Attachment style and your relationship

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There is an intimate connection between attachment style and your style of relationship. Attachment style is about how you learned to love and trust as a child. What influence does your attachment style have on your relationships as an adult? Attachment style translates into how you love. That is, how you respond to your partner and how you treat your partner.

How you were loved as a child is how you will give and receive love as an adult. The ideal is secure attachment, which we can go on to learn as adults.

The ideal attachment is secure, but many of us –  at least 50% –  have insecure attachments of various kinds. Insecure attachments lead us to anticipate or project onto our partner, based on what we learned to expect as a child. For instance, do you expect to be abandoned or rejected? This is very unhelpful and very puzzling for both you and your partner. You also wonder why you suffer so much.

Fundamentally, insecure attachment is a relationship style where the bond is contaminated by fear, rather than relaxation and confidence. I have already mention attachment style in relation to money, but this Insight is about attachment style in relationships overall.

Attachment style and your relationship is demonstrated by how you trust. Securely attached people have a deep sense of safety in their body.

Attachment style and your relationship is demonstrated by how you trust. Securely attached people have a deep sense of safety in their body.

The attachment styles are categorized as secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganized. Take the quiz to see where you fit.

Dianne Poole Heller is a specialist in Attachment Styles and she has devised a 1-page attachment style questionnaire which is very useful to understand your own love-patterns as well as those of your partner. Access the questionnaire through the menus on the topic of the page in this link.

Here is a brief description of insecure attachment styles. It is brief because I want to emphasize how you can learn secure attachment, rather than the features of insecure attachment. Secure attachment is what we are all aiming at, simply because we suffer less when we are securely attached.

Ambivalent attachment style

In adulthood, you show a very strong need for closeness and affection, which was often not available to you as a child. Your relationships with other people are very intense. You show a strong need for approval and are sensitive to rejection. Because of the strong need for approval, you say “yes” when someone asks you to do something, without even thinking about it. So it’s hard for you to say no and set boundaries. As a result, you are often exhausted.

It’s hard for you to stop suspecting that something will go wrong in your relationships. You are looking for problems. You find it hard to find the positive aspects. All of your relationships give you a lot of anxiety, which often leads to escaping and avoiding, including alcohol and drug use and self-harm. Or needing to withdraw and spend a lot of time on your own.

Your attachment style relates to whether you are lonely and isolated.

Loneliness might be the demonstration of an avoidant attachment style.

Avoidant attachment style

If you are avoidantly attached you will deny your desire for closeness and attention and avoid proximity to the very people you want to be close to. You value independence above all and avoid interdependence which fosters a warm emotional connection with a long-term mate. You fear to be dependent on your partner, so create, usually unconsciously, a feeling of distance. This distancing and disconnection serves your need for independence but does not serve your need for intimacy.

If, as a child, your mother, for instance, was very sparing in her love and attention, you learn that love and approval are rationed in a capricious way. You also learn to be excessively patient.  You are a master at delayed gratification to the point where you erase the possibility that your needs will ever be fulfilled.  This is very frustrating for your partner who is waiting to hear your desires and is willing to fulfil them.  However, you expect your partner to intuit what you want, “she should know!” you say. This passive-aggressive behaviour is the default position when you can’t express your needs directly, or fear you will be rejected if you do express them.

You develop false autonomy because you’re independent, and at the same time, you are fearful when someone comes too close. Or, when someone close moves too far away. This is deeply emotionally painful. You are likely to downplay sadness, loss, and disappointment, or even refuse to think or talk about such things, labeling them as weak. You likely find it hard to recognize your own emotions.

If you have an avoidant attachment you might want to be upbeat even when being upbeat is a way of avoiding or defending against what you really feel.

Disorganized attachment style

If you have a disorganized attachment, you never knew what to expect from the people who were supposed to protect you. So you have gotten into a habit of expecting those around you to be unreliable, or to let you down. You have difficulty trusting them to be consistent and kind. (Read “How to  build trust as a couple“.) And if they are consistently kind you believe that is fake or that you don’t deserve it.

