How The Attachment Theory Affects Our Relationships

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Have you ever wondered why some people are more anxious and need a lot of connection or reassurance in a relationship and sometimes referred to as “needy” while other people it’s as so it’s  so easy for them to walk away, leaving you confused because they showed signs that they cared for you and yet walked away so easily?

Recently, I started to question my own self, my own relationships with people and I started to notice a trend even looking back from years of relationships both romantically and friendships. I wondered there has to be more of a logical reason. Why do I feel like i’m less bothered by relationships? Are people really that “needy”, or am I heartless? How can I attract people who are not going to be as disappointed by me and not cause so much stress to one another. Why do I attract the people I do, what’s wrong with me. I had so many questions!

[In this post, I will be referencing the book Attached – Amir Levine, M.D and Rachel S.F Heller, M.A among other M.Ds and sites]

The Attachment Theory

This theory is a psychology originated by John Bowlby and later Ainsworth in the 50’s. I don’t want to get to scienc-y here with too much detail but in Bowlby’s experiences of his career, it led him to observe the importance of the child’s relationships with their mother in terms of their social and emotional development. The behaviors appeared to be universal across all cultures. Bowlby observed that children experienced intense distress when separated from their mothers. The theory basically suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, that is not only part of being human “connection” with others but it’s also a huge part of survival especially as a infant until you reach a certain level of age – say early adult life when you are able to fend for yourself physically and mentally as you are more developed. It’s simply part of our genes to form relationships with others. The infant produces innate “social release” behaviors to communicate specifically to caregivers like smiling and crying. The theory also suggests that the period of (birth-5 years) is a critical period of development and this will determine what and how behaviors will be carried through their life.

There were a number of studies conducted in 50’s and 60’s that helped determine what I stated above and they found a connection between children and their caregivers that continues to affect the child into adult life. This is how they were able to determine the 3 main attachment styles as an adult.

 

Adult Attachment

Is designated between 3 main attachment style (or the way people perceive and respond to intimacy within friendships or relationships). The attachments: Secure, anxious and avoidant. Which means that our different attachment styles will affect us within our view of intimacy and togetherness. The way we deal with conflict. Our attitude towards sex. The ability to communicate wishes and needs including expectations from those who we form any relationship with. All people in our society in all cultures fall into one of these categories regardless if we are aware of it or not. In some rare cases a combination of two attachment types. The more I dug into this theory I realized how easier it can be to understand ourselves but also help us to understand others. Knowing these facts also help predict people’s behavior, knowing how to care for your own needs and those around you that you care for.

If your parents were sensitive, available, responsive to you and your needs were meet which is beyond being fed or bathed. It means you ALSO had enough touch/being held enough that you would develop a secure attachment. If they were inconsistently responsive, often disconnected when they cared for you because they were too busy or stressed but had moments were they were great this would cause an anxious attachment. If caregivers were more distant, rigid and less responsive and weren’t held enough then a infant would develop a avoidant attachment. Caregivers that were not as available to provide physical touch or emotional connection is likely resulted in a child adapting little need for closeness and becoming self reliant.

When two people form a “relationship” they regulate each others psychological and emotional well being, and their attachment styles will be an indicator of their physical proximity and availability influence the stress response.

 

Secure

Being warm and loving is natural to secure people. They can be intimate without becoming overly worried and take things in a lighter manner. They effectively can communicate their needs and can respond rationally to their partners needs (attachment style). They tend to be reliable and consistent, and make decisions with you and have a flexible view of relationships. Secure people have much less to discuss, however they can potentially shift or struggle towards a different attachment style depending on their relationships and how unaware each person may be to this theory or even with being around relationships far too long to cause them to change.

Secure people are great in conflict. They wont get easily defensive or punish their relationships. They tend to be mentally flexible and not easily threatened by criticism. They are effective communicators and understanding while not making things about them or in other cases avoiding. They are likely to forgive easier because they don’t tend to assume their relationships intentions are intentional.

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Anxious

People who are anxious love to be close to their romantic and close friendships. They often fear that their close loved ones don’t wish to be as close to them as they like. Relationships tend to consume a large part of their life and thoughts. They tend to be very sensitive to small fluctuations in their relationships moods or behavior/actions. Even when their senses are accurate to some degree, an anxious person may take it too personal. Experiencing a lot of negative emotions often and get easily upset or hurt because of it. They will an act out on this nervous system response. When their attachment is activated, and are scared of losing you they can act in way’s that could jeopardize the relationship simply because their nervous system is turned ON.

