Attachment Styles

Four basic attachment styles determine the role you play in romance

Do you cling to your partner, and take responsibility for their every happy or sad moment?  Do you keep your partner at arm’s length, knowing that they may be gone forever any time now?  Do you look at friends’ relationships and feel envious of how confident they are in each other?  Do you say “all of the above” and expect more pain than fulfillment from any relationship?

Psychologists studying patterns in adult relationships have identified child-rearing practices that help explain how we relate as adults to others in our lives.  Children who were raised with adult caregivers who paid attention to their needs and gave them comfort and reassurance when needed grew up secure and able to form healthy relationships with others as they gradually moved through childhood, adolescence and on to adulthood.  Children who experienced distance, high demands or emotional inconsistence in their care may have difficulty in learning to form secure, fulfilling adult relationships, a problem that can manifest especially in romantic partnerships.

The good news is, we can all learn these skills, even if we didn’t get them in childhood.  Adults can come to understand how their own attachment style was formed in their own childhood circumstances and gain the insight and confidence needed to grow into a secure attachment style.

Besides “secure” attachment, there are three attachment styles that may result in difficulties in adult relationships, romantic partnerships and parenting.

Avoidant attachment.  This style develops when a child’s significant adults keep them at “arm’s length”, expecting them to become independent quickly or requiring adherence to strict standards.  Such a parenting style may result from the parents’ own childhood experience, or it may stem from a belief that it is important to foster independent and disciplined behavior in children.  However, if a corresponding emphasis on emotional support and development is lacking, the child may grow to expect that other people cannot be relied upon for nurture and, in adulthood, may be reluctant to develop emotionally or physically intimate relationships.

Anxious attachment.   When a child’s caregivers appear inconsistent, sometimes close and sometimes distance, the child learns that it is hard (or impossible) to predict what people will do, and may develop a low self-esteem, or feel unworthy of love.  Parents who may at one point be almost overwhelming in their expressions of love and concern may at another time be themselves overwhelmed and unable to give the emotional support their child needs.  Such children may internalize the lesson that they are responsible for other people’s happiness or sadness, may be over-sensitive to criticism or have a fear of rejection.  They are at risk of developing codependency in their adult relationships.

Disorganized attachment. This attachment style most often develops in a traumatic or abusive childhood and is characterized by high anxiety, difficulty in trusting, inability to regulate emotions, and behavior that may show signs of both avoidant and anxious attachment styles.  Persons with disorganized attachment may desperately seek love, but fear it at the same time.  They assume that others’ behavior will be unpredictable and anxiety-inducing and their own behavior can be extremely unpredictable, sometimes clingy and at other times pushing the partner away in apparent anger or fear.

Simply beginning to learn about attachment theory and the attachment styles can be a healing process.  Going through the signs and behavioral manifestations with a loving partner can help you both gain an understanding of what’s happening and why.  A fuller exploration of one’s own situation may require professional help if the attachment styles are truly disordered, but over time, new patterns of thinking can emerge, emotional regulation can improve and self-awareness can enable healing and growth.