Psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of establishing a secure attachment style during childhood. However, we have only just begun to understand how childhood attachment bonds influence the ways in which we form relationships as adults. In fact, understanding your predominant attachment style can help you comprehend, amongst other things, why intimacy bothers you, why you flee from commitment or why you simply can’t handle the idea of emotional dependence.
If we think back, it was John Bowlby – an important psychologist and British psychiatrist – who in the 1950s shared with the scientific community the importance of studying childhood attachment and the evolutionary basis of forming relationships. At present, the most advanced research on attachment shows that our first affective bonds are as important to us as adults as they are during childhood, and that our fundamental ability to cultivate strong interpersonal ties depends on our primary relationships and experiences in life. Specifically, when we speak of attachment, we refer to the behaviors and the relationship established between a baby and its available primary caregivers, although the connection between a baby and its parents has already begun to develop since the beginning of pregnancy.
The long shadow of attachment
Today, we know that through our first experiences cultivating these attachments, our brain creates “automatic mental pilots” that influence our perception of the world, ourselves and others. More specifically, recognizing our predominant attachment style will allow us to understand how we connect with others and what we expect from the relationships in our lives. Likewise, our attachment styles dictate our feelings towards intimacy, the ways in which we react to conflict, how we express our desires and needs to our partner, how we feel in our sexual relationships, which sexual or romantic partners we choose, and even how we deal with breakups. In fact, authors such as Olga Barroso say that “there is a high correlation between the security of a person’s attachment style and the quality of communication between them and their partners and their abilities to provide care in emotional relationships.”
At this point, I think it’s time to put on our detective caps. Let’s investigate what your attachment style is and try to decipher the codes of your partner’s style or “couple’s project”, if it’s not too late. For this, it is necessary to know the different attachment styles out there. For now, we will give clues to three of the four attachment styles scientifically researched by researchers like Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues in the late 70s: secure attachment, avoidant-distancing attachment and anxious-ambivalent attachment. Let us begin!
Adults with a secure attachment style feel comfortable in interpersonal relationships, enjoy intimacy and are able to appreciate and reciprocate warmth and affection. They do not tend to worry too much about the relationships in their life and they know how to communicate their needs and emotions when a conflict arises. In addition, they have the ability to interpret their partner’s signals and provide support when needed. As a result, they usually choose partners with whom they can establish a stable relationship in which there is reciprocity of care. On the sexual level, they show initiative, are open to sexual exploration and feel comfortable with the erotic intimacy. If we look back, these people (who are so lucky, why not say it) were accompanied in a sensitive, consistent and conscious way by their attachment figures, helping them to generating a strong and positive self-image. That is, they established a secure attachment with their primary caregivers.
However, there are other family environments in which an avoidant attachment style is established, characterized by emotionally-distance relationships between the child and attachment figure. In this case, the parents often have difficulties managing their own emotions and, therefore, cannot possibly be in tune with the emotion of their children. As a result, these children learn to be independent, to fend for themselves and to disconnect from their emotions. Individuals with this attachment style often have difficulty identifying, expressing and regulating their emotions. It makes sense that adults with this attachment style, due to the absence of moments of intimacy shared with their caregivers, find it difficult to get intimate within their relationships and may even be uncomfortable with physical and emotional contact.
In addition, they often feel overwhelmed at the thought of physical affection and may associate expectations of intimacy with a loss of independence. As psychiatrist and psychotherapist Mario Marrone assures, people with an avoidant attachment style “have difficulty compromising in a relationship and find it difficult to give clear messages that denote their availability on a deeper level”. On a sexual level, they prefer unattached sexual relations without emotional intimacy. People with this attachment style often identify with the following statements: “It’s hard for me to support my partner if he’s having a hard time”, “For me, independence is more important than relationships”, “My partner often asks for more love and affection than I would like” or “I prefer casual sex over a committed partner.”
In the case of the anxious attachment style, attachment figures were not consistently available during childhood, causing these children to grow up feeling some uncertainty and anxiety when they cannot make predictions about what they can expect from their attachment figure. This confusion can generate a great need for intimacy and emotional contact, accompanied by deep feelings of insecurity and a lack of confidence. They crave and need intimacy, tend to consume a lot of emotional energy in their relationships and are afraid that their partner cannot reciprocate. Often, they feel as though they can’t count on the emotional support of their partners alone and are dragged down by an infantile need to have their partners physically close to them at all times. In this case, Mario Marrone states that “these people tend to fall in love quickly and rush to choose their partner. They tend to be indecisive, dependent and jealous.” On a sexual level, they feel more secure and prefer more intense emotional components of a relationship over friendship. People with this style of attachment identify with the following statements: “I am often overwhelmed by the possibility that my partner may stop loving or liking me,” “I feel incomplete when I do not have a partner,” “I think about my current and past relationships a lot,””I worry about not being attractive enough” or “I am very aware of my partner’s moods.”
If you’ve been reading carefully and can already identify the attachment styles of yourself and your partner, you will notice that two people with secure attachment styles will report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationship than other combinations. However, Cupid does not always stop to think about attachment styles before he shoots his arrows. When his arrows produce a combination of two people with incompatible attachment styles, it is evident that satisfaction levels will be lower. Of all the possible combinations, the most problematic combination is anxious-avoidant. It makes sense: if my style is avoidant, I will tend to take emotional distance and not compromise. This will cause the person with an anxious style to feel even more insecure and crave even more emotional connection. In turn, this will make the person with the avoidant style feel as though their privacy and personal space is being invaded, causing them to retreat. Consequently, this will exacerbate the person with the anxious style’s fear of abandonment.
An influence, not a determinant
Your attachment style is continuously developing and changing throughout your life. Therefore, if you have identified that your attachment style is far from a secure attachment, all is not lost. Your attachment style will evolve to a style of “secure attachment acquired.” It will depend on how aware, involved and prepared you are to heal your wounds and relationships with friends, partners and even therapists that you establish from now on. Keep in mind that they can help you repair your wounds and maximize all your resources, but the important thing is how you perceive yourself.
Finally, I encourage you to stand in front of the mirror once again, put on your detective cap. Try to understand what you see and how you feel, and then think about what your primary attachment figure saw and how they felt. As we now know, understanding your attachment style will affect the way you perceive and behave with your partner, but I encourage you to first focus on your relationship with yourself. After all, I am sure that no person who is now in your life or who is going to cross your path in the near future will spend more time with you than yourself.