Understanding Your Attachment Style: A Secret Key to Happiness
How many of us have seen one of our friends get their heart broken time and again by new partners who seem perfect and look like they want a deep relationship, only to pull away abruptly and make our friend feel once again like they are not good enough and that they got their hopes up? On the other hand, most of us have a friend who is generally in a happy relationship and does not seem to struggle between relationships to find new quality partners. Why is this so?
There are many theories as to why some people easily enter stable relationships while others seem to get stuck in patterns of finding partners that are never right for them, but the best explanation that I have found is based on attachment styles. By discovering your attachment style and the attachment style of those you date, not to mention your two friends in the example above, it will help you to understand dating patterns and empower you to enter new relationships armed with a deeper knowledge of signals that tell you what type of attachment style any person has.
The Birth of Your Attachment Style
Attachment theory posits that children who have insecure relationships to their primary caregivers may go on to have insecure attachments and relationships throughout their lives. Children are like metaphoric sponges – quick to learn and constantly developing new skills. Their brains and bodies are rapidly growing as they turn into adults, giving humans an evolutionary strength that allows us access to a wealth of knowledge, information, and memories. The downside of being a metaphorical sponge is that you soak up the good, as well as the not so good and even the bad.
Attachment styles are formed in early childhood from 10 to 24 months of age based on the quality and consistency of the love and attention a child gets from its primary caregivers. At this age, a child is quite helpless in the world and dependent on others. Should the mother or father or other primary caretaker ignore the child’s needs, never smile, yell at the child instead of comforting them, or should the parents often scream or use drugs or engage in abusive behavior, the child will likely grow up with a disordered attachment style. That style can manifest in one of three types of insecure attachment that we will now look at, as compared to one type of secure attachment style that develops from a stable and secure relationship between child and caregiver.
Attachment Styles: Secure or Insecure
First some good news: about 60% of the population in the world is secure. The friend in the example above who usually finds herself in stable relationships is likely a secure attachment style. The rest is divided between about 15% anxious, 20% avoidant, and 5% disorganized.
INSECURE ATTACHMENT STYLES
Preoccupied – Anxious attachment types, as in the example of the friend who always finds herself dating partners who pull away, deeply crave an emotionally intimate and close relationship. They want to be close to someone and they often feel empty when they’re alone. They may be drawn to avoidant or disorganized attachment types rather than secure types in order to experience the ‘thrill’ of trying to get love from someone that does not meet their needs, i.e. repeating their childhood pattern. If their new partner does not call for two days, this could ‘trigger them’ and make them afraid that they will soon lose them and cause them to send a barrage of messages to the partner to ask “if everything is OK.”
Dismissive – Avoidant attachment types, as the partner pulling away in the example at the beginning, do often also wish to be close to someone but find that every time they meet a partner who wants to be emotionally close to them, they become inadvertently put off. Their feelings for a new partner may seem to shut off overnight as they feel like they are being suffocated and that they need space. They do not know why this happens but it tends to happen repeatedly. They also tend to be drawn towards anxious attachment styles.
Disorganized attachment types are a mixture of anxious and avoidant and usually develop in children who have faced extreme situations of abuse or neglect. They want, like all types, deep inside to be close to someone but they pull away from those who would like to get closer to them, only to try and win those same ones back once they pull away. They’re masters of push-pull, not because they want to be, but because they are trapped in replaying their childhood attachment trauma. They may also have personality disorders such as narcissism or borderline personality disorder.
SECURE ATTACHMENT STYLES
Secure attachment styles are good at setting boundaries, have healthy self-esteem, are trusting, are able to meet their own needs, and are not seeking a partner to fix a childhood trauma, and hence they tend to make stable partners. Keep in mind some more balanced anxious and avoidant types may not just be one attachment style but a mixture, for example, anxious-secure or avoidant-secure. Secure attachment styles can date any of the other attachment types and in general, if you are not primarily secure, this is the type you should seek to date.