Do you maintain consistency between what you think and what you do? You might go from submission to aggression, or from closeness to distance, as an example, because that has happened when you were very young.

ADD ADHD and attachment style.

People diagnosed with ADD, ADHD and similar are able to recover from these disabling conditions when their brains are rewired by learning to behave as if they were securely attached. Yes, you can learn new patterns. This seemingly simple statement is really profound. While you are learning the new patterns you will need reassurance that you are safe, even though you are abandoning the insecure attachment style that you have adopted.

"How

Learned secure attachment style

The most important thing I can say in this Insight is that you can learn to develop a stronger and more Secure Attachment style. Yes, indeed, you can be more joyful and happy adult relationships. After all, the insecure attachments were something you learned in the first place.  You learned behaviour that adapted to difficult situations.  You can switch to adapting in a healthy way, and discover the freedom of secure attachment.

The good news is that everyone can learn secure attachment, partly by imitating the behaviour of people who have a secure attachment. I hope your partner and work colleagues help you out here! (Especially if your family of origin cannot!)

What exactly is secure attachment?

Firstly, a secure relationship grows into different levels of “secure” –  it is not a fixed state. A securely attached person can grow and change through inspiration, aspiration, creativity, and encouragement rather than through pain and agony. On the other hand, people living with insecure attachment believe that anything worthwhile will come to them only through suffering. Challenge that belief!

As I just mentioned, a securely attached person has aspirations and grows towards them.  Jung talked about telos, which means the direction in which you are drawn, or towards which you are aimed. Aim towards what you want, rather than away from what you don’t want. This is a powerful change of direction. This alone can make a big difference in your life.

Fundamentally, secure attachment is LOVE and this is what it looks like.

  • Kind eyes.
  • Soothing tone of voice.
  • Being offered safe, affectionate touch, and being able to receive, absorb and revel in this.
  • Feeling someone has your back.
  • Being able to play easily –  at whatever stage of life.
  • Revelling in contact with others
  • Feeling that others have “got” you/
  • Feeling protection inside and outside the family/
  • An easy sense of humour.
  • Being surrounded by others who model secure attachment.
  • Notice caring behaviours and receiving -and sponging it up!
  • Renewed connectiveness with others.
  • Navigate out of old attachment patterns.
  • Body remembers the new patterns.
  • Hold good experiences for long enough to register.
  • Equally comfortable being alone and in the company of others.
  • Recover quickly from challenges.
  • Give good clear supportive instruction.
  • Predictability. And this leads to reliability.
  • A sense of deep presence.
When we are securely attached learning is a pleasure and we learn easily.

When we are securely attached learning is a pleasure and we learn easily.

This is what you do when you are securely attached

Feelings

Securely attached folks talk about their feelings, expressing exactly how they feel. So concentrate on your own feelings and desires, not on what the other person is doing. Stay inside your own skin. Yes, I know that you have concentrated on what the people around you are doing because they were unpredictable and you needed to be alert to say safe. Perhaps you even forgot you had feelings!

Trust

A securely attached person is trustworthy and is also able to trust.  However, you are not a pushover. You are alert to deceptions which would threaten your safety and security. Furthermore, you are able to speak up about the unconscionable behaviour of others when it affects you.

To build trust, be consistent –  if you say you will do something, then do it. Be realistic –  don’t overcommit!

As we build trust with our partner we feel secure and can go forward with confidence.

Trust and cooperation are indicators of secure attachment.

Control

Take control of your own life –  not control of the other person.

Securely attached people don’t need to control all the details about how everything is going to go.  In other words, you TRUST life. You KNOW that you will be able to adapt and adjust and handle whatever comes your way.

Find your own boundaries, inside and outside of a relationship.  Learn what is too much and what is not enough? Know your own temperament!

When things are not OK you will be able to set boundaries and move things around.  You know you can trust yourself to leave, to change your mind, or not go ahead with something even when you promised. Trust yourself to discern when something is turning nasty. And trust yourself to leave. Trust yourself to know when the other person is not right and doesn’t know better than you.

Don’t give up all control so that you never make a decision.  When you are securely attached you think it through for yourself first. You don’t immediately hand over your decisions to others. A securely attached person shows up with an opinion when needed, without fear of saying the wrong thing. Secure people contribute, they don’t pull back when they know they have something to say.

