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How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship

how attachment syle affects relationshipOur style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress and to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. An attachment pattern is established in early childhood attachments and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood. This model of attachment influences how each of us reacts to our needs and how we go about getting them met. When there is a secure attachment pattern, a person is confident and self-possessed and is able to easily interact with others, meeting both their own and another’s needs.  However, when there is an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern and a person picks a partner who fits with that maladaptive pattern, they will most likely be choosing someone who isn’t the ideal choice to make them happy.

For example, the person with a working model of anxious/preoccupied attachment feels that in order to get close to someone and have your needs met, you need to be with your partner all the time and get reassurance. To support this perception of reality, they choose someone who is isolated and hard to connect with. The person with a working model of dismissive/avoidant attachment has the tendency to be distant, because their model is that the way to get your needs met is to act like you don’t have any. He or she then chooses someone who is more possessive or overly demanding of attention. In a sense, we set ourselves up by finding partners that confirm our models. If we grew up with a  an insecure attachment pattern, we may project or seek to duplicate similar patterns of relating as adults, even when these patterns hurt us and are not in our own self interest.

In their research, Dr. Phillip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan found that about 60 percent of people have a secure attachment, while 20 percent have an avoidant attachment, and 20 percent have an anxious attachment. So what does this mean? There are questions you can ask yourself to help you determine your style of attachment and how it is affecting your relationships. On August 13, I will be hosting a CE Webinar with Dr. Phillip Shaver on “Secure and Insecure Love: An Attachment Perspective.”You can start to identify your own attachment style by getting to know the four patterns of attachment in adults and learning how they commonly affect couples in their relating.

Secure Attachment – Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. Children with a secure attachment see their parent as a secure base from which they can venture out and independently to explore the world. A secure adult has a similar relationship with their romantic partner, feeling secure and connected, while allowing themselves and their partner to move freely.

Secure adults offer support when their partner feels distressed. They also go to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving toward each other. Securely attached couples don’t tend to engage in what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, describes as a “Fantasy Bond,” an illusion of connection that provides a false sense of safety. In a fantasy bond, a couple foregoes real acts of love for a more routine, emotionally cut-off form of relating.

Anxious Preoccupied Attachment – Unlike securely attached couples, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond. Instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger. They’re frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them. Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they take actions that push their partner away.

Even though anxiously attached individuals act desperate or insecure, more often than not, their behavior exasperates their own fears. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner. They may also interpret independent actions by their partner as affirmation of their fears. For example, if their partner starts socializing more with friends, they may think, “See? He doesn’t really love me. This means he is going to leave me. I was right not to trust him.”

Dismissive Avoidant Attachment – People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They may seek isolation and feel “pseudo-independent,” taking on the role of parenting themselves. They often come off as focused on themselves and may be overly attending to their creature comforts. Pseudo-independence is an illusion, as every human being needs connection. Nevertheless, people with a dismissive avoidant attachment tend to lead more inward lives, both denying the importance of loved ones and detaching easily from them. They are often psychologically defended and have the ability to shut down emotionally. Even in heated or emotional situations, they are able to turn off their feelings and not react. For example, if their partner is distressed and threatens to leave them, they would respond by saying, “I don’t care.”

Fearful Avoidant Attachment – A person with a fearful avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state of being afraid of being both too close to or too distant from others.  They attempt to keep their feelings at bay but are unable to; they can’t just avoid their anxiety or run away from their feelings. Instead, they are overwhelmed by their reactions and often experience emotional storms. They tend to be mixed up or unpredictable in their moods. They see their relationships from the working model that you need to go towards others to get your needs met, but if you get close to others, they will hurt you. In other words, the person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. As a result, they have no organized strategy for getting their needs met by others.

As adults, these individuals tend to find themselves in rocky or dramatic relationships, with many highs and lows. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, then feel trapped when they are close. Oftentimes, the timing seems to be off between them and their partner. A person with fearful avoidant attachment may even wind up in an abusive relationship.

The attachment style you developed as a child based on your relationship with a parent or early caretaker doesn’t have to define your ways of relating to those you love in your adult life. If you come to know your attachment style, you can uncover ways you are defending yourself from getting close and being emotionally connected and work toward forming an “earned secure attachment.” You can challenge your defenses by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style, and work on developing yourself in that relationship. Therapy can also be helpful for changing maladaptive attachment patterns. By becoming aware of your attachment style, both you and your partner can challenge the insecurities and fears supported by your age-old working models and develop new styles of attachment for sustaining a satisfying, loving relationship.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Phil Shaver on August 13 for the CE Webinar, “Secure and Insecure Love: An Attachment Perspective.”

13 comments

  1. Hi Lisa, this is a great tack to take…how to make relational choices with what you’ve got in present day. I like your direction with this!

  2. I see the advantage of defining attachment styles, and MORE efficacy yet in defining ways to
    step out of an old mold.
    In other words, it matters most to focus on neuroplasticity and modification of ineffective behaviors.

