Relationships are as much about being with someone else as they are about being apart from that person.
A lot of relationship negotiation is about separation. Can I go on a trip alone with some friends? Should I expect a call if you are arriving late? If something happens to me, will you manage to be here?
The balance we seek between our need to be bonded with others, and our desire to venture out and explore the world, is the main focus of a branch of psychological called attachment theory.
Attachment theory states that the way we connect, or ‘attach’, to partners, family, and friends as an adult relates tothe experience we had with our main caregiver as a child. Depending on whether we were cared for or neglected, we would have chosen to turn to our caregiver when stressed, or to cope alone.
[For more details on this branch of psychology, go to our piece on attachment theory].
So what is your unique ‘attachment style’, and how is it determining your relationships?
The 4 Attachment Styles
1. Secure attachment style.
It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others, and I am comfortable depending on others and having them depend on me.
People with a secure attachment style seek a balance between high levels of intimacy and independence.
They usually share positive views of themselves and their partners, as well as of their relationships. These are often characterised by warmth and responsiveness from both partners.
2. Anxious – preoccupied attachment style.
I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like.
People with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style can’t tolerate separation easily.
They desire intimacy, approval and responsiveness from their partners, to such an extent that they become dependent on them.
They often see themselves negatively, doubting their worth and blaming themselves for problems that might arise in their relationships. These beliefs can generate extreme states of anxiety that only dissipate when the partner is close by.
3. Dismissive avoidant attachment style.
I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.
Dismissive avoidant adults strive to have great independence in their relationships. They praise self-sufficiency and often believe close relationships to be of little importance.
In their relationships, these adults avoid developing intimacy and tend to hide their feelings. It is common for them to regard their partners with some contempt. It’s actually a defence mechanism to protect oneself from the emotional risk of rejection.
4. Fearful avoidant attachment style.
I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, often worrying that I’ll be hurt if I become too close to others.
This fearful avoidant style of attachment is associated with mixed feelings about intimacy and trust.
While these people desire emotional closeness with their partners, they tend to get extremely uncomfortable in its advent and are counterdependent. They might share negative feelings about themselves and others, feeling unworthy of love and doubting their partner’s commitment.
How your attachment style predicts who you are attracted to
Are you more likely to be attracted to someone with a similar attachment style to you, or a different one? That depends.
For the most part research (like this literature review on attachment styles) does show that like attracts like when it comes to people with secure attachment styles. Someone who is secure will indeed choose another person who also wants the balance of intimacy and independence that only exists in secure attachments.
It gets more complicated for people with insecure styles – i.e, all the other styles, namely preoccupied, dismissive and fearful. If this is you, it’s suggested you will tend towards one of two options. You’ll try for someone with a secure attachment style or go for someone who has the same style as yours.
But that’s just the attraction side. Researchers lo0king at couples that had been together for more than a year reported something different. Those with insecure attachment styles didn’t stick with people with secure or similar attachment styles. Instead, they went for a ‘complementary’ style. Dismissive avoidants and fearful avoidants tended to stay with anxious-preoccupied sorts. So you would have someone avoiding intimacy sticking with someone who was quite needy and feared separation (the research is not saying that this sort of codependent relationship is healthy, just that it’s common).
Why this happens is not completely understood. Some psychologists suggest that in the long term, insecure attachment styles just collide with other similar or secure attachment styles, causing these relationships to dissolve. Two avoidant persons would be more likely to give up on a relationship, two preoccupied people might be too unstable together, and secure people might not be able to manage the characteristics of insecurely attached partners.
Opposite insecure attachments, however, conform to the expectations of each partner. Preoccupied people see themselves as unworthy and don’t trust that others would want intimacy with them. Dismissive people, on the contrary, have a high regard for themselves and tend to see others negatively, as someone who wants to take their independence. Combined, these styles would, in fact, confirm each other’s assumptions of what the other and them are like.
So sadly really, in the long term, opposite insecure styles might be more stable because they don’t require any drastic changes in their deep-rooted patterns of (often unhealthy) attachment.
Should I worry about my attachment style if it isn’t secure?
Sure, you might be able to stay in a relationship even with if you have an insecure attachment style. But again, that does not mean it’s a healthy relationship. If you have an insecure attachment style you are likely to be codependent, counterdependent, or even in an emotionally abusive relationship or physically abusive one.
And an inability to have supportive close relationships, or to suffer from fear of intimacy, is increasingly proven to have worrisome long-term effects.The lack of supportive close relationships is strongly associated with emotional and physical health risks, with studies on poor social support suggesting it is comparable in magnitude to a smoking habit.
Whereas stable bonds with others – and that doesn’t need to be a romantic partner, but can be friends and family members – lead to a better ability to regulate anxiety and feel confident in the world.
If you are worried about your attachment style, consider speaking to a counsellor or psychotherapist. They can help you identify how your attachment style developed and can help you make better choices for yourself and your psychological health.
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