Now that it has been confirmed you are awesome, let’s talk about how your attachment style is secretly influencing your relationship.
Remember the internet in all of its early 2010s glory? It was a simpler time: YouTube was mostly videos of goofy dudes playing dress up; memes were just terrible jokes superimposed over a cartoon penguin; and everything — and we do mean everything — was a personality quiz.
In some ways, finding out what your attachment style is like in relationships is sort of like taking one of those early-internet personality quizzes. But unlike “Which Disney Princess Are You,” or “Which of King Henry VIII’s Wives You Are, Based On Your Olive Garden Order,” attachment style can actually teach us something real about the way we perceive the world around us and interact with the people in it.
Attachment theory is a concept in psychology that attempts to map the way humans or form relationships. The central idea is that the way you “attach,” or bond, with your primary caregiver in infancy will determine the way you relate to others for the rest of your life.
If you think you just heard Sigmund Freud roll over in his grave, then yes you did, because it’s true that the theory is heavily grounded in what are commonly referred to as “mommy” or “daddy” issues. But attachment theory is more than pop psychology or shifty pseudoscience — it forms the basis for a ton of existing therapy practices, and understanding where you fit into the framework can be an invaluable resource in helping you to understand and improve your relationship with your sweetie.
Read on for a basic outline of the three main attachment styles and try to see which one sounds the most like you. It’s not as much fun as “How You’d Die In the Hunger Games Based On Your Zodiac Sign,” but it could have the potential to revolutionize the way you relate to other human beings, so… there’s that.
Not to give the entire game away right at the beginning, but secure attachment is the one you want to have. People with a secure attachment style were consistently nurtured and attended to by their parents or primary caregivers, which means that they learned from a young age how to be consistent and nurturing partners as adults.
When a secure person’s parents left the room when they were a child, it meant that they were free to explore with the full, comforting knowledge that the parent would return for them eventually. Parents who are sensitive to their children’s needs imbue their children with a sense of confidence, like a type of safety net: Everything will be okay in the end. If I make a mistake, we can always fix it. The person I love will always come back for me.
It’s easy to see how this type of confidence translates into being a good partner as an adult. If you’re not constantly worrying about or fearing your relationship, you’ll have more self-esteem and more opportunities to relax and enjoy the good parts of it.
Not sounding exactly like you? That’s okay: Only about 50% of the population identifies as secure, so you’re in good company.
So let’s say you had parents that adored you, but were inconsistent in their caregiving approach. Maybe they were there for you sometimes, but in other ways they didn’t show up for you in the way that you needed them to — whether it was with their physical presence or in a deeper, more emotional way.
When a child learns from a young age that they won’t always get their needs met, they sometimes develop what’s known as anxious-ambivalent attachment — one of the two types of attachment that’s generally skeptical of or resistant to intimacy.
A child with anxious-ambivalent attachment (or preoccupied attachment, as it’s sometimes referred to) knows that their caregiver is inconsistent, and fears the next time they will break their heart by leaving them hanging. In an attempt to take control of the situation, they will try to overmanage it, either by throwing a fit or acting ambivalent to the parent or caregiver’s presence upon their return.
If you’re someone who sometimes feels hyper-attuned to your partner’s needs, sometimes even prioritizing them above your own… if you’re someone who dreads the feeling of abandonment or rejection and constantly fears it will happen to you… if you’re someone who becomes desperate in situations where you feel failed by your partner… then it’s likely that you’re part of the 20 percent of the population that has some form of anxious or preoccupied attachment.
Do you feel trapped or suffocated in relationships? Do you feel randomly annoyed with your partner for checking in on you when you work late or texting you too much throughout the day? Do you cringe at the idea of long-term commitment? If so, you’re probably a man.
Just kidding. But if some or all of those things sound like you, then you’re probably what a therapist would categorize as a “love avoidant” — somebody with an inconsistent, avoidant attachment style.
People who are avoidant got the least water and sunlight out of anybody on this list, in terms of their parenting. As children, avoidants learned that they could rarely, if ever, rely on their caregivers to meet their needs. If they cried, they might have been told to stop or be quiet rather than being consoled or nurtured. Maybe their parents were overwhelmed, too busy to parent attentively or just generally short-tempered and mean.
Whatever the case may be, avoidant children grow up to be avoidant adults, and avoidant adults feel generally uncomfortable in relationships. It’s not that they don’t want to love, or be loved — as humans, we’re hard-wired to want and need those things. But their cultivation of an early distrust in people makes it hard for them to relax in relationships, and develops into a strong urge to flee once they’re in them. They want to escape, or “avoid,” the bad feelings they became accustomed to as children, after all.
Because of their strong urge to bolt once they’re in relationships, people with avoidant attachment, more often than not, are usually the ones to end them. This is exactly what the people with anxious attachment are afraid of — and when those two pair up in a relationship, things can quickly unravel, with both partners struggling to overcome their greatest fears and have their emotional needs met at the expense of the other person.
The Anxious-Avoidant Trap
How many times have you sat and listened to a friend go on and on about the toxic partner that you could have sworn they broke up with six months ago but is somehow once again back in the picture? More often than not, couples with unhealthy attachment styles tend to gravitate towards each other like magnets, leaving them stuck in a furious cycle of conflict, desertion, reattachment, repeat.
For complicated reasons, psychologists have observed that people with secure attachment styles tend to pair off, while those with anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles usually choose each other. It’s difficult to understand at first: The anxious people are pining for love and “security,” and the avoidants fear commitment and don’t seem to want anything to do with romantic relationships. Why would they choose each other when it seems like their respective needs are diametrically opposed?
One possible explanation is that dysfunction feels familiar to both anxious and avoidant people. This is also the reason that these partnerships tend to be so fiery, passionate, high-stakes and chaotic. Fans of astrology refer to this type of love as your “twin flame”: a soul-deep connection that represents your counterpart in another. In reality, these types of relationships can more accurately be described as what’s known as the “anxious-avoidant” trap.
Like we’ve mentioned, avoidants actually do crave love and attention, and they have their whole lives — they’re just not sure how to act once they’ve found it, and the constant threat of it being taken away terrifies them and activates their defense responses. They enter into relationships normally enough at first, but after a while can start to feel stressed out or trapped, and eventually start trying to distance themselves from their partners. This causes the anxious partner to panic and wonder what they’ve done wrong, and in response they will usually resort to old techniques in order to prevent themselves from being abandoned. Manipulation, anxious meltdowns and desperation are all common as the anxious attempts to pull the avoidant closer, and the avoidant, resenting the feeling of being trapped more and more, eventually gets fed up and flees.
It’s a miserable cycle, and one that’s all too common in romantic relationships. But here’s the good news: Now you know! Awareness is a giant first step in regaining control of our attachment style, and regaining control of our attachment style is like injecting a shot of the most effective health elixir available directly into the heart of our relationships.
The way we’re raised packs us full of automatic beliefs and assumptions that we carry into adulthood, and into every relationship we build once we’re there. But by clearing out old, outdated modes of thinking that are no longer serving us, we can start repairing our relationships — and our lives.
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