    Is choosing secure attachment-style partners and friends the only way to get there…to observe and make a change? What if those secure attachment partners are naturally NOT attracted to you? Just brainstorming here…

  3. It is good to know your attachment style but how can you change it? I feel secure in my relationships with my children and friends and mostly secure in myself at work. However, in any tests about romantic relationships I come up as Fearful Avoidant. Hence, I really want a relationship but get so scared I am almost sick when someone gets close. I date people in different countries or who work a lot who I know that I won’t be able to get too close.

    • Dear Sophie,
      Hello, Did you get a reply from a professional? Did it help? How long before you got a response?
      It is Nov. 21, and I ask a question too.
      Good Luck with finding a good resource so you can get the help you want.
      Msneutral007

  4. I fall under the anxious preoccupied attachment category. When I read about this it literally explained me all over. I always seem to fall for people who are dismissive avoidant which frustrates me more because they don’t seem to care. I crave physical attention and affection. I’m always being ignored by the people I like. How can i know if someone is securely attached or not before dating them? It’s security that I need, and I’m sick of getting my heart broken.

    • Emily, for us Anxious Preoccupieds, we need Secure people to stay grounded and to build the trust and love. Know how to identify these people: They are secure in love and themselves, they are sufficiently demonstrative, tell you they love you, and give you confidence.

      We don’t need to define ourselves by our partners, but in this case there are benefits to the right ones, and the ones we need to avoid.

      I have been completely undone, having fallen in love with a dismissive woman. Never again.

      • Great article! And Michael – agree! Never again will I get involved with a dismissive person. Looking back I now see that was exactly what their style was. And it is a horrible match with someone with an anxious preoccupied person.

  5. Dear Lisa,
    Thank you for a great article and some great resources.
    Is there a recording of the Webinar which happened on the 13th Aug? I’ve found out I have an anxious preoccupied attachment pattern, even though my mother seems like she was very nurturing from what she tells me. I can’t relax in my relationship. I find problems. I feel like my need for love doesn’t get fulfilled, and express this through anger at my partner, which makes him not want to love me. I don’t know how to get out of this negative habit of thinking and insecurity. My bf does everything right, communicates openly, shares… Although I never feel truely listened to in the relationship, as it takes me a while to open up, and my partner is very chatty and has a short-conc span, so I just can’t be bothered to make myself listened (or don’t know how too)… Are there any other resources you know of on self-help?

    I have to be very giving for my partner to mirror it, n show me great love. Why do I always have to initiate things? Are most men like this, do they love through example? Do I have to be the leader?

    Thank you again,
    Hannah

  6. Hello,

    This is a wonderful write up on attachment styles and I thank you for all of the wonderful information on this site. I have recognized myself after a few month of study and focus as having an anxious attachment style. I am 40, female and never married. I have been in a long term on-again-off-again (obviously) relationship with an extreme dismissive avoidant. We are very much in love with one another; it took years for him to actually say the words, but I have always known how he felt even if he attempted to hide it. We are great friends, lovers and enjoy being in one another’s lives. however, his avoidance triggers my anxiety and my anxiety triggers his avoidance and we continually fall into our *pattern*, causing me to focus directly upon myself, heal and make my attachment style healthy and rid myself of such codependence.

    I’ve attempted online dating throughout the years, but I am a Black woman and, statistically (and through experience), we do very poorly and get very little interest in online dating. It has been difficult.

    I understand my partner’s avoidance. I’ve read enough to understand the history, his distancing techniques and his need to trigger my anxiety to appease the avoidant in him. However, I am working on tackling love addiction in group sessions and — when I can afford — see a therapist to work on my anxious attachment style.

    I won’t be severing my relationship with him, because I do love, respect, enjoy and truly adore him, but I will be applying my new principles in my relationship to him. However, I understand FULLY understand the likelihood he will both be triggered to respond with even greater distance/fear/pushing and an inability to look within and change himself that will have to lead any push he gives to remain permanent by my choosing/non-action.

    My question, however, is if I am to give online dating again a try again and be on the look out for a secure partner, won’t it be difficult to actually FIND a secure partner who is 40+ since the dating landscape at that age range is FULL of love avoidants who never or would not settle down?

  7. So. My husband who is more interested with appointments scheduled rather than content with my therapist. Thoughts?

  8. Thanks so much for this article. I knew I had issues but I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what they were if I hadn’t read this. I think I am both anxious preoccupied and fearful avoidant. I have been in long term relationships that I have walked away from usually because of a feeling of discontent at the way a partner shows his love or his commitment. I’ve mostly gravitated towards dismissive avoidant partners and unfortunately I’m in a relationship with one now. It’s putting a lot of stress on me, and I’m trying hard to curb my obsessive tendencies because ultimately I want to be a better partner. I just hope that the two of us could work on our issues together.

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