Adult attachment theory includes patterns of emotional attraction (related article: “Patterns in Love Relationships“), as well as immature emotions or age regression (“Emotional Maturity“), joining them into a systematic overview of several most common approaches to love relationships. The basic idea is that the way parents treat a small child greatly influences the way the child (and later the adult) perceives emotional intimacy, and what they learn to expect from close relationships.
The theory itself is not something new – I’ve already written a lot on the topic of immature parents and how they influence their children’s adult relationships – but this kind of systemic approach brings another level of insight.
There are 4 basic attachment styles, and 3 of them can turn into attachment disorders if emotions are strong enough (especially if combined with low-quality life values):
Most sources I found dedicated only a few sentences to the secure attachment style, probably presuming that it’s self-explanatory (an interesting idea, said one of my clients). So here is my perspective of the secure style:
– People with secure attachment style are relaxed about emotional intimacy and perceive it as promising and pleasant, rather than threatening. They naturally expect intimacy to be based on good intentions and mutuality, and to have nothing to do with manipulation and control.
– They perceive themselves as worthy of love, so they are not likely to have intense fear of abandonment. They feel that, even if they were abandoned, their self-image is not dependent of somebody else’s choices. That’s why they are generally not needy or codependent.
– They perceive their partners as unique human beings, rather than through various prejudice, projections and transference.
– Yet, they don’t put their partner on a pedestal and, while they wouldn’t like losing their partner, they know if it happened there are other people in the world who might make great partners.
– They are able to find balance between their own and their partner’s needs, between giving and receiving.
– They are willing to see both perspectives in a conflict, and to adjust their own if necessary.
– They perceive the possibility of being hurt or disappointed in a relationship as an acceptable risk, because they are not afraid that a breakup would damage their relationship with themselves. In case of a breakup, they grieve, but they are able to support themselves emotionally through the process of grieving.
– Emotional vulnerability within a relationship can be mildly uncomfortable, but not frightening.
– They are able to distinguish between adult and immature emotions and behaviors, whether their own, or of other people.
– They have a certain amount of understanding and tolerance for their partners’ small faults, unintentional lapses and mistakes, because they don’t take them personally and they presume good intentions. However, they are able to set boundaries or end a relationship, if they decide it’s not healthy or they don’t share important life values with their partners (check also: “Setting Boundaries“).
In short, people with secure attachment style have a positive attitude toward emotional intimacy, they are relaxed in giving and receiving love, but they also retain their own identity. If they feel their boundaries are threatened, they try to find balance and discuss the problem respectfully. They don’t feel a need to control their partners, but they seek cooperation.
Such people usually had fairly healthy relationships with parents, at least in the first few years of their lives – meaning, parents were able to recognize and respond to the baby’s needs. Even if later in their childhoods the relationship with parents worsened, or parents used some unhealthy child-rearing strategies, the early experience of safe closeness stays imprinted in their subconscious minds.
Of course, these categories are never simple and “clean”, there is no clear boundary between them, so people with primary secure attachment style can express aspects of other attachment styles, too, depending of specific influences in their early environments, and of the behavior of their current partners. For example, in a relationship with a person with an anxious attachment style, who infringes on their boundaries too much, they might start showing some behaviors more typical for the dismissive-avoidant style.
All other attachment styles include some (conscious or unconscious) unpleasant expectations of emotional intimacy, as well as more or less need for control over one’s partner. Such people often develop certain compensatory roles and games (or learn them from their parents), which reduces their authenticity in communication. This often creates circumstances in which the negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can create a vicious circle of disappointment. In worse cases, such attitudes become attachment disorders, not just mildly problematic habits.
The core cause of insecure attachment styles, and especially attachment disorders, are inadequate responses of parents to a child’s needs. This includes not only neglect and violence, but also intrusiveness and unhealthy bonding, such as emotional incest (check this article) or too much control (Parenthood, Control and Guilt) over a child. People with avoidant attachment styles in particular are not only not likely to have received adequate support and care, but they often had to support their own parents in some ways, sacrificing themselves in the process.
