July 29, 2015

How Attachment Styles Influence Your Relationships

According to international expert on relationships, Lisa Firestone, PhD (2013), founder and director of the Glendone Association since 1987, most people behave in relationships according to their attachment style. This is how:

Secure Attachment

Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. Children with a secure attachment see their parent as a secure base from which they can venture out and independently explore the world. A secure adult has a similar relationship with their romantic partner, feeling secure and connected, while allowing themselves and their partner to move freely.

Secure adults offer support when their partner feels distressed. They also go to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling both independent and loving.

Anxious Attachment

Unlike securely attached couples, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond. Instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger. They are frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them. Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they take actions that push their partner away.

Even though anxiously attached individuals act desperate or insecure, more often than not, their behavior exasperates their own fears. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner. They may also interpret independent actions by their partner as affirmation of their fears. For example, if their partner starts socializing more with friends, they may think, “See? He doesn’t really love me. This means he is going to leave me. I was right not to trust him.”

Avoidant Attachment

People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They may seek isolation and feel “pseudo-independent,” taking on the role of parenting themselves. They often come off as focused on themselves and may be overly attentive to their creature comforts. Pseudo-independence is an illusion, as every human being needs connection. Nevertheless, people with a dismissive avoidant attachment tend to lead more inward lives, both denying the importance of loved ones and detaching easily from them. They are often psychologically defended and have the ability to shut down emotionally. Even in heated or emotional situations, they are able to turn off their feelings and not react. For example, if their partner is distressed and threatens to leave them, they would respond by saying, “I don’t care; you can do whatever you want.”

Disorganized Attachment

A person with a disorganized attachment lives in an ambivalent state of being afraid of being both too close to and too distant from others. They attempt to keep their feelings at bay but are unable to. They can’t just avoid their anxiety or run away from their feelings. Instead, they are overwhelmed by their reactions and often experience emotional storms. They tend to be mixed up or unpredictable in their moods. They see their relationships from the working model that you need to go towards others to get your needs met, but if you get close to others, they will hurt you. In other words, the person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. As a result, they have no organized strategy for getting their needs met by others.

As adults, these individuals tend to find themselves in rocky or dramatic relationships, with many highs and lows. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, then feel trapped when they are close. Oftentimes, the timing seems to be off between them and their partner. A person with fearful avoidant attachment may even wind up in an abusive relationship.

Now let’s look at what happens when different attachment styles match with one another.

Two people with a secure attachment style in a relationship is ideal. Those are the couples that we see and we say “how come it is so easy for them?” They get along so naturally, they are happy most of the time and when they fight they know how to solve the conflict without long-term negative consequences for the relationship.

How do these combinations happen? Romantic attachment studies have revealed a degree of “partner matching” based on our own working models (the lens through which we look at the world and other people). Secure individuals tend to be paired with secure, responsive partners (Cassidy & Shaver, Handbook of Attachment, 2010) - a situation that confirms the power of the subconscious.

What happens when less secure attachment styles "match"? Two avoidant styles may seem to be quite stable, although not necessarily very happy (Cassidy & Shaver, et al, 2010). This combination makes the typical couple who live separate lives.

The most typical combination in insecure attachment styles is one partner with avoidant style and the other with anxious style, which creates the common avoidant-pursuer dance. Presumably the clingy, anxious female confirms the avoidant male’s belief that it is unwise to let others get too close, and the avoidant male confirms the anxious female’s belief that others are distant and unsupportive. Even though gender is not a determinant in these types of combinations, this is the most common combination seen in couples’ therapy.

Individuals with avoidant and anxious attachment styles are more likely to experience relational dissatisfaction (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007). Here is a summary of the reasons according to each style:

Avoidant Style

- Possible previous negative view of relationships in regard to trust and intimacy (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991)

- Avoidance directly predicts levels of relational hostility (attachment theory suggests that avoidant individuals eschew intimacy and disengage from partners, both of which are characteristics Gottman uses to describe people in hostile relationships- more covert hostility)

- Less validating behaviors in the relationship

- Lack of engagement, emotionally and physically

Anxious Style

Anxiety may have less of an impact than avoidance on relationship satisfaction. Perhaps this is because avoidance is a behavior while anxiety is more of a feeling.

- Presence of high levels of emotional distress and cognitive preoccupation with loss or distancing

- Jealousy

- More validating

- Engage in high conflict and emotional arguments. More overt hostility.

Disorganized

- Mostly a combination of the above. I will not be covering this attachment style as the previous two because to understand disorganized attachment you need to understand trauma. Therefore, it requires more professional personal help!

