What's Your Attachment Style?
We all know the heady feeling of desire when we meet someone new and begin a relationship with them. It’s exciting and excruciating in equal measure! We find ourselves reading into what they say and do; we day dream about them and our potential future with them; and sometimes we find ourselves agonising over their behaviour…
If you recognise yourself in any of this, below is an idea that you might find interesting, and might explain a few things…
I would like to talk about your attachment style, and how it impacts your relationships; but only in the very briefest of ways. What I will outline below goes much deeper, and has an infinite number of variations depending on the individual, but I think it’s worth considering, even if we are only skimming the surface here.
When we are babies/very small children, we develop our ‘attachment style’. This will be as a result of your relationship with your primary caregiver (usually your mother, so I will continue to refer to your primary caregiver as such throughout). You will have developed an attachment style which is either anxious, avoidant or secure, depending on the way in which she responded to you.
So for example, if she left you to cry at nap time (a la Richard Ferber), and fed you every 4 hours, you may develop an anxious attachment style, because you couldn’t always rely on your needs being met (you cried, and mummy didn’t always come, but you weren’t sure, so you continued to cry in the hope that this time she would respond to you, which sometimes she did).
Alternatively, perhaps your mum was very busy with lots of other things, maybe older siblings, maybe work; or maybe she simply didn’t pay you much attention. In this case you may have developed an avoidant style of attachment. Basically, you became self-sufficient and didn’t ‘need’ anybody, because your needs were rarely met (you cried, mummy didn’t notice and attend to you, so you soothed yourself and eventually stopped bothering to cry).
If, however, your mum was attentive to your needs: she cuddled you when you cried, fed you when you were hungry and so on, and paid attention to you at other times, you will probably have developed a secure attachment style. Your needs were being met, and you felt safe in the knowledge that she could be relied upon.
Fast forward into adulthood and our attachment styles are now being played out in our romantic relationships; with people we now see as being important to us, maybe even people we love. Of course, other events have taken place that may have impacted you in the way you relate to people, but we’ll speak generally here.
Those adults with anxious attachment need constant reassurance from their partner at the start of the relationship. Things might be fine when you’re together, but as soon as your partner leaves you (even if only to go to work) you start to panic that they no longer love you or want to be with you. You feel the need to keep checking, so you ring or text, just to make sure. Now, this is ok if you are with a partner who is secure, because they will calmly reassure you and you can resume your day; but if your partner is an avoidant type, your needs may not be met.
Avoidant types value their independence and their space. They are happy to see you only once or twice a week, and give mixed messages. The thing is, avoidant people crave the closeness of a relationship, but it also feels very uncomfortable for them to be enmeshed with someone in that way. They will give mixed signals, because they may indeed love you, and tell you so, but every so often they need to escape and be on their own. This means they may say ‘when we live together…’ one week, and then be ‘too busy’ to see you or even return your calls the next. It feels very push/pull and can be confusing for anyone – but it is torturous for anxious attachment types.
If you are anxious, and you fall for someone who is avoidant, things can soon unravel. You ring them to check they are ‘still there’ and they don’t answer the phone because they are feeling smothered; you then worry that they no longer love you and are going to leave you, so you ring again. They then turn off their phone. You then get yourself into a state because they are ignoring you, which means they don’t love you, which means they are going to leave you, and then what will you do? They, on the other hand, do love you, but they are feeling overwhelmed and just need to step back for a bit.
The relationship between anxious/avoidant people rarely works in the long term. Neither one of them finds the others’ style of relating easy to work with.
In general, securely attached people can do well with either style, as they don’t tend to need constant reassurance, and they probably wouldn’t think too much about their calls not being answered (but of course, as with all things, there’s a limit!)
So, when you are starting out in a relationship, it would be good to have a think about what kind of attachment style you have, and if the person you are dating appears to have one that you feel would be a bad fit for you, it might be an idea to nip it in the bud sooner rather than later. I know that sounds a bit cut-throat, but consider the following scenario…
Maybe the person you have just started seeing says they will call you at 7pm and then don’t call until 11pm. Maybe they don’t respond to your texts for a couple of days, or they never text first. Maybe they make plans to see you and then cancel at the last minute. You get the idea. You are the anxious type, and you cannot cope with not knowing how they feel, why they don’t want to talk to you, or what they might be doing.
I think we can accept that these things may happen from time to time with good reason, but you need to be clear on how often you are able to tolerate the same treatment. So, you need to know your limits, set your boundaries and stick to them. Do not accept behaviour that is uncomfortable for you, because in the long run it won’t lead to anything but heartache.
You need to be sure about what you want the rest of your life to consist of. If you are an anxious type, do you want to spend your life with someone you can rely on? Who will be considerate of you? Who is consistent in the way they behave towards you? The person you are dating might be gorgeous, but if you aren’t compatible now, there’s a good chance you won’t be in 10 years’ time (and they may not be quite so gorgeous by then either).
If you have been willing to accept less that great in the past, don’t beat yourself up over it – move on – and choose to become the person who knows what you are looking for, where your boundaries lie, and then settle for nothing less. You deserve to be happy!
NB: I will reiterate that this is a simplistic overview of a complex idea. I have written it mainly from the viewpoint of an anxious attachment type personality as I felt it was representative of many of the people I have worked with, but I am in no way criticising the avoidant type. There is no judgement here! Everybody has their own style of relating and there’s usually a good reason for it.
If it is something that interests you, you might want to read: Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love. A. Levine and R. Heller