Anxious-preoccupied attachment style
If you hear of somebody referred to as a “doormat”, they probably have the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. These people tend to value a love relationship over most other life values, sometimes even over their own identity, even when a relationship is toxic. To keep a relationship, they can often disregard their own boundaries doing what is expected of them – or what they think is expected of them. They need continuous reassurance that they are accepted and worthy of love.
People with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style are very sensitive to even small changes in a partner’s mood and behavior. They can easily overreact to such signals, finding in them proofs that their partners don’t love them enough or are not pleased with them. Trying to avoid insecurity and to assuage their fears of losing a relationship, they can make continuous, sometimes excessive requests that their partners reaffirm their love for them. This, combined with their need to please, might make their partners feel that their boundaries are under attack. Or, such people can allow their partners to control and manipulate them.
In a more extreme version, they can play a victim role, using manipulation, passive aggression and emotional blackmail (related article: “How To Recognize Emotional Blackmail“). In an even worse extreme, they can become pathologically jealous.
You can easily guess such a person has probably been neglected by their parents, or – perhaps even worse – their parents were unpredictable and inconsistent. Such a child feels that no matter how hard they try, it’s never enough. To protect themselves from the feeling they cannot rely on their parents, they take the blame upon themselves (unconsciously, of course) and their self-image becomes very negative. Their innate temperament is usually quite empathetic and cooperative.
In a relationship, they have a strong unconscious need to reaffirm their worth, resolve suppressed painful emotions, and gain (earn?) the approval they didn’t receive from their parents. Usually, it’s one of the avoidant types that provides such a challenge and “helps” them reenact the atmosphere from their childhoods. This can end up in toxic and painful codependency. Even if they are abused, their emotional needs from childhood might keep them in a relationship for a long time.
Anxious-avoidant attachment style
Anxious-avoidant attachment style is defined by an ongoing internal conflict: similar emotional needs, fears and low self-esteem as the anxious-preoccupied style on one hand, and fear of vulnerability and intimacy (often disguised as anger) on the other hand. In short, this is quite a tumultuous hybrid between the anxious-preoccupied style above and the dismissive-avoidant style below. A relationship with such a person can be particularly turbulent (and some people are attracted to such turbulence).
Just like with other types of chronic internal conflict, as soon as one side of the conflict is assuaged, the other builds up. In this case, as soon as the need for closeness is somewhat fulfilled, the need to sabotage the relationship to avoid intimacy takes over, and the other way around. Such people often “make mountains out of molehills”, create unpleasant scenarios in their heads and then act as if they were true. Their fears of disappointment or being abused prevent them from calming down and seeing other possibilities. They might oscillate between blaming and demeaning themselves, then their partners, and so on in cycles.
Their early family relationships were usually full of various types of neglect and/or abuse. The child probably experienced ongoing disappointment, hurt and abandonment (physical or emotional). Similarly like with the previous type, unstable and unpredictable parents can be particularly detrimental, making children feel that they can never relax and feel safe. Again, this type of person has a great need for external approval and proofs of love, but few if any such proofs have a lasting effect because of the deeply ingrained negative self-image.
Dismissive-avoidant attachment style
Early family environment was also unhealthy, but in such a way that a child created an unconscious perception of intimacy as dangerous, suffocating and a threat to one’s own identity and freedom. Such people have as children unconsciously chosen the other extreme compared to the anxious-preoccupied style: they decided they don’t need close relationships, they are emotionally independent, and intimacy should be avoided. The innate temperament of these type of people often leans more toward the instinct for power, especially compared to the anxious-preoccupied attachment style (although this is hardly the most important factor), and often they follow a family role model of similar behavior.