Anxious attachment people need help by supporting their attachment style rather than pointing fingers and getting upset with them. Something you don’t want to do is to not ignore their attachment connection. Don’t ridicule their needs, or be short in conversations. Be mindful of how goodbyes can be stressful for them. Don’t threaten to leave or end relationship unless you fully intend to do it. Reassure them often and greet or leave with a hug and or kiss for at least 5 seconds plus. Understanding and compassion will go a long way. They don’t always know how to manage their emotions because they strongly want to have stable connections. One of their biggest challenges is learning how to receive love, affection and attention and experience fulfillment and satisfaction without the their nervous system not having a subconscious fear of losing the relationship. In addition having a better idea who are the better candidates to have in your life.

Anxious people especially when their attachment is triggered can play “games” to keep your attention/interest. They may have difficulties expressing what’s bothering them and expects you to guess. They could do a lot of acting out when they their attachment style is “activated”.

In “Attached” book, they mention Protest Behavior which is essentially letting your attachment get the best of you when you’re “activated”. For example: An anxious person may attempt excessive contact like calling or txting many times. Or they may withdraw by not speaking/ignoring the relationships that are making them feel anxious. They may pay attention to how long it took you to respond to their messages or calls with a waiting “game” to return it back. They may act hostile such as rolling their eyes, looking away, getting up and leaving you while you’re speaking or will show violence.

This means that anxious people are best at finding people who are secure, as an avoidant will only frequently activate their attachment style causing them to feel intense worry and feeling of inadequacy. However it’s common that anxious attract avoidants more so than secure. Why? because it’s like each reaffirms the others beliefs about themselves. The avoidant defensive independence is confirmed when “people” are too needy and and want closeness which allows them to keep doing what they are programmed to, which is pull away. An anxious find themselves wanting more intimacy than their partners and they’re not good enough or “people” never understand their needs which yet again keeps their programmed fear of rejection and inconsistent connection as true. In other words, they can continue to re-enact that familiar program script over and over.

 

Avoidant

For the avoidant it is very important to maintain their independence and self-sufficiency. And usually feel uncomfortable with too much intimacy or closeness and will often keep their relationships at arms length. They typically won’t spend too much time worrying about their relationships or about being rejected. Often times they may be high alert for any signs of control and create distance to avoid it. Avoidants is not an identity issue, it is more of a adaptive response to intimacy. There is a high chance they “learned” that certain needs would not be tended to. Which made them find ways to play with themselves and regulate their own feelings of which they needed help with because as an adolescent much of it is taught by the caregiver. An Avoidant spends a lot of time regulating themselves and when someone tries to connect, Avoidants see it as “interfering” this makes them feel highly threatened.

Like Anxious attached people have way’s they need to be supported, avoidant people also have way’s that can help support them. For instance, by giving them space and the benefit of the doubt. Love notes are a great way to connect with them, and understanding that they have a limit to how much physical contact they can have at once and has nothing to do with the actual person. Don’t always wait for them to ask for help because they most likely won’t ask, and it’s best to sometimes offer it yourself. Give them a loving nickname vs showing them by hugging them. An Avoidant person will struggle with certain feelings and thoughts they may not be conscious over and have nothing to do with the other person but just are triggered by them. Closeness often triggers the nervous system of either being left alone, invaded upon or lack of stimulation.

One aspect to distinguish physically about an Avoidant person is you may notice they will walk in front of the person or group. It’s not that they don’t want to be with the group or person, but when you are “close” you are connecting with them and this is scary for them. This isn’t something they consciously are aware of, it’s their programming that picks up on this and acts out on it. Avoidants can send mixed signals, and they value their independence and can devalue you or previous partners. Avoidants usually will use distancing strategies to keep a distance between emotions and or physically too. They will emphasize their boundaries and can be very mistrustful. For instance they fear being taken advantage of. In many cases avoidants tend to be the style who end relationships more frequently because they suppress their loving emotions which makes it easier for them to “get over” you quickly.

In “Attached“, Avoidants were said to have “deactivating strategies” which is the behavior or thought that separates them from that connection. For example: They will say or think they aren’t ready to commit. May find themselves focusing on imperfections of the people they hold any relationships with even from simple things like how someone talks or dresses becoming a “focus” of their thoughts. They may talk about ex’s often or may flirt with others. They may not say “I love you” as much, and you will see them pull away especially when things are going well. They may not be fully present mentally when around their close relationships. Avoidants can also keep secrets or leave things unclear to maintain the feeling of independence. They could also avoid physical closeness, such as not sleeping together, cuddling or sex. These are all unconscious tools used to keep the disconnection of the close relationships out of fear and disconnected program they were taught.

