Psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., explains how to form healthy relationships in this article from YourTango.
Your attachment style might not be as set in stone as you think.
How men and women interact with romantic partners as adults has a lot to do with their attachment styles that may get triggered in relationships, which — according to attachment theory — are often deeply influenced or developed in childhood.
Attachment theory, pioneered by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and later expanded upon by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is “a psychological model attempting to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans,” which describes “how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat.”
Human beings are programmed to search out primary attachment figures as protectors when threatened. When we seek help, we actually often enhance our capacity to survive a dangerous situation.
There are many factors that can influence our attachment adaption — including medical procedures, epigenetics (how a person’s genes are expressed), and a child’s temperament — but we’re going to be looking at this through the lens of parent-child interactions in childhood. This model suggests that you first learned how to love and behave in relationships based on how your parents treated you as a child and the ways and methods in which they showed you affection.
When you’re a child, you’re very impressionable and responsive to the relational environment you’re born into. You learn from your parents what relationships look like, what you can expect, and what you may project on later partners as you grow older — based a lot on how your caregivers treat you. We can think of any caretaker as a “mothering presence” or as a primary attachment figure — which could include fathers, older siblings, grandparents and/or a nanny, etc.
Children also are very aware of how their parents interact with each other, and we want to include grandparents and siblings as well, because the whole relational field we are exposed to often becomes a part of our relational blueprint that we unconsciously refer to when we enter into adult relationships later. Our adult relationships can influence if we are moving closer or farther away from secure attachment as well.
As a result, your experiences in your primary childhood relationships help form your attachment style — which, simply put, deeply influences how you approach and behave in relationships as an adult.
As an infant, we have no choice but to adapt to the benefits, as well as the deficits, of our caregivers, who often inherited them or learned them from their own parents. This transmission of behavior, attitude and expectation is often passed down unconsciously from one generation to the next.
In most cases, I believe parents do the best they can and it serves us all when anyone of us makes a commitment to heal attachment injury and help restore and learn secure attachment skills.
There are two core types of attachment styles: secure attachments and insecure attachments.
If you were raised in a healthy, pro-social home, you likely learned to be securely attached in relationships.
Adults with a secure attachment style are comfortable showing and receiving love. They feel safe expressing their needs in a relationship and trust their partners’ abilities to meet them.
Securely attached folks are also autonomous and able to self-regulate, as well as enjoy interactive regulation where they can be comforted by their partner and provide comfort for their partner in return. They’re protective of their loved ones and honor the confidentiality of their relationship — making it a priority to share their problems, challenges and celebrations with each other first.
They stay connected and tethered to one another while are also feeling comfortable spending time alone.
However, while a secure attachment style is ideal, many people did not grow up in a securely attached home, which can result in the development of an insecure attachment style.
An insecure attachment can further be categorized into three sub-sets: an avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, or disorganized attachment style.
But once you’ve developed an attachment style as a child, are you stuck with it for life? Is it possible to change your behavior and become more securely attached in romantic relationships as an adult?
The good news is that yes, your attachment style can change over time.
Although you may relate more strongly to one of the four attachment styles than the others, your behaviors and responses in relationships as an adult may be fluid to some degree — rather than just “fixed” in one specific attachment style. You may have a mix of attachment adaptions depending on the relational environment you are in and how you respond to specific people or situations.
Often when we’re tired, stressed or find ourselves in a particularly difficult relationship, we may default into insecure attachment patterns — such as finding ourselves withdrawn, disconnected or alternatively being clingy or feeling abandoned or unlovable.
As you move through life and encounter different significant relationships, your attachment style can become influenced by theirs.
For example, if your attachment style is insecure, dating a partner with a secure style — or a partner that’s willing to work towards learning secure attachment skills — can actually be beneficial and teach you more positive methods of giving and receiving love. Both partners can mutually benefit and help heal each other.
Likewise, securely attached people may need to be careful when over-trusting and perhaps finding themselves in a particularly difficult relationship, i.e. domestic violence. That may shift them from secure to disorganized until the partners heal the relationship or they find they need to leave the relationship.
We can do things that enhance our attachment bond and help us repair misunderstandings.
Whether you are secure or insecurely attached, it’s important not to think of this as a label that defines you as “bad” or “good.”
Your attachment style is a result of how you’ve adapted to different situations and relationships with a variety of people. It’s best to honor the experiences you’ve had in your life and realize that even if they’ve been difficult, there are practices that can help you heal as much as possible.
I call these corrective experiences. The “kind eyes” exercise in the video below is just one example.
Understanding your relationship history and your attachment adaptions along with other healing modalities can really help you enjoy more fun, fulfilling and meaningful relationships, as well as enhance your capacity to explore the depths of intimacy and authenticity.
We all deserve to live a well-loved life and to learn to love well!
It’s reassuring to know but if you would like to become more securely attached in relationships as an adult, you can develop healthier responses to stressors and work toward overcoming your personal challenges. There is a way to do it.
As you heal the painful circumstances that caused you to develop insecure attachment, you can shift toward a more fulfilling relationship style as you work on core issues and focus on corrective experiences, instead of letting your emotional reactions overcome you that may push away the people you love the most.
Here’s how people with a tendency toward any of the 3 insecure attachment styles can become more securely attached in healthy romantic relationships as adults.
