Over the last couple of chats on Radio Live Sunday Morning, Mark Sainsbury and I have talked about love and attachment and in the last of our talks on the topic we discussed insecure attachment, how that can effect us throughout our life and make intimate loving relationships hard. (Click here for audio of the interview)
Broadly speaking, attachment difficulties between mother and baby fall into two main categories. The effect on the infant are described as either leading to a “anxious/ ambivalent attachment” or an “avoidant attachment”. And, when it comes to more obvious and horrific abuse, the research talks about “disorganized attachment” which leads to highly chaotic adult behaviour and extreme difficulty functioning in the world.
But back to anxious and avoidant attachment, what do these terms mean and what sorts of parenting cause it? Firstly Avoidant attachment:
“There are adults who are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They have formed an avoidant attachment with a misattuned parent.”
And anxious or ambivalent attachment…
“Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.” (Click here for the whole article)
As the field of attachment research grew, lead at first by the psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, people natrually started to explore how these attachment patterns persevered into adulthood. It seems that out of all of our experiences of attachment we form what are called “working models” of how relationships are supposed to look and feel, and these do largely reflect our earliest experiences.
As individuals we may have a number of different working models, for example some people can have very stable and satisfying friendships, but find themselves unable to manage their emotions and responses in intimate relationships. They may be securely attached in friendships, but insecurely attached in intimate relationships.
In my experience, and the literature backs this up, when we fall in love we are most likely to fall into the patterns of our primary attachment relationship.
So what do adult attachment styles look like?
- Secure Attachment – Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. Secure adults offer support when their partner feels distressed. They also go to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving toward each other
- Anxious Preoccupied Attachment – Unlike securely attached couples, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond. Instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger. Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they take actions that push their partner away. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner.
- Dismissive Avoidant Attachment – People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They often come off as focused on themselves and may overly attend to their own creature comforts. People with a dismissive avoidant attachment tend to lead more inward lives, both denying the importance of loved ones and detaching easily from them. They are often psychologically defended and have the ability to shut down emotionally.
- Fearful Avoidant Attachment – A person with a fearful avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state of being afraid of being both too close to or too distant from others. They attempt to keep their feelings at bay but are unable to; they can’t just avoid their anxiety or run away from their feelings. Instead, they are overwhelmed by their reactions and often experience emotional storms. The person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, then feel trapped when they are close.
So what helps us change these patterns? Insight helps, and that’s why I really encourage you to take five minutes to complete this questionnaire and learn more about your attachment style. Ultimately however, if your experience is one of insecure attachment as a child, therapy can help by offering an ongoing secure relationship experience. It can also help to allow yourself to have an ongoing, safe and secure attachment with an intimate partner, and ideally one who has a secure attachment style.
So as I’ve been saying over the last few weeks, love really is the cure.