If your dating life hasn’t gone exactly how you imagined over the years, don’t blame yourself—at least, not entirely. Your attachment style plays a key role in determining the health of your relationships, and well… some are healthier than others.
Of course, if you’ve never heard of the concept of attachment styles, you might be surprised to learn what yours is—and that it’s the real reason you keep texting that guy who’s definitely curving you.
And while you might’ve gotten this far living in ignorant bliss, understanding your attachment style can improve your existing relationships (including non-romantic ones) or ward off future heartbreak by helping you identify and subsequently change negative behaviors.
First things first: What is attachment theory?
In the 1960s, psychiatrist John Bowlby formulated attachment theory after studying how infants reacted when separated from their primary caregiver (usually their mothers). He then classified their behavior by assigning it an attachment style, meaning a pattern in the way a person relates to others.
From his research, Bowlby highlighted the significance of the parent-child dynamic and determined three predominant attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant—that went on to impact adult relationships. Here’s what you need to know about each attachment style:
1. Secure Attachment
In childhood: A child who grows up having a secure attachment with their parent/caregiver generally feels content, safe, and explorative.
They behave this way because they trust their needs will be met by their caregiver who is readily available and consistent in their responses towards them. Simply put, a securely attached child “is confident when their caregiver leaves and happy when they return,” says Dr. Melissa Schacter, DMFT, a licensed psychotherapist in South Florida.
In adult relationships: If you have a secure attachment style, you tend to be more satisfied in your relationships because you feel connected to your partner, while still enjoying the freedom to pursue your own interests and friendships. A securely attached person isn’t jealous or possessive because they have confidence in themselves and in their relationship, so they don’t feel the need to constantly check in on their significant other. When two secure people get together, that’s basically a match made in attachment style heaven, according to Dr. Schacter, because striking a balance between intimacy and independence is vital in a healthy relationship.
2. Anxious Attachment
In childhood: This attachment style is synonymous with a child who’s emotionally distant and reluctant to discover his or her surroundings. Their caregiver is disengaged and often fails to provide them with the attention they require. Consequently, the child subconsciously believes they will be let down by their caregiver.
In adult relationships: Anxiously attached adults are emotionally starved and desperate for an unrealistic type of closeness. If you have an anxious attachment style, you likely expect your partner to “complete” you. Your desire to feel secure can overwhelm your partner, and they may pull away. Their distant response only confirms your anxiously-attached feelings of insecurity (fun!), so the cycle continues, says Schacter.
Jealousy and possessiveness are typically attributed to anxiously attached people. So, you often feel threatened when your partner spends time with friends or does anything without you. In the worst possible cases, Schacter says physical and/or emotional abuse can arise in such relationships because one person is trying to control the other.
3. Avoidant Attachment
In childhood: A child gets an avoidant attachment style when their caregiver is neglectful and inconsistent. In time, the child loses trust in them and decides to completely detach. Avoidants are highly independent from a young age because experience has taught them the only people they can fully rely on are themselves.
In adult relationships: If you’re a person with an avoidant attachment style, you generally don’t like it when others depend on you and don’t want to depend on others. Your quest for independence can often be construed as an attempt to avoid attachment altogether.
In Schacter’s experience, partners of avoidants frequently complain about a lack of intimacy and a close connection. If this sounds like you, you probably have a hard time trusting anyone, which makes it hard for you to open up and relate to others.
Why is it important to identify your attachment style?
Schacter uses the principles of attachment theory with her patients, regardless of whether they’re single or attached. Never been in a romantic relationship? No problem. She suggests looking at your friendships for insight into your attachment style and to use that information to avoid problems later in life.
If you have a secure attachment style, you’re probably not worried about how it affects your relationship. But even if you’re anxious or avoidant, the good news is that you’re not stuck with the attachment style you formed as a child.
“It can change and develop,” Schacter explains. “And you can work on it through self-awareness, education, and therapy.” In her practice, Schacter relies on the three main attachment styles to work with her clients. Still, she says none are as black or white as they seem because psychology is full of grey areas.
Can you change your attachment style?
When counseling couples, Schacter helps them identify their attachment style(s) so they can improve their communication and respond to one another in a more sensitive manner. For example, when an anxiously attached person is fighting with their partner about unanswered texts, the other person can speak to what’s really going on and say: “I know you might be feeling a little fearful or anxious that I didn’t call you, but I want to remind you that I love you.” This addresses the underlying issue, rather than getting lost in irrelevant details.
Wondering if your feelings about your partner will change over time? Here’s how to tell:
Plus, your attachment style can change as you get to know your partner better, explains Schacter. “There’s normal developmental stuff in a relationship, and your attachment style can vary depending on your life stage and/or whom you’re with,” she says. In a new relationship, for instance, it’s normal to have some anxious attachment initially because you don’t know each other. Ideally, that will change into secure attachment as your relationship becomes more solid.
Even if it’s not that simple, what’s ultimately important is knowing that, with the right motivation and support, you can always develop a healthy attachment style.
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