Know what you want and say so

Discern what you want and what you value. Be clear and precise, not a default such as “I’ll know it when I see it”. Name what you want.

Hold a feeling and vision of what you want, like an inventory, of what makes you feel secure and consciously act from that place. This will feel very strange at first.

Learn to hold your ground – without fear that you will lose the relationship. Take the risk of stating what you want before you hear what the other wants! Don’t wait for the crumbs of life to fall your way, rather know what you need to nourish your life.

Take responsibility

Securely attached people do not believe that they are the cause of all the world’s problems.  They don’t say, “I can’t do anything right.” Or, “it’s all my fault.” Saying “its all my fault” is a cop-out.  So, apologize and take responsibility for what is yours.  On the other hand, not to apologize at all, out of principle, is not a sign of strength. It’s avoidance.   So, securely attached people take responsibility for what is theirs and are very quick to apologize for hurting someone else or behaving badly.

Grow self-worth

Securely attached people don’t talk about themselves all the time, how wonderful they are or how worthless and fucked-up they are. They have a deep sense of worth, so they don’t need to talk themselves up –  or down. Quite to the contrary, securely attached people find others interesting and want to learn about how they live their lives.

What if you never talk about yourself? That’s not good either –  show up and own your success and accomplishments. A securely attached person is grateful to have achieved things. They’ve gone for their dreams and had successes, and like to share and celebrate. They don’t pretend they have never done anything worthwhile and hide under a rock.   So know how to celebrate your successes too! Know when to show up and share authentically with gratitude. Show up and be who you are.

Share your feelings - your gratitude and your disappointments.

Share your feelings – your gratitude and your disappointments.

Securely attached people avoid gossip, contempt, ridicule, and criticism.

Securely attached people don’t look for and point out other people’s mistakes and flaws. They don’t put other people down for their views and opinions.  Putting down and finding fault is a way of avoiding connections and pushing people away. Crushing someone else does not build your own security. Securely attached people don’t even notice the flaws in others.

Gossiping and talking behind someone’s back undermines you more than it does the other.  When you feel good about how you are there is no need to notice the flaws of others. There is a saying, “Judgement is the first thing I see in you because it is the last thing I want to see in me.”  Judgment is a self-protective measure because you are avoiding what you need to see in yourself.

So, mindfully connect with yourself, rather than making external comparisons.

An increased window of tolerance

Securely attached folks learn self-soothing and increase their window of tolerance. 

They don’t blame the other person for their hurt feelings but learn to manage them internally.  I do not mean suppress feelings! Quite the opposite. This is about emotional hygiene.

Face it head-on when you have a painful emotional response. You are probably mightily pissed off that this old feeling has returned! Learn to bear feeling, rather than numb it and tune out. This is a major move to secure attachment.  Learn to stand your ground when you go through anger, sadness, fear, and grief. And other more complex emotions. Feel it, feel it, feel it though. You are your own safe place.

Learn to stand your ground when you go through anger, shame, misunderstanding and disappointment.

Learn to stand your ground when you go through anger, shame, misunderstanding, and disappointment.

Don’t do what weakens you

This is one of Jordan Peterson’s favourite topics! Secure people just don’t do certain things because they realize the long-term effect is that their self worth will suffer. You can make an intentional effort and this will help you build your sense of self.

When you bath yourself in an aura of worth, you become less tempted to do the thing that weakens you.  Over time, it becomes a natural habit. You just don’t go down certain paths because you know you will feel bad. Not needing to prove your value and worth is a wonderful feeling.

Secure people don’t do certain things, because they know that the longer-term impact will be negative and detrimental. So, you too can choose.  Then, you gradually build a sense of self-security.  This is turn will attract stable relationships. You will like yourself more if you do not bring yourself down through doing things that weaken you.

When your attachment style is secure you make friends easily, and get over hurt feelings quickly.

Please respond to this Insight with comments and questions!

Further reading: check out the Therapist Bookshelf.

Copyright Dr Kaye Gersch 2019