Understanding Attachment Styles – Key To Better Relationships

man and woman in a secure attachment relationshipUnderstanding the attachment style of you and your partner or close friend is key to having a relationship that is rewarding and empowering.

Attachment styles are the personality traits formed in childhood that stay with the person throughout their lifetime. These traits are the building blocks of our personalities: the behavioral, emotional, perceptual (the way you see things and how you interpret them) and cognitive (the way you think) systems that keep you grounded in your childhood secure base. Your childhood secure base might be a parent, grandparent or guardian who you looked to for behavioral cues, comfort and security.

As you transition from childhood into adulthood, you transfer your secure base from your parents onto a romantic partner or a close friend (if you are not involved in a romantic relationship). When your partner or friend is acting as a secure base to you, that person will be emotionally available, consistently warm and responsive to you when are seeking support in times of emotional distress or need. Just knowing that you have a secure base will enable you to confidently try new things or go out into the world to explore, feeling safe that someone is there to support you should things go awry.

There are four attachment styles: secure, preoccupied, dismissing or fearful. Difficulties in a committed relationship start to surface when one person in the relationship assumes that the other person is able to provide that secure base. The other person may have no idea that being a secure base was part of the deal and, depending on their attachment style, may not even register that this is a need.

Here is a model to give you an overview of the attachment styles of your self and the other person and how differing attachment styles may impact a relationship for better or worse:

Bartholemews model of attachment (source: BJ Psych Advances)

Understanding why and how people behave as they do by identifying their attachment style will help you to choose the right behavior to use, which will work towards developing more positive interactions with others.

Let’s take a quick look at the four attachment styles and the corresponding behaviors for creating affectionate bonds between you and the other person:

Secure Attachment Style

Roughly 55% of children emerge into adulthood with secure attachment styles. Such adults exhibit the following beliefs:

  1. They are lovable people who are worthy of support
  2. Other people are responsive and available
  3. The world is a safe and predictable place

As children, individuals with secure attachment styles had parents who were warm, responsive and consistently available during times of distress. Such parents were fairly accurate in gauging the level and type of distress and would validate their child’s emotions, plus soothe and calm the child.

Such parental behavior teaches the child that they can get comfort and be helped to feel better when they feel scared or distressed. This shows the child that negative emotions can be tolerated and managed and helps the child to accurately identify the emotions they are feeling. When the child emerges into adulthood, they are better able to identify the emotions others are feeling and they tend to be less worried about getting hurt in relationships or people leaving them.

Preoccupied Attachment Style

Adults with preoccupied attachment style tend to be individuals who are hyper-vigilant for threat cues from others and will be preoccupied with their close relationships. These are the people whose threat detection system in social situations is always on and looking for subtle emotional cues from others, only to be fixated on the possible meanings of those cues and attempt to fix a situation, even if the problem is only imaginary.

As children, individuals with preoccupied attachments styles had parents who sometimes warm and accepting and other times cold and rejecting, being inconsistent in how they responded when the child was upset and needed reassurance. This inconsistent parental behavior forced the child to closely monitor their parents to determine if it was going to be a good day or a bad day. Such monitoring let the child quickly modify his/her behavior to mitigate painful rejection if it happened to be a bad day. Over time, this monitoring becomes automatic and the child carries it into adulthood.

Dismissing (Avoidance) Attachment Style

Roughly 17% of adults in Western cultures have a dismissing attachment style, resulting in a fear of intimacy and avoidance of closeness in relationships. Such adults are often successful, achievement oriented individuals striving for greater performance. They deny the need for closeness and reject vulnerability.

Children with dismissing attachment style had parents who, when the child’s neediness or negative emotions surfaced, would become intolerant, reject the child or punish them. The distress within the child would remain and become highly intolerant to the child. The only way for the child to cope with the negative emotions would be not to experience them at all. The child learned to avoid asking parents for support, attention or comfort. Rather, the children would attempt to gain parental acceptance and praise through high achievement ou peut on trouver du viagra.

As adults, these individuals will ignore negative social cues that might signal rejection. If the cue cannot be ignored, then they may dismiss the cue as inconsequential. Once dismissed, any negative emotion is pushed out of conscious awareness. Since closeness in relationships can lead to vulnerability and negative emotions, such closeness is often avoided.

Fearful Attachment Style

Adults with the fearful attachment style desire intimacy and closeness and will approach other potential attachment individuals to meet these needs, then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close and withdraw, sending mixed signals to their partner. Their behavior is a combination of the hyper-vigilant preoccupied attachment style and the avoidant dismissing attachment style.

As children, they had parents who were either abusive and frightening or abused and frightened. When the child needed comforting, the parent would either yell at the child and become physically abusive, or be so terrified herself that she was unable to adequately soothe the child who is in distress. In either case, the child would seek shelter from anxiety only to become more anxious and attempt to approach the parent once again. Over time, the child becomes more emotionally unregulated and grows into adulthood unable to accurately perceive or regulate emotions. They develop a post-traumatic stress style reaction to relationships.

Attachment Styles – The Take Away

Learn and understand your own attachment style in order to see what interferes with your ability to act as a secure base for your partner or friend. Understanding your partner’s or friend’s attachment style will help you avoid triggering their attachment-based defense systems, which can lead to problems within your relationship.

As in all things, open communication, about your feelings and your partner’s willingness to act as a secure base, will go a long way to developing a healthy and rewarding relationship.