Adam is smart, talented and attractive. He’s successful in business and has an exciting lifestyle. He’s a winner, everyone agrees…except his ex-girlfriends. Any one of them can tell a story about Adam that includes disappointment or betrayal. Adam is not malicious. Like anyone else, he wants intimacy… but only so much. If things get too close and personal with a woman, he’ll do something to provoke distance, like not call when he said he would, or pick a fight. He likes to keep things a little up in the air, and has avoided marriage. Sometimes, under certain stresses, especially if the object of his affection is unavailable, Adam will get needy and possessive. But once his partner is safely, uncomfortably, available again, he can’t help but push her away.
Sophia tries hard to nail things down. Her whole existence feels like a hunt for “happily-ever-after.” If she’s not in a relationship for a while, her yearning for intimacy feels so urgent that she doesn’t discern new partners very carefully. As soon as things heat up with a new man, she’s all in. She tends to cling, fears losing her new love, and gets quietly controlling. She feels very enchanted with the idea of marriage, but has interestingly evaded it. She tries to play things cool when dating, letting the man dictate the pace, but underneath she obsesses. She quickly jumps to the worst-case scenario when small conflicts arise. Even though she is very high functioning in her career as a teacher, she never seems to feel like a grown-up in relationships. Occasionally, when a partner seems more “needy” than she is, Sophia shuts down and wants to get far away from him. She’s got a lot of exes too, and they would likely tell you that Sophia is “high maintenance.”
On the surface, Adam and Sophia have very different behaviors. Usually, Sophia looks like someone who REALLY wants a relationship, and Adam looks like someone who really doesn’t. The truth is, they both want intimacy, but each of them experiences distress in intimate relationships. They both have “commitment issues.”
Most people know someone with commitment issues, and it can be frustrating to watch them flounder around, with conflict and drama often in their wake. But people like Adam and Sophia don’t struggle with commitment by choice. The attachment styles they developed early in their lives play a part in how they participate in relationships. Struggling with relationship commitment can be a sign of insecure attachment. Through no fault of their own, both Adam and Sophia have insecure attachment styles.
Secure and Insecure Attachment
Attachment Theory, as first coined by British psychologist, John Bowlby, “states that a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to personal development”(“How Your Infant Attachments Can Affect You In Later Life”, 2017). Through Bowlby’s work and Mary Ainsworth’s research in the 1950s and 60s, three basic types of attachment behavior in infants were identified: secure, anxious, and avoidant. In the 1980s, psychologists Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan pioneered studies to learn about attachment theory as it related to adult relationships. Their research informed what continues to be a thriving field: adult attachment. It is widely accepted that the attachment styles children adopt early in life, through a variety of factors including their parents’ responsiveness to their emotional needs (or lack thereof), genetics, life experiences, and personal temperament, remain intact throughout adulthood. We bring these attachment styles to our romantic relationships, for better or worse.
In truth, people are complex and cannot be pigeonholed into any one category or type, but they will gravitate to one attachment style or another, based on their early attachment patterns. While no parent is perfect, and all children suffer hurts in the process of growing up, some children are injured more than others by misattunement, neglect or abuse on the part of care-givers, and they develop insecure attachment patterns that stay with them. According to Shaver and Hazan’s research in adult attachment, about 60% of the population functions with secure attachment in their relationships. Studies show that secure people report feeling higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships than people with insecure attachment. Secure individuals are generally reliable and consistent, have flexible views of relationships, are not afraid of commitment or dependency, and express feelings naturally (Levine & Heller, 2014). Relationships are not always as smooth for people with anxious or avoidant attachment styles.
Sophia’s behavior in relationships is indicative of her anxious (also called “preoccupied”) attachment style. Men and women with this style have a “super-sensitive attachment system” (Levine & Heller, 2014). They experience “chronic fear of rejection and doubts about the ultimate availability of and support from attachment figures” (Tran & Simpson 2009). This hyper-vigilance and insatiable desire for security often result in distressed and self-defeating behavior in relationships. For example, if a partner says or does something that signals ambiguity, the anxious person may react with a disproportionate level of anger or hostility in an attempt to coerce reassurance (Tran & Simpson, 2009). Often, such reactions cause conflict and instability that leads to relationship decline. Children with anxious attachment often have experienced inconsistent parenting; sometimes they were responded to appropriately, and other times parents were intrusive or insensitive. The child doesn’t know what to expect and ends up distrustful yet clingy at the same time. It is interesting to note that someone who usually functions as anxiously attached in relationships can display avoidant behavior if involved with someone who is more anxious, clingy or demanding than they are (Karen, 1998).
People with avoidant attachment behavior, like Adam, are “dismissive” and rely on distancing strategies to limit intimacy. They may have rigid boundaries in relationships and fear losing autonomy or being taken advantage of. In the book Attachment in Adulthood, Mikulincer and Shaver cite a study that revealed negative expectations about relationships in the minds of avoidant people: “Avoidant people enter new relationships with detailed scripts for commitment aversion and expectations of relationship failure…” (2016). Avoidant people find it more difficult to fall in love and may reject the “myth” of romantic love altogether. Studies show that avoidant attachment in children is often the result of emotionally unavailable or insensitive caregivers. Even a parent who is physically very present, but is motivated by a narcissistic need to be needed can register as intrusive and, therefore, not attuned to the child. The child learns that his or her emotional needs will not be met and so essentially gives up on reaching for others when in emotional distress. In a 2009 journal article, SiSi Tran and Jeffrey Simpson write that the attachment “deactivating” behavior of highly avoidant individuals is a defense against “reminders of their futile efforts to solicit care and support” in early life. In spite of these efforts to stay autonomous, avoidant people can flip to the anxious side of the equation, showing the insecurity underneath their defenses. They “often experience distress when their partners are not available or are unsupportive, particularly in stressful situations” (Tran & Simpson, 2009).