1. Avoidant attachment style
People with avoidant attachment styles may have been neglected or rejected when they were younger. When parents are not present or very negative, the child has no choice but to try to do things on their own because literally no one is there for them in a way they can safely connect with or attach to.
They largely rely on themselves and often require hefty amounts of alone time in order to feel comfortable. They find safety in solitude because of this early situation. This can clearly put a damper on a relationship, as an avoidant’s partner might feel ignored, rejected, neglected, or unloved.
One of the easiest ways to help make an avoidant partner feel better about opening up is to help them feel welcome and let them know you enjoy their presence.
Try to give them time to shift from aloneness to connection, as that can be a stressful transition until they experience the nourishment they can find and enjoy in your relationship.
Because they were left alone too much without someone to reflect emotional states back to them, they often don’t read social cues properly — so they may misunderstand or not notice your emotional state or be aware of your needs, so you may have to help them understand that more definitively over time.
The most important thing to remember is that just because someone has a tendency to distance themselves, that doesn’t mean they don’t love you; it’s just that they need to learn that they are capable of experiencing safety in connection, as well as aloneness.
2. Ambivalent attachment style
Someone with ambivalent attachment style likely had a parent whose emotional responses were neither consistent not predictable. They experienced inconsistent responsiveness to their needs. As a result, they have a hard time relaxing in a relationship — even when it feels initially loving — because they expect to be abandoned. Because of this “on again, off again” parenting style they experienced in their childhood, they often resist seeing caring behaviors in others as adults, because they fear that if they relax, something bad might happen.
In order for someone with ambivalent attachment style to change their responses, it’s helpful to practice consistent responses, reassuring them of your devotion, and helping them to stay present to your caring behaviors toward them. Reassure them that you will be there for them in the future through thick and thin.
Reassurance goes a long way towards helping an ambivalent calm their over-active attachment system.
Over time, as they learn to receive your love and affection and trust you to really be there enough of the time, they can relax and move more towards secure attachment.
They also need to learn to take a pause and not put too much pressure on their partner to immediately meet their needs in what they might consider a perfect way. This is unrealistic, and it helps for them to learn to be a little more self-sufficient and self-soothing as they fill their desire to connect with their loved ones.
This may seem like an easy fix, but this corrective exercise will take a lot of patience and practice, as an ambivalent person’s worries may overwhelm them.
If someone is mildly dealing with the ambivalent pattern, they may mostly feel sad and disappointed even before you, as their partner, do anything disappointing…because that projection is coming from their history more than what’s happening in your relationship, which of course can be confusing for both of you.
It may be hard for them to forget past hurts and communicate mostly through complaining. They need to learn how to ask for their needs more directly and more positively, which often results in more satisfaction for them as well. In a way, they need to learn to tolerate satisfaction and fulfillment in relationships without immediately falling back on the fear of abandonment, and they may need your help as a partner to reassure them that you’re still there.
3. Disorganized attachment style
This particular attachment style can result from a child’s parents or guardians being scared or “scary.” Perhaps they came from a household where there was abuse, or perhaps the parent had chaotic, erratic behavior that kept their children from feeling safe.
Instinctively, children want to go to their parents for safety when they are afraid, and when they can’t — because their parent is the person making them feel unsafe — it creates a sense of lingering fear and discomfort that can last into adulthood.
We’re biologically programmed to seek out our primary attachment figure when we’re afraid or need comfort. When a parent is scary, we lose our safe haven and are left bereft without resources.
This means that while someone with disorganized attachment may long for intimacy and comfort, they are also afraid of it. On some level, they feel that relationships can be dangerous.
It may be that their parents felt burdened or overwhelmed when the child expressed their needs. The child may feel like a target for the parents’ unresolved fears or aggression. Sometimes, parents give very unclear directions and the child feels set up to fail.
Then, as an adult, you may get overwhelmed by simple decision-making problems or questions — sometimes as easy as, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” or “Do you want to try Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.?” — and retreat emotionally rather than choose.
To give someone with a disorganized attachment style a chance to heal their responses, it’s important to emphasize safety.
Help them find ways to feel safer in the relationship, which may include helping them find a calming exercise they can practice when they’re feeling overwhelmed and want to retreat or act out.
They also need to learn how to self-regulate when they’re distressed and you, as their partner, can help immensely if you know what calms them down when they’re anxious, overwhelmed or angry, as well as how to bring them up when they fall too far down in depression or lethargy.
This is the most complicated attachment scenario because their fear and threat response is often triggered in relationships. Doing an inventory of the things that make someone with this attachment style feel safer can really help you and your partner build a tool kit that supports regulation and safer connection.
Regardless of your attachment style, everyone can work toward building healthier and more secure attachment styles.
Work with your partner or a therapist if you feel that can be helpful.
While the issues in your past might have shaped your current attachment response, you are always capable of moving forward and creating a better, safer future for yourself, as well as supporting the same for your loved ones.
One of the greatest gifts we can give each other in a relationship is to support each other to learn secure attachment skills (SAS). Practice SAS with commitment in your intimate relationships — it is a win for all of us all the way around!
Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples understand and decode the attitudes and behaviors that were instilled in them from childhood so they can enjoy enduring love, intimacy and happiness. Visit her website to take a free attachment styles quiz or listen to her audiobook, Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How To Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.
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