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Are we defined or doomed by our attachment styles?

By Carol Graham, 22 January 2019

 

Did you know that our adult relationships may be heavily influenced by our upbringing? The way we attached to our primary caregivers in childhood and other life experiences as we grew, may have shaped how we attach romantically.

Have you noticed that some couples seem happier than others and are more able to work through their problems? Whilst others seem to run from one relationship to another, never really finding that happy ever after that they are searching for.  The reason for this is very likely to be rooted in attachment styles.

Attachment Theory, in psychology, is based on the belief that we are biologically wired to connect with others and form deep emotional bonds. It originates from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and through the development of this theory during 1960-1970’s three major attachment styles were identified;

  1. Secure,
  2. Avoidant; and
  3. Anxious/Ambivalent.

The primary caregivers of a securely attached child are attuned to their child’s needs and are consistently responsive to those needs. The child feels secure, and knows it has freedom to venture out and explore, safe in the knowledge that there is a secure, loving dependable base to return to.  This is replicated in adult relationships, when secure people attach, they are happy, friendly and are more trusting in their relationships.  They can have friends and interests of their own, independent to those of their romantic partner knowing that they have a secure, loving base to return to. When problems arise in their relationship, they are more likely to be able to talk about them with their partner and work through them.

A child may develop an avoidant attachment style when the primary caregivers are regularly distant, preoccupied, indifferent or absent. The child will quickly learn to fend for itself and not rely on others.  So, it is easy to see how this attachment style could later affect adult relationships. Avoidant types will find it uncomfortable forming close relationships, they may find it difficult to rely on others and could have trust issues resulting in a fear of intimacy and an unwillingness to commit wholeheartedly to their partner. When there are problems in the relationship, they cope by distancing themselves and will often choose the safer option of quitting and maintaining their independence, believing they would be better off on their own. Relationships with people of an avoidant attachment style are very often brief, and consequently, you will find many of these types in dating pool.

A child brought up by caregivers who are inconsistent; responsive one minute and not the next, may form an anxious attachment style. They wouldn’t know what to expect next. They may feel loved one minute and not the next. Did they do something wrong? Would their parents be there when they got home? A child living with this sort of inconsistency would become unsure and clingy.  As an adult, they would seek intimate relationships but would worry that others wouldn’t reciprocate their love or stay with them. They are likely to obsess about the relationship, constantly checking their phone in the hope that some contact has been made. They may become possessive and easily feel jealous.  The fear of abandonment would be strong, and their coping strategy would be rumination.

It is important to know that this theory was not brought about to be critical of parenting styles. Life events such as death in the family, divorce, financial problems, physical and mental health issues and the parents own attachment styles can all play critical roles in the child’s upbringing and their view and interaction with the world.

Research has shown us, that more than half of adults have a secure attachment style, with the other half split fairly equally between avoidant and anxious. However, more recent studies have indicated a decline in secure attachment styles and an increase in avoidant and anxious styles.

Studies have also shown a noticeable difference when it comes to gender. In avoidant and anxious attachment styles, there are more avoidant men than women and more anxious women than men.

So, are we defined or doomed by our attachment styles? No, not always. Just having an awareness of our style can be of great help when maneuvering our way through adult life. 

We can be more aware of the type of relationship we may be getting into when we are dating, if we better understand what types of behaviour to look out for in our potential partners. It may interest you to know that several studies have shown that avoidant individuals actually prefer anxiously attached people. Also, anxious women are more likely to date avoidant men.

If we recognise our own behaviours too, we can consciously navigate our way to healthier and happier connections. We can notice that sending countless texts in a day to help us feel connected to our partner may mean that we are anxious in our relationship. When we ignore our partners calls, determined to maintain our independence and remain a free spirit, despite the damage it may do to the relationship, we may very well be working in an avoidant attachment style.

These styles are continuous but not categorical. We may experience aspects of all of them at different times as life experiences change us. Our style can be altered at any stage in life; negative changes, such as separation or divorce, and positive influences such as a relationship with a securely attached partner.  We can also be aware of our own style and it’s typical behaviours and work actively to change it.

If you think your attachment style is getting in the way of a healthy, happy relationship, you may want to identify and explore your attachment tendencies within a safe, non-judgemental environment. Speak to me (you can also book a consultation online), or your local Psychotherapist, who can help you to understand and adjust your style of attaching, for better healthier and happier relationships.