“I think I have attachment issues” is a statement that’s often uttered within romantic relationships as individuals wrestle with feeling like they either get attached way too easily or struggle getting attached to other people.
Attachment issues can rear up as you navigate the dating phase of a relationship all the way into marriage and parenthood. Attachment styles have an impact on everything from how you select a partner to how your relationship progresses or ends. To understand how healthy or unhealthy attachment impacts your relationships and how attachment styles operate in relationships, we first must take a step back in time.
Your Attachment Style Develops in Childhood, But it Doesn’t Stop There
As an adult, when you realize you struggle with something, it’s easy to find yourself asking “What is wrong with me?” This often leads to a cycle of negative self-talk which can further damage your relationships and self-image.
The truth is, however, that to figure out what’s going on, you must travel back to your childhood and even before that. Neurochemically, attachment starts to form even in the womb. When a mother is excited about getting pregnant and having a baby, gets proper nutrition and rest, stays away from toxins like alcohol and drugs, and minimizes the stress and anxiety she undergoes, a baby’s brain can develop optimally.
Once the baby is born, if he or she is immediately given to the mother, nurtured, loved and attended to, trust begins to develop. As the baby cries and his or her needs are met by the mother or consistent caretaker, the bonding cycle occurs. As the child cries out and is comforted, he or she begins to regulate. When a mother makes soothing sounds, movements, and remains calm, the baby begins to adjust his or her regulatory system and breathing to the mother.
This cycle happens repeatedly over the first year and into childhood. This cycle develops a baby’s ability to trust and shapes a positive world view from which the child will experience the world and others.
When we understand that, it starts to paint a picture of what can go wrong and why only about 55% of adults have a secure attachment style.
What Goes Wrong in the Attachment Cycle
If a baby is brought into an environment where the touch, smells, and sounds aren’t nurturing, but are chaotic and distressing, it can cause trauma to the child. If the baby cries out and his or her needs are not met, mistrust develops. If this continues to happen, eventually the child will stop crying and trying to get help from the mother or those around him or her.
If a child cries and sometimes has his or her needs met and sometimes doesn’t (which can happen in the case of an abusive caregiver), this inconsistent response will cause a heightened state of anxiety in the child, because he or she will never know how the caregiver is going to react or if his or her needs will be met.
These scenarios can lead to attachment issues or attachment disorders. If a situation stirs up memories from your childhood or reminds you of your mother or caregiver, it could be a clue as to why you may have an unhealthy attachment style.
Before you blame your parents or think to yourself, “You know, I had a great childhood, but I have attachment issues,” it’s also important to remember that while attachment is formed in infancy and childhood, there may be intervening experiences that subsequently impacted your attachment as an adult.
Attachment Styles: What they Are and How they Form
Again, attachment is the emotional bond that occurs between a child and a mother or caregiver. Psychologist John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory. He defined attachment as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”
Bowlby stressed the importance of a child’s relationship with his or her mother for emotional, social, and cognitive development and identified two attachment styles. In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth expanded upon Bowlby’s work by adding a third and later, in 1986, Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style.
The four attachment styles are:
- Secure Attachment
- Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment
- Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment
- Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
Each style measures an individual’s tendencies towards avoidance of relationships, anxiety in relationships, and closeness in relationships.
Children and adults with secure attachments are low in avoidance and anxiety. They are comfortable getting close to others and trust that they can depend on those close to them. In relationships, adults with secure attachment have no problem going to their partner when distressed or offering comfort when their partner is distressed. Their relationships are open and honest. They allow others to get close to them and don’t have a fear of abandonment.
Securely attached adults depend on others easily. They’re also comfortable being independent and not relying on others for their sole happiness or security. Securely attached individuals have high self-esteem. As children, they greeted their parents with positive emotions and as adults they greet others with positive, trusting emotions as well. They’re empathetic towards others and display emotional maturity and awareness.
Children and adults with anxious-preoccupied attachment are low in avoidance and have high anxiety in relationships. They’re very insecure in relationships and often have a fear that their partner doesn’t love them or will abandon them.
