If you are not getting the relationship outcomes you want, there may be one thing that’s getting in your way of happily ever after. Your attachment style. Our attachment system is a mechanism in our brain responsible for tracking and monitoring the safety and availability of our attachment figures. Many attachment theorists believe that by the age of five, we develop a primary attachment style that will more or less define the way we emotionally bond and attach to others in our adult lives. There are three primary attachment styles: secure, avoidant and anxious. If you don’t know your attachment style, here is a quiz to find out.
About half the population falls in the secure attachment style category, meaning they are comfortable with intimacy, but are not codependent. Secures do not define their identity or self-esteem on their lover’s reinforcement. They don’t have great abandonment issues, and can give and receive care comfortably.
Secures do not define their identity or self-esteem on their lover’s reinforcement.
Theory is that a secure attachment style develops during infancy, if his/her parents are sensitive and responsive to his/her needs. Such a child will learn that he can rely on his parents, confident they will be available to him whenever he needs them. This confidence is carried into adulthood and future relationships with adult partners. There are also some researchers who claim that people are genetically predisposed towards a certain attachment style (specific pattern of dopamine receptor DRD2 allele is associated to anxious, variant of serotonin 5-HT1A linked to avoidance).
Research shows that the best predictor of happiness in a relationship is a secure attachment style. Secures aren’t as sensitive to the negative cues of the world and can keep an emotional keel in the face of threat a lot more effortlessly than insecures. During a fight they don’t feel the need to act defensively or punish their partner. Also, secures are not threatened by criticism, and are willing to reconsider their ways and if necessary revise their beliefs and strategies.
How can secures support an anxious/avoidant partner?
- Understand partner’s attachment style and triggers. When partner’s attachment system is activated, their behavior no longer will be baffling and complex, but rather predictable under the circumstances.
- If you are dating a person with an anxious attachment style – reassurance is important. Understand that the anxious person feels threatened, their nervous system will be activated and they cannot calm down until they receive reassurance that the relationship is safe. This could be as simple as giving the person a hug, telling them that everything is going to be okay, and empathizing with their feelings.
- For avoidants – do activities that ‘distract’ them from their own negative thoughts – sports, hikes, cooking – activities that help the avoidant let their guard down and be vulnerable. This will help with bonding as the avoidant won’t be in their head about keeping a distance.
- Take leadership in setting the tone for effective, mature communication. Diffuse partner by empathizing, not being defensive and responding versus reacting to their protest behavior or deactivating strategies
Those with an anxious attachment style crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationship, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back. They have an inherent fear of rejection and abandonment. Studies show that people with an anxious attachment style are more sensitive and quicker to perceive offset emotions – a unique ability to sense when their relationship is being threatened. Even a slight hint that something is wrong (trigger) will activate their attachment system, and once activated they are unable to calm down until they get a clear indication from their partner that the relationship is safe.
“Don’t let emotional unavailability turn you on.”
Anxious types are drawn to avoidants. They often equate an activated attachment system to love, and falsely associate people who have a calm attachment system with boredom, indifference or a ‘lack of chemistry’. But in reality, they are unconsciously addicted to the highs and lows of being with someone who keeps them guessing all the time.
What can anxious attachment style people do to have healthier relationships?
- Be honest about your needs for intimacy, availability and security in a relationship instead of being ashamed and guilty for having such needs. These needs are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, – they are simply your needs. Use this knowledge about yourself when assessing people you date on the basis of their ability to meet those needs.
- Recognize and rule out avoidant prospects early on, stop engaging thinking they will change.
- Don’t dismiss secure types as ‘boring’. Don’t let emotional unavailability turn you on.
Avoidants equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness. They idealize self sufficiency and look down on dependency. Studies show that avoidants are quick to think negatively about their partners, seeing them as needy and overly dependent. They tend to feel deep-rooted aloneness, even when in a relationship. When someone gets too close, they turn to deactivating strategies – tactics used to squelch intimacy, such as thinking/saying ‘I’m not ready to commit’, focusing on small imperfections in their partner, pulling away when things are going well, forming relationships with an impossible future or waiting for the perfect “one”.
Avoidants have built a defensive stance and subconsciously suppress their attachment system.
Avoidants have built a defensive stance and subconsciously suppress their attachment system. They tend to end their relationships more frequently, and also divorce more.
What can people with an avoidant attachment style do to have healthier relationships?
- Identify your triggers and deactivating strategies. Don’t act on your impulse. When you’re excited about someone but suddenly have a ‘gut feeling’ he/she isn’t right for you, stop and think. Ask yourself if all those small imperfections you are noticing are actually your attachment system’s way of making you step back?
- Find a secure partner – someone with an anxious attachment style will exacerbate your avoidance.
- Recognize your tendency to misinterpret behaviors and remind yourself that you chose to be together, and you’re better off trusting that your partner has your best intentions.
- Make a relationship gratitude list – remind yourself on a daily basis that your tendency to think negatively about your partner is simply part of your makeup if you have an avoidant attachment style. Think back to the events of the day, list at least one way your partner contributed to your well being and why you’re grateful they’re in your life.
- Stop searching for the unicorn, the ‘one’. Don’t wait until ‘the one’ who fits your checklist shows up and expect everything to fall in place. Instead, choose someone who has similar values, interests and life vision and the fundamentals of a healthy partner and make them into ‘the one’.
If you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, don’t fret, this doesn’t mean you can’t become more secure. While 75% of adults remain consistently in the same attachment category at different points in their lives, 25% of population do report a change in their attachment style. Becoming more secure in the way you emotionally bond with others is possible. The first step is to identify your attachment style, and observe what your triggers are. The next step is to examine how you react when triggered and then create methods to stop that habitual reaction in its tracks.
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