Take a free Attachment Style Quiz to discover your attachment style and get a personalized report.
How the Parent-Child Relationship Effects Attachment Style
An interesting fact discovered in the “Strange Experiment” Study by Mary Ainsworth published in 1970 investigating children’s attachment styles, is that both anxious and avoidant insecure attachment styles (disorganized was discovered later) are distressed by not having solid relationships with their parents. The experiment was based on having a parent leave a child to play alone in a room, where an unknown woman later enters, before the mother returns. The children were monitored as were their stress levels during the test.
The anxious type handled the distress by becoming upset and seeking attention from the parents, while the avoidant type handled it by being nonreactive and ignoring the parent. Attachment type can change between infancy and adulthood through positive relationships so just because you had a difficult childhood does not mean you have an insecure attachment style.
How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationships
Let’s look at a modern-day example of a relationship, Jim and Gina. They have been dating for 6 weeks and it is going quite well by both accounts. Suddenly Jim gets moody after a night at the movies and tells Gina he wants to go home alone. She is hurt. Did she do something wrong? She tries asking him what is wrong but he remains silent and seems irritated by her questions. She goes home in tears and he begins pulling away soon after this, ending their relationship two weeks later. What just happened here?
Jim & Gina’s Attachment Styles
As a baby, Jim’s father had abandoned his mother, who was very loving towards him when she was there. His mother always had new boyfriends and neglected to care for him when they were around. Although she was always kind to him and loved him, sometimes she left him alone for hours to spend time with her boyfriends and no one was there to feed him, hold him when he cried, or change his diapers. He developed avoidant attachment.
Gina’s parents smothered her with love, she was their long-hoped-for baby. But her mother was very moody and would sometimes snap at Gina when she was a crying baby, only to apologize and be sweet to her. Sometimes her parents would argue about her mother’s moodiness and Gina could sense their distress. Her father loved her but he never seemed to stand up for her against her mother. She developed an anxious attachment style.
What Went Wrong?
Flash forward 30 years and that crying baby Jim who was not given consistent love and care eventually rejects every woman he dates after two months when she tries to give him love. He finds different reasons for it and rationalizes it, not realizing the root is his childhood. His attachment style screams “love is not safe, if she gets too close, pull away or you will get hurt!” At the same time, the woman he is pulling away from, Gina here, is having her attachment style triggered because she also got inconsistent love, only instead of screaming “love is not safe, get away now” her disordered attachment is screaming, “please love me, say I’m good enough and don’t leave me.” She is deeply saddened that he is seemingly rejecting her and cannot understand why.
To Wrap It Up
You can see this equation play out all over the dating world, and sometimes the man and woman reverse roles as both women and men can be anxious or avoidant. Many dating apps are heavily populated with anxious, avoidant and disorganized attachment types, continuously being drawn in cycles towards one another. Attachment disturbance expert Paula Sacks explained to me in an interview on my podcast why this is the case. Unless one or both of these people change their attachment style or find a different partner, happiness is probably not going to come from this pattern.
Understanding your attachment style can help you understand the emotional and inner catalysts behind your dating patterns and assist you to identify if you are seeking to heal an old wound through new partners. Sometimes seeing your pattern is enough to change it, while in other cases different types of treatment such as attachment therapy may be recommended in order to support the healing process.
Words by Caitlin Arnould, Host of the Beauty Is Eternal podcast.
Brown, D. P., Elliott, D. S., & Morgan-Johnson, P. (2016). Attachment disturbances in adults: treatment for comprehensive repair. New York ; London: W.W. Norton et Company.
Levine, A. (2012). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love. Tarcherperigee.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49. doi: 10.2307/1127388
Moullin, Sophie, Jane Waldfogel, and Elizabeth Washbrook. 2014. Baby Bonds: Parenting, attachment and a secure base for children. London: The Sutton Trust.