We unconsciously act the way we do in romantic relationships for a good reason. Human beings have an innate drive to form emotional bonds with people who are precious to us. We suffer when we aren’t able to create secure bonds. The need for secure attachment is part of our inherited survival strategy.
Historically, we survive better in packs than alone. Solitary confinement is one of the most devastating forms of punishment. Even though children in orphanages in war-torn countries have food, clothing and shelter, they frequently get sick and sometimes die without adequate loving attention. That’s how important emotional attachment is to us.
Healthy relationships are the number one predictor of our ability to heal from serious disease and maintain emotional and physical health. We live four years longer when we have healthy bonded relationships. (reference 7)
Psychological research shows that when we’re children, we develop one of four attachment styles based on the parenting style of our caregivers. According to Dr. Edward Tronick’s research, the attachment style of a one-year-old predicts the attachment style of a 25-year-old. (reference 3)
We develop our attachment style as babies. We instinctively figure out the best way to survive. Now as adults, our attachment style influences all of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors at an unconscious level.
Attachment styles have two categories: secure and insecure.
The insecure styles are divided into two sub-categories: (1) anxious and (2) avoidant. Some people have a third insecure style called anxious-avoidant.
1. Secure attachment style
Fifty percent of us enjoy a secure attachment style. Our parents were emotionally healthy, responsive and physically present. As children, we felt understood and cherished. We felt safe and secure. Our physical needs were met. There was no harsh discipline or emotional neglect or icy distance. Appropriate discipline was coupled with warmth and reassurance that we were loved and liked. We were given the appropriate amount of freedom to explore the world in a safe way, and encouraged to develop our unique personality. As adults, we anticipate that people will like us and we will like them. We develop healthy relationships and set appropriate boundaries for self-care.
Insecure Attachment Styles
2. Anxious Attachment Style
Twenty percent of our population has an anxious attachment style. Our parents were inconsistent in meeting our emotional or physical needs. We became watchful, trying to figure out how to please our parents so they wouldn’t abandon us. As adults, we worry that our partner will leave us if there is conflict. We might feel jealous.
When we don’t get our needs met, we get angry because anger is easier to feel than the loneliness of separation.
When we feel misunderstood and unloved, we become stressed. We act in a manner that is critical, defensive or contemptuous. We’re trying to get our partner to connect with us, but inadvertently we push our partner away. We’re called “pursuers” in the language of Adult Attachment Theory.
An anxious attachment style isn’t right or wrong. The description helps us understand each other and ourselves. Don’t beat yourself up if you have this style. Anxious attachment style people often mate with avoidant styles who withdraw in the heat of conflict, leaving us feeling more anxious because we feel the pain of being left alone.
3. Avoidant Attachment Style
Twenty-three percent of us have an avoidant attachment style. Our parents were emotionally or physically unavailable, neglectful or downright abusive. Scared and tense in our bodies, we became hyper-vigilant trying to intuit our parents’ unpredictable behavior. We had a big dilemma. How could we protect ourselves from parents who emotionally or physically hurt us, while being dependent on them to meet our basic needs for food, shelter and clothing? Without the much-needed emotional nurturance, our bodies didn’t feel safe, and we braced ourselves for potential threats. We emotionally distanced and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible. We tend to be loners as adults but that doesn’t mean we feel fulfilled. We experience physical pain, chronic fatigue, addictions and other diseases predictable from a lifetime of physiological hyper-arousal. We may fall into depression, or swing between anxiety and depression. Even when we want to form healthy relationships, we anticipate, “People won’t like me if they really know me, or I won’t like them.” We guard against getting too close. We may assume people will hurt us, or judge us, or try to control us. We’re called “withdrawers.”
4. Anxious/Avoidant Attachment Style
One percent of us have this combined style. We may jump into relationships quickly, feeling the endorphin high of romance, or we may hang back for a long time trying to determine if we’re safe with a potential partner. We’re often attracted to a person who also has an insecure attachment style. When conflicts arise, we try to work it out for a while. But if our partner doesn’t respond positively, we withdraw to protect ourselves. Then it’s difficult to open our hearts again, even when our partner begs us to connect, unless there’s a strong friendship already established.
The healthiest relationships contain at least one person with a secure attachment style. When conflicts arise, the secure attachment style partner provides a stable emotional base so the other partner still feels loved. To use an analogy, when the couple is dancing, and the insecure partner stumbles, the secure partner is grounded and warm-hearted enough to help the other regain their balance. (reference 6)
The good new is: People with insecure attachment styles can learn how to repair attachment injuries and connect in emotionally healthy ways. Couples can develop “earned secure attachment” so they both feel safe, understood and loved. Psychotherapy can help you make the changes you desire in your self and in your relationships.
The science of Adult Attachment Theory is relatively new. With the development of fMRI machines, neuroscience has been able to understand the interplay between our emotions, our physiological reactions and our behaviors, and what happens to make us feel safe or scared in our relationships. (reference 5)
Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and Attachment Styles
Research by Dr. Elaine Aron indicates that HSPs raised by parents who meet their emotional and physical needs develop secure attachment styles just like non-HSPs who have healthy parents. As these HSPs mature, they function well in relationships and they reach their life goals even better than many non-HSPs. They are creative, smart, compassionate, intuitive and innovative.
However, when the emotional and physical needs of HSP children are not met, they react stronger to the deprivation or abuse than non-HSPs. Their nervous systems respond with hyper-arousal (like pressing your foot on the car accelerator, driving at high speeds) or hypo-arousal (like having your foot at the brake), or vacillating between the two. HSPs are more prone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to Dr. Elaine Aron’s research.
It’s challenging to form healthy bonded intimate relationships as an adult if we have an insecure attachment style. However, if we’re fortunate enough to mate with a secure attachment-style person, or we learn how to change our patterns in a course of successful psychotherapy, we can enjoy a flourishing life. We can change our insecure attachment style to “earned secure attachment.”
If you’d like help to change your attachment style, contact the author: Benita A. Esposito, LPC. Complete the contact page to schedule a 10-minute complimentary phone interview to see if her services are a good fit for you. Click here to read Benita’s credentials.
1) Article: The Science Of Adult Attachment: Are You Anxious, Avoidant Or Secure? posted on Elite Daily
3) Video: “The Still Face Experiment.” Learn what happens to the nervous system of a baby when her mother no longer attunes to her. Edward Tronick youtube video
4) Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. 2010
5. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. Sue Johnson. 2014
6. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Sue Johnson. 2014
7. Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health. Dean Ornish, MD
Copyright. All rights reserved. The Esposito Institute, Inc.