Insecurity and Commitment Issues
The bottom line is that attachment insecurity manifests itself as anxiety and/or avoidance, and insecure people can have a host of challenges in intimate relationships. Whereas secure people tend to navigate their needs for both closeness and independence with relative ease, insecure people find the balance hard to strike. Anxiously attached people seek closeness to the point that it is uncomfortable for their partners, and avoidant people can mistake their partners’ appropriate caring for intrusiveness and then react critically. Problems like these are obstacles to relationship satisfaction and naturally have a negative impact on the long-term commitment potential of a relationship. In addition, studies show that attachment insecurity is associated with people being less engaged in “relationship maintenance behaviors.” The willingness to make appropriate sacrifices for the sake of the relationship is also disturbed by attachment insecurities. Avoidant attachment was linked with fewer sacrifices for partners’ well being, while anxious attachment was associated with more self-serving sacrifices. The pithy conclusion of one analysis reflects what we might guess about the plights of Adam and Sophia: “Anxious people’s lack of commitment stems from disappointment, pain and frustration, whereas avoidant people’s lack of commitment stems from unwillingness to invest in a long-term relationship” (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016). It’s not hard to see how insecurely attached people may be unable to experience the satisfaction of long-term commitment, due to these once-protective but ultimately defensive factors. There is hope for those of us who did not inherit a secure attachment style, however.
How You Can Become More Secure
Whether you yourself have commitment issues, or someone you care about does, it is important to know that there are ways to become more secure, and therefore, more capable of being in a committed relationship, if desired. Here are some proven ways to become more secure:
Drs. Daniel Siegel and Lisa Firestone are strong proponents of the coherent narrative. This is a process of writing about childhood experiences, in order to make connections to current behavior. Writing a coherent narrative is a tool that can literally rewire the brain and help people develop a more secure attachment style. This article outlines the process and links to an e-Course led by Drs. Firestone and Siegel that walks participants through the process of writing a coherent narrative.
Meditation or Spiritual Practice
In this Webinar called “Secure and Insecure Love: an Attachment Perspective,” Dr. Phil Shaver discusses the challenges of insecure attachment in adult love and points to new research on enhancing attachment security. He cites studies that show meditation increases the qualities of secure attachment in meditators, and he predicts that the fields of mindfulness and attachment theory will begin to intersect more in the future. This page links to articles and videos that can provide guidance for beginning a mindfulness practice.
For many people, a spiritual or religious practice brings serenity and peace to their daily lives. A 12-step recovery program can also provide a base of stability and caring that can impact an individual’s sense of security. There is even a recovery program for couples that wish to enhance their commitment and intimacy.
Earned Security through Therapy or Relationship
The right relationship can also help us to earn a more secure attachment style. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, “One of the proven ways to change our attachment style is by forming an attachment with someone who had a more secure attachment style than what we’ve experienced. We can also talk to a therapist, as the therapeutic relationship can help create a more secure attachment. We can continue to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences, allowing ourselves to make sense and feel the full pain of our stories, then moving forward as separate, differentiated adults. In doing this, we move through the world with an internal sense of security that helps us better withstand the natural hurts that life can bring.”
A good therapist can help us understand and heal the unmet needs of our past, which can have a positive impact on our behavior in current relationships. This article by Dr. Lisa Firestone discusses her therapy practice as well as the practice of her father, Dr. Robert Firestone. She describes the therapeutic relationship and what the optimal therapist/client relationship would feel and look like. This page is full of resources and tips for finding a therapist.
The book Fear of Intimacy by Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett is the product of some 40 years of clinical experience helping people to understand and undo the defenses that keep them from giving and receiving love in healthy relationships.
No matter what kind of early parenting we had, and what kind of relationship messes we have made up to this point, it is possible to grow and develop. By making a choice to see and accept our current liabilities, we can reach for new tools. We can come to understand ourselves and have some compassion for our challenges. And even if we have a long history of being anxious or avoidant, we can become more secure. With willingness and honesty, people can work to overcome commitment issues, and they can go on to have rewarding, committed relationships.
Firestone, L. (2017). What is Your Attachment Style?. PsychAlive. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1994). Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 5(1), 1-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0501_1
How Your Infant Attachments Can Affect You In Later Life. (2017). Psychologistworld.com. Retrieved 29 March 2017, from https://www.psychologistworld.com/developmental/attachment-theory.php
Karen, R. (1998). Becoming attached (1st ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2014). Attached (1st ed.). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2016). Attachment in adulthood (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Tran, S., & Simpson, J. (2009). Prorelationship maintenance behaviors: The joint roles of attachment and commitment. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 97(4), 685-698. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0016418