Attachment Styles: Relationship Help

What's the Deal with Attachment Styles?

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. 

In a nutshell, your attachment style describes the way you experience relationships. It describes 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 in order 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 the way 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 accommodats by learning to be more sensitive, or sometimes less sensitive, to relational dynamics. All of these factors influence the way you think about yourself and relationships.

What Are The 4 Different Attachment Styles?

The 4 attachment styles are Secure, Avoidant, Anxious, and Disorganized. Here are a few general qualities of each style:

Secure Attachment 

  • You are able to 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

Avoidant Attachment

  • 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

Anxious Attachment

  • You tend to obsess over relationships
  • You tend to second guess and over-analyze
  • You tend to attach quickly to others

Disorganized Attachment

  • 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

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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 a variety of 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 because you learned as a child that people couldn’t be relied on to take care of you. 

Or do you feel unable to commit or truly 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 some things to think about:

  1. 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.
  2. Notice how you feel about intimacy or being close to someone.
  3. Notice your reactions when someone feels distant from you.

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 a few things you can do: 

  1. 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 important to acknowledge the things that impact you. If you don’t, these painful experiences will continue to cause pain and impact you without your awareness. 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.
  2. Build secure relationships. Secure relationships take work, especially if you naturally have an insecure attachment style. However, you can grow into secure attachment if you are with a partner who is willing and able to work with you. Securely attached relationship skills can be practiced. Here are a few 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)

Finally, please know that this topic is difficult. 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 a lot of pain or confusion. If you find that this topic causes pain, it may be helpful to reach out to a therapist or coach to process. A trained therapist or coach can help you see the way 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 fully. 

With hope for your journey and growth,

Ashlyn 

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

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

Ashlyn King, M.S., MFTC helps her clients navigate challenges related to relationships, family, parenting, painful life experiences, and loss. She can help you find your inner strength and move forward towards your goal of personal growth, partnership, and healing.

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