What’s an Attachment Style in Relationships?
Do you ever wonder why you “overreact” when your partner doesn’t text you on the way home? Or do you feel unable to commit or truly connect in a relationship? These are very common (and yet stressful!) experiences that relate to your attachment style.
Many of these concerns come up in individual therapy. The truth is our attachment style plays a crucial role in our personal growth. Understanding it can help us build healthy relationships, self-esteem, boundaries, and inner strength.
A relationship attachment counselor will focus on building upon your emotional intelligence. By focusing on communication, empathy, vulnerability, and managing emotions, you’ll be able to recognize your attachment style and recognize attachment styles in others.
What’s an Attachment Style?
In a nutshell, your attachment style describes the way you experience relationships. It explains how you feel about intimacy, dependence, trust, and how you get your needs met in relationships. Your particular style of relating to others was formed during your early experiences with your parents or caregivers.
Before you feel that you may be doomed, let me step back and explain a little more. Everyone has an attachment style (you can find out what yours is here: Attachment Style Quiz) because we all need to be dependent on and attached to others.
From birth, we have to depend on other people to survive. We rely on our parents for food, comfort, and emotional regulation. Based on these experiences, we form an “internal working model” of the world: an understanding of how the world works and how we get our needs met.
Even our nervous systems develop based on the environment we were raised in. Predictability calms our nervous systems, while instability causes us to be on high alert. If our parents were inconsistent or unresponsive, our nervous system accommodates by learning to be more sensitive, or sometimes less sensitive, to relational dynamics. That’s why it’s important to set boundaries with parents early on.
All of these factors influence the way you think about yourself and your relationships.
Understanding The 4 Attachment Styles in Relationships
The four attachment styles are Secure, Avoidant, Anxious, and Disorganized. Here are a few general qualities of each style:
- You can reach out and ask for what you need
- You generally feel calm when needs are met
- When you are not with your partner, you miss them, but you feel ok
- You are afraid of being overwhelmed and losing independence
- You find it hard to depend on romantic partners
- You don’t enjoy the feeling that others are depending on you
- You tend to obsess over relationships
- You tend to second guess and over-analyze
- You tend to attach quickly to others
- You grew up with a history of trauma or very chaotic caregiving
- You feel that the people you trust are going to hurt you because that is what you experienced most as a child
- You feel drawn to relationships, and yet tend to reject others and/or feel rejected
There are different ways to help you find your attachment style. Dr. Amir Levine, the author of the book Attached, only lists anxious, avoidant, and secure attachment styles in his quiz.
There’s also the Stan Tatkin attachment style quiz. Dr. Tatkin is the founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). Dr. Stan Tatkin’s attachment styles are as The Anchor, The Island, and the Wave.
Speaking with an attachment counselor can help you understand your style better.
Is Your Attachment Style Getting In The Way Of Real Happiness?
Attachment styles impact the way we view the world. If we struggle with viewing the world as unsafe, people as untrustworthy, or ourselves as fundamentally flawed, we will probably not be as happy. We will most likely feel more depressed, anxious, and sad.
Unfortunately, sometimes our attachment styles can trap us in self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe that people are untrustworthy, you may be on the lookout for areas where people will let you down or may avoid reaching out for help, reinforcing the idea that you have to do life alone.
Additionally, insecure attachment styles have been linked to various mental health disorders and even physical health outcomes.
Are Attachment Styles Unhealthy In Relationships?
For better or worse, our attachment needs are activated in intimate relationships. Do you ever wonder why you “overreact” when your partner doesn’t text you on the way home? It could be because this activates your fear of abandonment. After all, you learned that people couldn’t be relied on to take care of you as a child.
Or do you feel unable to commit or genuinely engage in a relationship? It could be because of a more avoidant attachment style, a need to keep people at arm’s length to keep yourself emotionally safe.
Differences in attachment styles can cause anxiety and stress because you and your partner have different ways of looking at the world and different attachment needs.
Insecure attachment styles can become unhealthy when you are unaware of your needs and get into a negative spiral with your partner. This often happens with couples, and it is important to recognize the negative spirals and how your attachment styles may be contributing to the ways you are hurting each other.
Key Indicators That You May Have An Unhealthy Attachment Style
If you think you may have an insecure attachment style, here are 3 things to think about:
- Notice the patterns in your relationships. Do you tend to attach quickly, end things with people who care about you, or feel incredibly anxious in relationships? Usually, we can see our attachment style when we look at patterns in our relationships.
- Notice how you feel about intimacy or being close to someone. If you tend to drive people away, this might be your defense mechanism to protect yourself. But, it also means you might have trust issues that don’t let you open up to others. You need to learn how to be more vulnerable in relationships.
- Notice your reactions when someone feels distant from you. The moment you feel someone is walking away from you, you’re likely to react negatively. You might try to get their attention through threats, harmful behavior, and other responses that could even place you in danger. Maybe you can’t stop gaslighting in a relationship, always blaming your partner for everything.
What to Do if You Have an Unhealthy Attachment Style
Thankfully, our negative early experiences of attachment do not mean that we are doomed to insecure attachment! Humans are incredibly resilient and can grow over time. If you have an insecure attachment style, there are 3 things you can practice:
- Become Aware of Your Attachment Style
How do you think about your painful experiences as a child? Do you dismiss them or feel overwhelmed by them? It is essential to acknowledge the things that impact you. These painful experiences will continue to cause pain and impact you without your awareness if you don’t. Your emotions are important and give you information about what is important to you. You can learn more by reading about attachment or working with a therapist.
- Build Secure Relationships
Secure relationships take work, especially if you naturally have an insecure attachment style. However, you can grow into a secure attachment if you are with a willing partner who will work with you. Securely attached relationship skills can be practiced. Here are 4 things that you can do:
- Communicate your needs without blaming or assuming
- Expect to be treated well
- Be responsive to your partner’s emotional needs
- Choose to be vulnerable with your emotions and fears (especially if you are avoidant)
3. Don’t Be Too Harsh On Yourself
Finally, please know that this topic is complex. Because it strikes at the core of who we are and opens up memories that we sometimes hide, talking about our attachment styles and experiences can cause much pain or confusion.
Help is Here for You
If you find that this topic causes discomfort, it may be helpful to reach out to a therapist or coach to process. A trained therapist or coach can help you see how attachment styles play out in your relationships, help you process and integrate your experiences, and help you make sense of the patterns in your life.
Being aware of your attachment style can help you live life more intentionally and comprehensively.
With hope for your journey and growth,
P.S. I wanted to provide you with some additional resources in case you would like to read up on your attachment style further:
- What is your attachment style? Take the quiz here: Attachment Style Quiz
- Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
- Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
- Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin
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