As a support (or the cause) of the decision to avoid intimacy, this type of people usually develop a scornful, critical attitude toward people who they perceive as a threat to their emotional detachment and autonomy, i.e. their (potential) partners. They mistrust others and expect bad intentions from others. They feel a need to protect themselves from pain and disappointment by avoiding and dismissing emotions in general, so they can become very logical at the expense of their emotional intelligence and maturity. They keep their guard up, guided by the idea, “I’ll abandon you before you abandon me”.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the dismissive-avoidant type avoids romance, especially if their libido is high, but they will find ways to keep their partners at a distance, not only externally, but also within their own minds. In milder cases, there can be a more or less subtle need to (mentally) criticize the partner, avoiding clarifying emotions, unreliability, discomfort with giving and receiving emotional (or other) support; they might be workoholic or use various other activities that decrease the chance for spending intimate time together. In more difficult cases, this can manifest as “blowing hot and cold”, promiscuity or verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse.
This type of people like to have power and control over their partners (and sometimes other people, too), because otherwise they are afraid of being controlled by others. That’s why they often choose partners with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. To control their partners, they can use various forms of manipulations, including trying to decrease their partners’ self-esteem.
In a milder version, people with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style can be fairly warm and emotional inside, even shy and quiet, but they might encounter unexpected and unwanted emotional blocks when faced with a chance for emotional intimacy with someone. Such blocks can manifest in subtle ways, such as overly high criteria when choosing partners, suspiciousness and questioning the future of a promising relationship, overreacting to a partner’s faults, unrealistic fears, falling in love with unavailable people and/or fantasizing about an ideal “soulmate” partner (sometimes that includes idealizing a love interest from their past).
To avoid unwanted contact with unpleasant family members, these people often quite early develop a cold, “closed” facial expression and body language. When they grow up, they might not even be aware of this, and might be confused why other people avoid close contact with them, while their partners complain about their emotional unavailability.
Just like other attachment styles/disorders, it’s important to understand that all these defenses were developed as survival strategies, and do not represent true identity and true emotional needs of these people. A person with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style might suffer just as much as anybody else after losing a relationship – sometimes more, as they might don’t have a network of friends for emotional support – but they will often suppress and deny their suffering, and dismiss their own emotional needs.
Attachment styles and parenthood
All the attachment styles (and attachment disorders in some cases) described on the previous page are not only active in a relationship with a partner, but in other close relationships too, such as with one’s own children. I wrote something in that line of thought in the article The Basic Fissure in a Personality.
A parent with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style can invade their child’s identity and boundaries, and can thus trigger the development of the dismissive-avoidant style in the child. A dismissive-avoidant parent can result in the child developing the anxious-preoccupied attachment. It’s also possible for a child to model a parent (often the same gender parent, but not always) and develop a similar attachment style as the parent.
In a milder version, an unhealthy parental attachment style only activates when the child is big enough to disobey parents and fight for their own autonomy, or when a parent decides the child doesn’t really meet their expectations. This usually means that in the first year or two of the child’s life at least, parents were responding to the child’s needs so the child had a chance to experience safe emotional bonding. If there are problems among parents, it’s important how old is the child when they start to manifest, too.
In a worse case, a child is exposed to neglect, ambivalence or even abuse by parents from very early days, probably including a turbulent relationship among parents. Such a child has much less chance to experience the feeling of safe bonding, so it can be expected they’ll grow up perceiving their negative expectations of intimacy as normal, obvious and instinctive (related article: “Fear of Intimacy“). If there are other family members who step in providing consistent love, for example grandparents, these problems can be somewhat mitigated, but not all children have such sources of support.
Can I change my attachment style?
Yes… if you truly acknowledge your problems, take responsibility and are willing to invest time and effort into the change. People who do so are usually among milder cases and have had some chance to develop some inner resources and alleviate disappointments, so they can look at their behavior more objectively and empathize with their partners.
People who avoid responsibility or who seek external, instant solutions are not likely to change their attachment style. They might try for a while, if an important relationship is threatened, but they usually quickly give up.
