It may not be your fault if you have a tendency to either push or scare people away. The way you act in relationships is heavily influenced by your early childhood experiences and genetics. For example, some people experience trauma in their early childhood; others do not. Some people have an easygoing disposition; others are prone to anxiety. One way our early childhood experiences can come to effect our later relationships is explained by Attachment Theory.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory claims that you need to form a “secure attachment” to a primary caregiver in early childhood (before age 6) for normal social and emotional development to take place. This is just an academic way of saying that it’s critical to have close bonds with someone that can comfort, protect, and feed you given that humans don’t become self-sufficient for years. Because children are so vulnerable, they engage in certain evolved behaviors, such as crying and smiling, to reestablish proximity to their caregiver when they feel upset or threatened.
Likewise, caregivers evolved to respond to children’s needs. A warm, attentive, and responsive parent can sometimes tell just from the way their child is acting what it is that they need. This attentiveness allows caregivers to respond quickly and effectively, thereby preventing or shortening stressful experiences for the child.
No parent gets it right all the time, but so long as a child is not chronically experiencing intense distress, they should develop a secure attachment to their caregiver, and normal emotional and social skills. On the other hand, if a child's needs consistently go unmet, and they spend too much time in a highly distressed state, they will eventually adapt to that situation either by withdrawing, or working even harder to connect with their caregiver. These different strategies for meeting one’s needs are called “attachment styles.”
In the late 1980s, developmental psychologists came to realize that these attachment styles inform our later relationships. Early childhood experiences contribute to our expectations about relationships in general, and we bring this working model to all subsequent intimate relationships. There are two broad dimensions along which these patterns of relating vary: anxiety and avoidance. Secure attachments are neither anxious nor avoidant. If attachment is insecure, it is either anxious, avoidant, or both.
Thankfully, these attachment styles aren’t fixed, which means if you’re experiencing relationship problems because of your attachment style, there’s hope! Unfortunately, this also means that if you are securely attached now, you could become anxious or avoidant later on. Maintaining secure attachments is an ongoing process. The key to becoming or remaining secure is to understand the different tendencies of different styles of attachment, and to learn how to counteract unhelpful behaviors with healthier responses.
What is my attachment style?
Read the following statements and select the one that most closely matches your experiences:
A: I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
B: I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
C: I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
If you chose A, you’re most likely securely attached.
If you chose B, you probably have an anxious attachment style.
If you chose C, you probably have an avoidant attachment style.
(Note: There is a longer/better version of this quiz in the book Attached that you can use if you feel fairly certain you aren’t securely attached, but you still aren’t sure if you are more anxious or more avoidant in your style of relating to others.)
Again, don’t freak out if you got B or C. The important thing is that while you can’t control the past, but you can positively influence your future if you take responsibility for your attachment by learning what your tendencies are and how to challenge them. Roughly 20% of people are anxious and another 25% percent are avoidant in their attachment style (Levine, 2010).
If you’re anxious:
- Acknowledge and accept your relationship needs and tendencies. You may need to be reassured often about the stability of your relationship. Because people prone to anxious attachment tend to date avoidant individuals, you may have come to expect a baseline level of anxiety in relationships. This may lead you to misinterpret stability in a relationship as a lack of passion. Don’t confuse anxious arousal for romantic interest.
- Learn to recognize protest behaviors: strategies for getting your partner’s attention when your needs are not being met. These include things like loitering, excessive texting, or keeping score (he didn’t text me back for 2 hours, so I can’t respond for 2 hours). Noticing the impulse to engage in these behaviors can alert you to your unmet needs and encourage you to reflect.
If you’re avoidant:
- Acknowledge and accept your relationship needs and tendencies. You still need to feel loved and accepted, despite your difficulty with intimacy. You may tend to mistake extreme self-reliance for independence. The former leads to isolation; the latter, to stable boundaries.
- Recognize and resist common deactivating strategies: strategies to resist the vulnerability that comes with connection. Examples include: pulling away from a relationship when things are going well, flirting with others when in a committed relationship, keeping secrets, or threatening to leave. These strategies may be a sign that you are truly unhappy in your relationship, but often they are simply ways of avoiding deeper connection.
We hope these explanations for why you may be struggling in your current relationships have given you some clarity and optimism for the future. Like so many things, attachment is a process, and all there ever is to do is the next right thing.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Hazan, C., and P. R. Shaver. “Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (1987): 511-24.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - And Keep - Love. Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin Group.
Written by Sophie Wright
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