Attachment styles in relationships
Research shows us that how you attach to people as an adult is influenced by how you attached to people as a child. Attachment patterns are passed down from one generation to the next. Children learn how to connect from parents and caregivers, and they in turn teach the next generation. Your attachment history plays a crucial role in determining how you may connect in adult romantic relationships, and how you may connect to your children.
In the late 1950’s Psychologist John Bowlby and his colleagues found that when separated from a caregiver and then returned, infants would react in 1 of 3 ways:
- The first dimension is dependence/avoidance; how comfortable individuals feel being reliant on others and having their romantic partners depend on them.
- The second is closeness; characterised as the extent to which people feel comfortable being emotionally intimate with romantic partners.
- The third is anxiety; or the extent to which individuals fear their partners will reject and/or abandon them.
The four adult attachment styles
These dimensions are carried over into adulthood and displayed as the following four adult attachment styles:
Trusting, empathic, tolerant of differences, this attachment style is characterised by individuals who feel content and comfortable in a warm, loving and emotionally close relationship. They are accepting of their partners needs for aloneness and individuality without feeling rejected or abandoned. They are able to depend on a partner and allows a partner to depend on them, with availability in times of need. They typically do not avoid conflict, regulate their own emotions well and are good communicators, attuned to partner’s needs and responds appropriately; does not avoid conflict.
Emotionally distant and rejecting in an intimate relationship, individuals with a dismissive attachment style keep their partner at arm’s length, with their partner typically wanting more closeness. Dismissive individuals usually equate intimacy with a forfeiture of their own independence and prefer self-sufficiency as opposed to togetherness. Partners are not able to depend on a dismissive type, and dismissives don’t depend on others. Their communication is typically factual and un-emotional with conflict avoidance, which usually results in an explosive display of anger. Despite this, they are emotionally controlled, yet compulsively self-sufficient. They typically react well in a crisis, non-emotional and taking charge.
Preoccupied individuals are constantly worried about rejection from partners and being abandoned. They are typically compulsively preoccupied with the relationship itself and words like ‘needy’ come to mind. They usually require continual reassurance from their partner and are usually so intense they deter most partners from an ongoing relationship. They are likely to perceive a partner’s mood and resultant behaviours as a reflection of themselves and take it personally. Communication with a preoccupied individual is not two-way; they are usually quick to blame others and oblivious to their responsibility for issues within the relationship. Their behaviour could be described as moody and unpredictable.
Individuals who have a disorganised attachment style are unable to tolerate emotional closeness in a relationship. They are seen as argumentative, generally angry, with poor emotional regulation. They are sometimes abusive, and it is hypothesized that dysfunctional relationships are a way of recreating past patterns. Disorganised individuals are prone to experiencing intrusive frightening traumatic memories and often dissociate to avoid pain. A lack of remorse or empathy coupled with no regard for rules and boundaries of others means that disorganised individuals often commit criminal behaviour. Heightened levels of alcohol and other substance use. Disorganised individuals are usually tormented by losses from the past that have not been properly grieved or resolved.
Knowing your attachment style/s and using it to benefit your relationships
You’re probably thinking, okay, but how does this help me? Well, generally speaking, there is much more to maintaining a successful relationship than just attachment styles. However, there is some research that indicates that some attachment styles are better suited together then others. And whilst it isn’t the be all end all, knowing your attachment style and what works well for you, can be helpful in your relationships.
Here is a list of attachment styles that research suggests are well suited:
- Secure + Secure
- Avoidant/Dismissive + Secure
- Anxious/Preoccupied + Secure
- Anxious Avoidant/ Fearful Avoidant +Secure
As you can probably guess, securely attached individuals go well with other securely attached individuals. However, as a result of their security and stability, securely attached individuals can often foster this attachment style in others.
Conversely, some attachment styles don’t work quite as well because both partners pull away and there is a lack of intimacy, which is one of the cornerstones of a successful relationship. This is not to say that these pairings can’t work out, but they should ideally be approached with the understanding that they may have to work on building intimacy, to give themselves the best chance of succeeding.
- Avoidant/Dismissive + Avoidant/Dismissive
- Anxious/Preoccupied + Anxious/Preoccupied
A pair comprised of an Anxious/Preoccupied + Avoidant/Dismissive can be very challenging to navigate, as they have opposing needs. One partner requires independence, self-sufficiency and distance, while the other requires intimacy, closeness and interdependence. Does this mean that this pairing can never work out long term? No. It does mean however, that this pairing is likely to need a fair deal of willingness and working together to figure out how each other’s needs can be met.
Attachment style is not the be all, end all of relationship success, however, it does give us some insight and understanding with regard to how people with these different styles navigate relationships and life in general. If you’re not sure what attachment style you are or you are wondering how you and your partner could improve your relationship foundations, booking in to see a clinician here at the Anna Centre is a good first step. You can reach us by calling us on (03) 5442 5066 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org Please be advised that The Anna Centre is not a crisis or emergency support service, please ring Bendigo Health Psychiatric Triage on 1300 363 788 or your local psychiatric triage in times of crisis.