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Attachment Styles: The Number 1 Thing Impacting Your Relationships

Updated: Jan 25

Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, 200 RYT

Read on to learn more about your attachment style and how it influences your relationships.

Wondering why you keep "attracting" the wrong person? At a loss for why you struggle to open up and trust in relationships? Confused as to why you cling to emotionally unavailable people? Attachment styles are the answer! Thanks to many years of research and study we finally know what drives us to show up the way we do in relationships. Knowing this is key to successful relationships both romantic and otherwise.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory was first coined by British psychologist John Bowlby who believed it was based in evolution. Bowlby's theory was that children are driven to maintain closeness to their caregivers in order to have their needs met. Through research and study he was able to demonstrate the biggest impact on attachment was a caregiver's ability or inability to nurture and be responsive to their child. You can learn more about Bowlby and his work here. Following Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth continued the work by conducting what is known as the "strange situation" experiment. Here, researchers placed children ages 12-18 months in a room with their mother. The child would begin exploring as a research assistant entered and began talking to the mother. Here researchers studies the child's level of interest and confidence in playing with the toys. The mother would leave the child briefly with a stranger. Upon her return researchers would study the child's response to the mother's attempts to comfort them. This study led to the recognition that there were various attachment styles and that they can be used to predict future behavior. You can learn more about this study here.

Types of Attachment

A green and blue infographic created by trauma therapist Caitlin Weese LCSW-C detailing the four attachment styles and describing a few characteristics of each.

Secure Attachment

Anxious Attachment

Avoidant Attachment

Disorganized Attachment

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is the style of attachment we develop when our caregivers are consistent, responsive and able to meet our needs. As a result, we grow up feeling that relationships are safe and we can trust others. This allows us to feel safe expressing our feelings and develop deeper relationships, while maintaining a sense of independence.

When securely attached we are unafraid of being alone, have healthy self-esteem and are able to manage conflict effectively.

Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment, otherwise known as anxious-ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied is a type of attachment that results from inconsistent parenting that does not meet a child's needs. Our caregivers may have been unpredictable in their responses, sometimes offering us comfort, while at other times admonishing us for our emotions. They may also have blamed us for their emotions, leading us to take on a sense of over-responsibility into childhood and beyond.

What Does This Look Like in Relationships?

Anxious attachment presents itself in our relationship in a number of ways. We may constantly fear being abandoned or dumped by our partner and seek reassurance from them to appease our anxiety. This can also present itself in the form of jealousy of your partner's other relationships or a feeling that in order for you to be okay they have to be happy with you. Understandably, this can also show itself in the form of people-pleasing as we attempt to avoid abandonment at any cost. We are often described as needy by those around us and may often have a sense that we "care more" than the other person in the relationship. We may particularly struggle in relationships with folx who have avoidant or anxious avoidant attachment styles.

Avoidant Attachment

Also known as dismissive-avoidant or anxious-avoidant, this is an insecure attachment style where we feel unsafe connecting to other people as a result of our needs not being met in the past. As a result, we avoid relationships and emotional closeness all together preferring to be self-reliant. As a result of this behavior we often struggle to build long-term or deep relationships and may struggle with emotional or physical intimacy. This can present as a fear of commitment, feeling threatened by those who try to get close to us and believing we don't need others in our life. This attachment style is often the result of having strict, emotionally unavailable or absent caregivers. As children, we begin to learn that people are unable or unwilling to meet our needs. In an attempt to adapt we work to meet our own needs often presenting as independent and mature.

What Does This Look Like in Relationships?

This impacts our relationships in a number of ways, as already mentioned we avoid closeness in relationships often cutting things off before they become too close. We may also struggle with fidelity and cheat on our partners or sabotage the relationship in an attempt to decrease the closeness. We are often described as "emotionally cold" and may come across as dismissive of our partner's feelings due to our own discomfort with emotional vulnerability. We may particularly struggle in relationships with those with anxious attachment as our needs are at odds with one another.

Anxious Avoidant Attachment

This is a combination of the two previous attachment styles anxious and avoidant. This often appears as a result of childhood trauma, neglect and abuse and a sense that our caregivers are unsafe. As a result our brain tries to reconcile our parents as creating both a sense of comfort and fear. As adults, this can present as oscillating from distrust and avoidance of relationships to quick emotional attachment and clingy-ness. We crave attachment and closeness but have also been hurt by it, leading to confusing emotions.

What Does This Look Like in Relationships?

As discussed above, the confusing messages about relationships we receive create inner turmoil and conflict. This leads us to move between pushing away our partners and clinging to them. We can struggle with a fear of rejection as well as contradicting ourselves in our actions and behaviors. This fear can lead us to appear "hot and cold" and we may even cut off connection prematurely out of fear of being hurt.

So What Does this Mean?

Basically, our attachment styles form the mold for how believe relationships should look, as a result we seek out partners to recreate patterns from our childhood. If we had an emotionally unavailable parent, we may find ourselves attracted to people who behave the same way. Alternatively, we may seek the complete opposite in an attempt to not repeat the past.

We can go through relationship after relationship wondering why we are unsuccessful without noticing we are the common denominator.

Thankfully, we can shift our attachment style and develop health and fulfilling relationships.

However, this requires awareness on our part and a willingness to work with a therapist on these struggles. Next week I'll share some tips on how you can shift from an insecure to secure attachment style.

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