Avoidants will suffer the most loneliness because of the distance they create and often times they can reach a point of hitting “rock bottom” or if they experience life altering situation that can cause them to shift their attachment style. They can also shift from less avoidant to more secure with time by one or two of things: having relationships with secure people or by having self awareness in order to start identifying the deactivating strategies. Focus more on mutual support rather than their typical self reliance. Having a relationship gratitude list.

 

A Few More Things..

When it comes to dating, a person who is Secure, typically believes that there are many potential partners available, that are open to the things they desire. They typically have a higher sense of what they deserve – to be loved and valued at all times. They are programmed to expect that. If someone sends out and indication that they are not in line with these qualities/expectations, if they are inconsistent, and not into the games that Avoidants or Anxious tend to offer. An important aspect to this approach of a Secure is that when people who do express these deal breakers, he/she treats it as an indicative this is of the other persons inability to be responsive and not of her own worth. And won’t affect his/her feelings towards others of the opposite sex. Where as a person who is Anxious for instance would often assume they are to be blamed . “it must have been something they did or said”, and allow a lot of stressful reasons cross their mind of why they were essentially rejected causing stress.

To reference back to the Avoidant-Anxious trap…”Attached” mentions the 6 way’s of which two people who are in any type of relationship who fall of these two are most likely constantly going through this high and low loop hole. I  really wanted to share this aspect in the post because it is actually something that really hit home for me. While this post is already 35839385 words long, why not dig in especially if you wish to bypass the book.

In short, what typically happens with a relationship (romantically or friendship) may look like this…

  1. Roller-coaster effect – which basically states that every once in a while the Avoidant will make themselves available to the Anxious person which causes this great period of high-were great, i’m happy. Until it starts to eat at the Avoidant and can quickly get them to withdrawal, which then creates a new dissatisfaction for the Anxious person.
  2.  Emotional counterbalancing act – In many cases Avoidants tend to have a big ego when it comes to their self esteem in terms of their sense of independence in comparison to someone else. As an Anxious person, they are “programmed” to feel less than when their attachment style is “activated”.
  3. Stable instability – A relationship may last a long time, but a level of uncertainty, resentment, hard feelings will persist. In other words a chronic feeling of dissatisfaction may exist on both ends.
  4. Questionable arguments – Although arguments and disagreements seem/are “normal” in any kind of relationship, in this particular case you may often find yourself questioning each other or one self “why are we arguing” about the same thing”, “why don’t they get it” and the main source of the issue will tend to be towards the intimacy, time and attention.
  5. Stronger “connection” is the enemy – For the Anxious person who get’s “closer” to the Avoidant may feel as they are getting treated unfair and worse the closer they try to get to an Avoidant.
  6. Experiencing awareness before starting over – Each person may start to feel, sense, and become aware of the dynamic of the relationship and that there is essentially something wrong and question if it’s a right relationship to maintain, yet often feel too emotionally connected or invested to leave.

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Often the Anxious person will be the one who typically realize they just accept the rules imposed by the Avoidant person. The longer a relationship lasts it doesn’t always mean better. With time, circumstances each faces will pull the two styles to manifest into further gaps with different and wider challenges unless each person becomes aware of their attachment styles. I’ve experienced that just because I personally am fully aware and to some degree knowledgable on the subject, does it fully “fix” the problem. Because the other person has to be aware enough to care for my needs rather than one person caring for both needs and being conscious for both behaviors. Conflict is often left unresolved because the actual process of resolution essentially creates friction between the two styles and creates too much intimacy for Avoidants. What can happen with an Anxious person is each clash will only lose their ground and slowly deteriorate.

In Conclusion

As I briefly discussed the origin of this theory by John Bowlby (1907-1990) who was a Psychoanalyst, along with his colleague Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) who also continued to understand this theory of which it is now known to impact us as Adult Attachment style/theory which include anxious, secure and avoidant. Each attachment essentially plays a huge role in how we view and connect to others in relationships both romantically or friendship. I became interested in the topic as I have been curious within the complexity of many of my relationships across the board in my life. The focus of this particular post on not only expressing a little of each 3 attachments but specifically the anxioius-avoidant relationship because it really has been a learning experience for me personally. As I learned that I am avoidant and typically I have attracted many anxious people of which mostly are friends, but luckily in a long romantically relationship with a secure person. The book “Attached” was one major read, among the other information found from Therapists and even including my own Therapist of which some of our sessions focused on this topic and overall how I carefully have observed and looked over. Having this be a part of my awareness and experience has tremendously gave me an extended perspective to other aspects of how we all different, how we react, connect and how I can further grow as a person.

I hope this has now brought you some awareness, some curiosity, perhaps a new perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

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