– First, practice connecting to your own emotions (related: “Observing Feelings“). To be able to change your emotional reactions, you need to be able to recognize where they come from, what was the original cause, and separate your past from reality. That’s something you cannot do if you have a habit of avoiding your own emotions. While learning to accept your feelings, you also learn to…
– be supportive of yourself. If you don’t know how to support yourself through emotional pain and disappointment, you are much more likely to be afraid of those feelings and avoid the risk of experiencing them. Whenever we open up to another person, we risk being rejected and disappointed, but we also have a chance to experience love and acceptance. If you are not willing to risk the former, you are not likely to experience the latter. To be willing to take that risk, you need to trust yourself that you are able to deal with pain (check the article: “Are You Willing to Face Pain?“). To be able to do that, you also need to …
– develop healthy self-esteem. This doesn’t mean having to be something special; one of the best description of self-esteem came from a girl who said: “I’m totally fine with just being a human being among other humans, I have no need to set myself apart!” (This doesn’t mean losing initiative and ambition, as some might misinterpret it, but finding your motivation in your own pleasure of doing something, rather than comparing yourself to others.) Self-esteem means you perceive your mistakes and faults as learning opportunities and you look forward to doing better in the future, rather than seeing them as something that labels you forever. (Related article: “What is Self-esteem?“)
– Learn to acknowledge your partner’s perspective. (This is primarily meant for the avoidants’ ears – or eyes, in this case; the anxious-preoccupied usually do too much of this.) This means, try to perceive positive intentions in your partner’s behavior (this does NOT include justifying abuse, of course), if you are usually prone to criticism and creating unpleasant stories in your mind.
For example, if your partner doesn’t respond to your phone calls for a while, consider what else might have prevented them besides “he/she doesn’t care enough about me!” If your partner is criticizing you, perhaps they want to negotiate how to improve your relationship rather than suffocate and control you? If something about your partner’s behavior is disappointing, it might not be because they are not “right” for you, but simply because people are different and nobody’s perfect? In other words,
– try not to take things personally. Of course, within reasonable limits. However, if some unpleasant behavior is significant or repetitive, you’ll need to…
– learn to set boundaries in constructive ways (check: “Setting Boundaries“). A common reason why people isolate themselves from others, or are too judgmental of others, is being afraid of not being able (or not being allowed) to set boundaries and protect ourselves.
Of course, once you start learning to set boundaries, some people might try to discourage you for various (usually selfish) reasons. Developing self-esteem and being supportive of yourself, as described above, can help you greatly when learning to deal with such people too.
The more you feel you are able to set boundaries, the more you can relax around other people in general, because you save your defenses for when they are actually needed.
– Try to find a partner with the secure attachment style. Such people tend to be healthier and more balanced in a relationship, so they are less likely to trigger your fears and defenses. Besides, “secure” people can have more patience while you work towards changing your attachment problems (under condition that you really invest effort and take responsibility for your issues), and would be able to give you more space and time without feeling threatened.
– Practice deep (but responsible) honesty with your partner.. For example: “Right now I feel the need to be alone, it has nothing to do with you but it would help if I could spend some time by myself”. Or, “I’m upset at the moment and I feel threatened, but this is probably related to my past experience, not you.” If you can calmly and without accusations explain to your partner what is going on in your head, they are less likely to create their own (unpleasant) scenarios.
– Slowly get used to taking emotional risks. When you were learning to swim, you might have been afraid at first, you might have involuntarily drunk some water, but you learned to relax and enjoy it with time. When you started a new job, you probably felt uncomfortable and wondered what might go wrong, but you persisted because it was important to you. Whatever risk you took in life, you were likely somewhat afraid, but you decided it was worth the effort and you’d deal with whatever happens, one way or the other. Apply the same attitude to emotional intimacy.
Perhaps you feel discomfort in your body or unpleasant images come to your mind? Acknowledge them, but do not give them power. Take a breath and dive in. Accept the idea that you don’t and cannot control everything, but you can deal with possible problems as they appear. You’ll probably learn to enjoy and have fun, just like playing in waves. And if you’ll need additional help, we are one email away.