Now since life is not completely black and white, there are exceptions to these trends. As we mentioned earlier, about 50% of the general population has an insecure attachment style. This means that there is a wide variety of combinations: some of them produce high levels of conflict or dissatisfaction, a few complement each other, and some produce a combination of both effects.

For example, if someone with an insecure attachment gets together with a person with a secure attachment, there are probabilities for the relationship to be ok because the person with secure attachment can counterbalance the needs or insecurities of the other partner.

“I had a real problem trusting anyone at the start of any relationship. A couple of things happened to me when I was young, which I had some emotional difficulties getting over. At the start of our relationship, if P had been separated from me I would have been constantly thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ ‘Was he with another girl?’ ‘Was he cheating on me?’- all that would have been running through my head. Over a 3-year period of going out, you look at it in a different light; you learn to trust him.” Excerpt from study (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008, p.465)

On the other hand, a person with secure attachment may become insecure as a result of various experiences:

“Before I started seeing T, I was in another long relationship with another fellow…It was good up until about 10 months, and the last couple of months were really bad. I was always really confident about myself and secure about myself, but how he made me feel in 2 months - just seemed to ruin everything. I’d never felt good about myself, and I felt bad about everything. So now, I’ve got this constant thing in the back of my head that maybe this will happen again.” (Cassidy & Shaver, et al, p.466)

The problem is that more often than not, two people with insecure attachment get together because working models are also self-perpetuating. For example, someone who believes that others are untrustworthy may approach them defensively, eliciting further rejection.

Let’s look at more examples to illustrate how the styles manifest in daily real life interactions Extracts from reports of Romantic Relationship Research (Cassidy & Shaver, et al, p. 360):

Secure

“We are really good friends and we sort of knew each other for a long time before we started going out. Another thing I like is that he gets on well with my close friends. We can always talk things over. Like if we are having any fights, we usually resolve them by talking it over. He’s a very reasonable person. I can just be my own person and be open about my feelings and fears, so it’s good, because I am never afraid of things not resolving. I think that we trust each other a lot.”

Avoidant

“My partner is my best friend, and that’s the way I think of her. She’s one of the most special people in my life. I do not know if her expectations in life include marriage, or any long-term commitment, which is fine with me because that’s not one of my priorities anyway. I like that we are very independent people and we support our own goals and respect each other’s autonomy, which is good. Sometimes it worries me that a person can be that close to you and want to control your life. I have dated people like that and I couldn’t do it.”

Anxious

“So I went in there… and he was sitting on the bench, and I took one look, and I actually melted. He was the best-looking thing I’d ever seen, and that was the first thing that struck me about him. So we went out and we had lunch in the park… So we just sort of sat there in silence but it wasn’t awkward. We just sat there, and it was incredible, like we’d known each other for a real long time, and we’d only known each other for a few days. So that was it. I knew since that moment that we were meant to be.”

Joyce S. Parker, PhD, a couple's therapist in Los Angeles, provides the following examples of how "Attachment Styles” can explain how you feel and behave in relationships. Let’s look at Eli, Jen, Doris and Sergio- four adults, four different ways of handling important relationships:

Sergio gets along well in most relationships. He seems prepared to accept and give love, trust and partnership. He seldom has a hidden agenda or ends up in a fight with his partner.

Eli gets uncomfortable when a woman wants to get close: he seeks distance. He seems to value his intimate relationship less than his job, fantasy games, buddies or sports.

Jen's need for reassurance never ends. She is suspicious about her boyfriend’s activities and obsessively worried that he might not truly love her. Her neediness, demands and accusations sometimes push partners away.

Doris doesn’t know what she wants from her partner. She may be unable to leave an unhealthy or abusive situation. She suffers emotionally or physically, but is paralyzed by doubts and confusion. She often feels overwhelmed.

Can you guess by now which style each person presents?

Now that you have a deeper understanding of attachment styles, you may be wondering if it is possible to work towards a more secure attachment. The good news is- YES! The next chapter will begin this journey.

This article is an excerpt from Isabel Kirk’s book: Improve Your Relationship IQ and has been published with the author’s permission.

About the author

Isabel Kirk Isabel Kirk is a Bilingual Licensed Professional Counselor Psychologist serving the Northen Virginia and Washington, DC metropolitan area (Virginia Professional License #0701004872 Exp. 06/30/2016). With almost 10 years in the counseling field, she believes her own personal journey as well as her professional intuition and extensive training are the main skills she possesses to help people improve their lives. She works with individuals, couples, families and groups from different backgrounds and situations, helping them not only to solve problems but to have more fulfilling lives.

To learn more about Isabel, visit her website www.dcvacounseling-psychotherapy.com.

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