Have you ever had a relationship where it felt like the two of you didn’t fit together well? Maybe you had different needs, expectations, communication styles, and ways of giving and receiving intimacy. It can be heartbreaking to be in a relationship that doesn’t mesh well. Many times relationships don’t work out for many reasons, but one aspect that most people don’t consider is their attachment style. When you’re in a relationship where your attachment styles don’t sync well, you might find yourself on a roller coaster of emotions, and start to think that there is something wrong with you.
Let’s back up: what is an attachment style, anyway?
Attachment theory was developed based on the idea that we form close emotional relationships with the people in our lives. One of the foundational ideas of attachment is that the early childhood years are critical for development. The experiences a child has with their caregiver (if they’re responsive to needs, if they are emotionally present, if they feel safe) can actually predict how well a child will do later in life. Everyone has an attachment style. Our attachment style is developed in childhood.
When you think about attachment, think about it as the way that you form relationships with people. There are three main attachment styles:
- Anxious-insecure (sometimes called preoccupied-insecure)
Some of the differences between different attachment styles are:
- How comfortable a person is with emotional intimacy
- How they deal with conflicts
- How comfortable they feel communicating about feelings
- The expectations they have for relationships
Let’s dive a little deeper on the differences between each style:
This style of attachment develops when a child understands that it can rely on its caregiver. Folks with this kind of attachment style tend to be healthier relationships than folks with insecure attachment. The key characteristic of this style is that there is trust and connection in these types of relationships.
When folks with secure attachment styles are kids, they feel a closeness to their caregiver. They are okay with being away from their caregiver, because they have learned that they will always come back.
This style of attachment tends to lead to longer and more trusting partnerships. As an adult, people with secure attachment are comfortable in relationships that give both parties freedom and support. They feel emotionally safe with their partners, because they’ve learned from experience that they can expect that. Securely attached folks also tend to have higher self-esteem than their insecurely attached peers.
Anxious attachment is one of the types of insecure attachment. It’s also sometimes called preoccupied or ambivalent attachment. The primary characteristic of this style is that the person received inconsistent care from their caregiver when they were a child. Anxiously attached children don’t have a reason to trust their caregiver. This lack of trust leaves them unsure if they can rely on them at all. They never learned what to expect, because there was no pattern or consistency in their relationships as a child. Their caregiver may have been loving toward them, but only when it was convenient for them. Children who grow up with a narcissistic parent often develop this attachment style.
As adults, people with an anxious attachment style may be desperate for emotional intimacy. They grew up unsure of how their caregiver would respond to them, so that uncertainty can show up in romantic relationships. Anxiously attached folks may have issues with trust, and may come off as jealous or clingy to their partners. They might worry that their partner doesn’t really love them or is looking for a reason to leave. They may also have a hard time communicating their needs to their partner, because they were never able to communicate their needs as children. Anxiously attached folks also may be overly aware of their partner, looking for reasons not to trust them or hyper-focusing on small details, which can be irritating to partners and push them away.
Avoidant-insecure attachment is another type of insecure attachment. Children who grew up with this attachment style learned early on that they couldn’t rely on their caregivers at all. These caregivers were not present emotionally and sometimes even physically. With this type of caregiver, children learn that it isn’t safe to talk about their wants and needs. Children who grow up abused or neglected often develop this attachment style. Children with this attachment style often avoid their caregivers altogether and usually don’t seem to prefer their caregivers over strangers.
As an adult, this attachment style can leave a person thinking that they can’t rely on anyone. Avoidantly attached people may have a fierce sense of independence since they grew up having to be their own caretaker. They may find it hard to ask for what they want or need in relationships. They may have a hard time trusting that anyone else can even meet their needs. Adults with this attachment style may be afraid to get close to anyone or fear intimacy in general. They may also have a hard time tuning into the needs of others, since they’ve been relying on themselves for so long.
How to move forward
Understanding our personal attachment style can help us strengthen our relationships. If you grew up with an insecure attachment to your caregiver, you might unconsciously seek out relationships that replicate that dynamic. When we understand where we might be vulnerable, we can make a plan to deal with it instead of being thrown off. If you’ve struggled in the past with relationships, learning more about your attachment style might help you in the future.
It’s also important to keep in mind that your attachment style doesn’t always stay the same over your lifetime. A lot can happen between childhood and adult relationships that can change your attachment style. Some children who grow up with insecure attachment can go on to be securely attached in romantic relationships as adults. While your experiences do play a role in what kind of attachment style you develop, so do your reactions to your experiences. If you have an insecure attachment style, that doesn’t mean you’re less likely to be happy in relationships, it just means you understand where you have trouble in relationships. When you understand where things can go wrong, you will be able to respond in a healthier way instead of falling apart.
If you’re looking for help understanding your attachment style to improve your relationships, talking to a therapist can help. Therapy can help you unpack what makes up your attachment style so you can move forward confidently in all of your relationships. Get in touch with us today to find a therapist who can help you take control of your life.
Carmen Riley is a trauma certified Licensed Professional Counselor. She is the owner of Zion Restoration Counseling Services, a group practice in Fairfax, Virginia that specializes in the treatment of identity development and relationship issues.