Have you ever wondered why you behave in certain ways within your romantic relationships? Do you find yourself becoming clingy and anxious as soon as you feel close to someone? Alternatively, do you tend to push people away as soon as they get too close? The answer to each of these questions is rooted in your attachment style, an emotional bond which develops as early as infancy.
How our primary caregivers, usually our parents, cared for us and responded to our needs taught us what we could expect from them and the world around us. For instance, if a child’s cries are met by a parent who is responsive, attentive and attuned to their needs, the child learns that their caregiver is dependable and that they can safely explore the world around them from their safe base. If, however, a baby is not responded to in a way that the child feels reassured and safe, or is consistently ignored, neglected or responded to insensitively, he may learn that his caregiver is not reliable and his needs will not be met. In response, he may react defensively by shutting down emotionally, and in later relationships finds it very difficult to form a healthy emotional bond with others.
It’s important to note that caregivers may respond to a child in a way which doesn’t meet the child’s security needs unintentionally. Some reasons for this may be depression, stress, adverse circumstances (e.g. poverty), mental health challenges, or attachment issues in parents.
There are 4 main attachment styles. These are:
People with an anxious attachment style tend to have a negative self-view and believe themselves to be less worthy of love than others. Once an attachment has been formed, those with an anxious attachment style may be constantly on edge, hyper-sensitive to any signs of rejection, and fearful that their partner will leave them. To ease their anxiety, they may become clingy and seek constant reassurance that their partner is attracted to them, loves them and will not leave them. Unfortunately, the calm which comes after the reassurance tends to be short-lived, with the anxious partner looking for ‘evidence’, or reassurance, of their partner’s love as soon as their anxiety is triggered once again.
Those with an avoidant attachment style were not given a start to life which equipped them to handle closeness and intimacy with ease. Such persons tend to have a positive view of themselves and devalue others, usually finding it very difficult to trust those around them. They tend to be highly self-reliant and will avoid having people depend on them, preferring autonomy over intimacy. If someone tries to get too close, they may withdraw, ‘disappear’, or stop answering messages or calls so as to create distance. This can be very confusing for anyone in a relationship with them, particularly since such persons may be very sociable and friendly, yet highly withdrawn when conversations or interactions turn deep or emotional.
This is the most uncommon of attachment styles, and the most complex. People with a disorganised attachment style tend to oscillate between the anxious and avoidant styles, depending on how they’re feeling and what may be going on in their life. They may crave closeness and intimacy, yet become extremely scared to trust and depend on others when the closeness is achieved. This attachment style normally develops in children who have experienced trauma or abuse, having grown up with caregivers who were chaotic, unpredictable and inconsistent. These children grow up to become adults who behave inconsistently in relationships themselves and are more susceptible to developing mental health issues.
Securely attached adults experienced a childhood where their primary caregivers were consistent, loving and attuned to their physical and emotional needs. This doesn’t mean that their parents were perfect. Rather, through meeting their child’s needs for reassurance and safety, yet allowing them the space to safely explore their surroundings, the child developed trust and confidence in those closest to them, and themselves.
Adults with a secure attachment feel comfortable forming and building close relationships with others and can move between dependency and independence with relative ease. Whilst they enjoy close relationships, they tend to feel equally whole on their own, therefore not relying on external validation or reassurance for self-worth. Adults with a secure attachment tend to be self-confident, as well as holding a positive view of others, developing trusting and honest relationships with those closest to them as a consequence.
After reading about the 4 attachment styles, you may have a good idea of where you fall within these 4 categories. It’s worth noting that attachment styles, whilst relatively consistent, may change over one’s lifespan. Also, the attachment style of your partner can have a significant impact on the way you feel and behave in the relationship. For instance, someone who is anxiously attached may feel very secure in a relationship with a securely attached partner, therefore experiencing minimal anxiety and fear. On the other hand, the pairing of someone anxiously attached with someone avoidant can be very problematic. In such a relationship, the anxiously attached partner would seek closeness in order to feel safe, thus triggering the avoidant partner’s discomfort with closeness, causing them to withdraw. Of course, this would exacerbate the anxious partner’s fear and distress, and the unhealthy cycle would continue.
For those of you who may want to understand more about your attachment style, and seek support and guidance to manage your relationships, I suggest contacting a mental health professional, such as a psychotherapist or counsellor.