styles. It was the psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby who in the 1960s and 1970s established attachment theory based on their observation of interactions between children and their caregivers (in the theory’s terms, the “attachment figure”). Because our very first experiences influence how we conduct (both romantic and platonic) relationships later in life, this theory was then also extended to adults, with friends and partners taking the role of the attachment figure.
As a result of their research, Ainsworth and Bowlby identified four different styles of attachment:
Persons who grow up with a loving, responsive and emotionally available caregiver become adults who hold a positive view of themselves and of their relationships. They are not overly anxious, and they can feel happy in emotionally close relationships, as well as when they are alone.
Persons who grow up with emotionally unavailable and unresponsive caregivers are most likely to develop this attachment style; they hold a negative view of themselves, but a positive view of others. They are often extremely dependent; they want to be emotionally close, constantly seek approval and reassurance, and worry about what the attachment figure thinks.
Such persons hold a positive view of themselves, but a negative view of others. Consequently, they feel fine without close relationships and place great value on their independence. They tend to hide and/or suppress their feelings and avoid intimacy.
Persons who experience loss, trauma and abuse in their childhood and/or adolescence often develop this attachment style, based on unstable, confused views of themselves and others. On one hand, they want to experience an emotional bond, but on the other hand they are uncomfortable with intimacy and dependence, and they often mistrust the attachment figure’s intentions.
It goes without saying that developing and maintaining a relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment style – that is, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, or fearful-avoidant – can be challenging at best and impossible at worst. Some unhealthy relationship dynamics, such as those between an anxious-preoccupied and a dismissive-avoidant person, can cause much misery and even lead to clinical anxiety and depression. In contrast, healthy relationship dynamics, such as those between two securely attached persons, can make you feel safe and relaxed and enrich your life beyond measure. It is therefore important to understand your own attachment style, as well as the attachment styles of your loved ones, so that you can more easily identify and communicate emotional needs between you.
What if you want or need to maintain a relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment style? The good news is that attachment styles can be changed: If you know about your vulnerabilities, you will be able to work on them with a therapist, and you will also find it easier to self-regulate your emotions. If you have an attachment figure or partner who consistently responds to you in exactly the way you need in order to feel supported and loved, you will learn how to feel secure in that relationship.
And maybe most important, because this lies within your own hands: If you take better care of yourself – by attending to your nutritional needs, working out, and spending time with people and activities you enjoy – you will feel less anxious and fearful to begin with.
- Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love (New York: TarcherPerigree, 2012)
- Chris Fraley, “Adult Attachment Theory and Research: A Brief Overview,” http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
- Saul McLeod, “Attachment Theory,” https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
- Berit Brogaard, “How to Change Your Attachment Style,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-change-your-attachment-style