They look to their partner to complete them or save them from themselves or a situation. Their fear and anxiety can cause them to be clingy, demanding, or possessive in relationships. They’re often looking for security and safety in relationships, but their behaviors can push their partners away, causing their fears to be realized.
If a partner of an individual with this attachment style is independent or socializes without him or her, this individual may engage in negative self-talk that reaffirms his or her fears, such as saying things like:
- “I’m not really loved.”
- “Why doesn’t he want to spend time with me?”
- “I knew she was going to leave me; I can’t trust her.”
An individual with a dismissive-avoidant attachment is high in avoidance of relationships and low in anxiety about losing relationships. These individuals often have high self-esteem, but a low assessment of others in a relationship. They can easily start relationships; however, they have difficulty knowing how to keep them growing or how to deal with them once they’re established.
Their personalities are often very charming, alluring, inviting, and warm. However, they often lead very inward-focused lives and once they start to realize their partner has irritating qualities, places demands on their time, needs love and affection, and is critical of their behavior, they begin to dismiss them.
They read these signs as a belief that they “can’t do anything right” and then get confused when they’re told they’re loved and adored. The individual with this attachment style often withholds showing too much affection and is careful not to touch or engage in emotional discussions too much. You’ll often find them saying things like “You deserve better,” “I can’t give you what you need,” or “You’d be better off without me.”
These individuals often speak very highly of their partner and love him or her, so they know something is wrong and there is a disconnect. In these individuals, there is a disconnect between their conscious thoughts and emotional system; their thoughts tell them the individual is a great fit, but their emotional systems respond to the partner’s love as a threat that triggers anxiety.
This pattern is like that which typically emerges in childhood toward parents. The child either idolizes a parent from a distance or dismisses the parent from their mind and shuts down the possibilities of a relationship.
This person can often become isolated and will deny his or her need for love and affection. Love and affection are often deemed threatening because they were not made available to them as a child. Because love and affection were not available, the child pushed feelings of sadness away until he or she became strong and confident without it.
Then when they’re met with love and affection, it often causes those suppressed issues to rise to the surface because their yearning is reignited, and it makes them feel vulnerable and uncomfortable; therefore, they push the loving person away.
Sometimes referred to as “anxious-avoidant attachment”, individuals with fearful-avoidant attachment are high on avoidance in relationships and high in anxiety in relationships. They are both uncomfortable with intimacy with others and find it difficult to trust or depend on other people.
These individuals tend to have mixed emotions and suffer from emotional storms because they can’t keep their feelings of anxiety at bay. They’re also conflicted between feelings of wanting to get close to an individual but believing that if they get too close, they’ll get hurt.
Individuals with this attachment issue are often in very tumultuous or dramatic relationships with intense highs and lows. They can swing from feeling trapped by their partner to clinging to him or her. Individuals with fearful-avoidant attachment can also find themselves in abusive relationships.
These individuals often have negative views of others and of themselves. They want to rely on others but feel uncomfortable doing so. They can be anti-social, narcissistic, or unable to regulate emotions.
Individuals with fearful-avoidant attachment often had parents who responded to their needs in threatening ways or were unable to provide the comfort and support they needed. This attachment style is often linked to neglect and abuse and if individuals are not careful, they can replay this script with their own children. Studies also indicate that this attachment style has an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
How Attachment Styles Impact Your Relationships
As you can see, attachment styles impact relationships in several ways, from the way you handle touch and affection to the way you think to the statements you make; it can cultivate or crush your relationships. It can also impact your relationship with yourself.
While it can be disheartening to learn that attachment issues may have been playing themselves out in your life since birth, the good news is that you can re-develop secure attachment! Attachment issues can heal, and you can go on to form healthy and secure attachment in your relationships.
One of the first steps towards healing your attachment style is to allow yourself to feel the pain of the past and try to make sense of it. By creating a narrative around your past and understanding what was at play, how it made you feel, and how it’s impacting your current thoughts and interactions, you can take the first step towards changing your attachment patterns in relationships.
If you’d like the help of a Christian counselor to process your attachment style and work towards healthy attachment in your relationships, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Call the office today or visit our online counselor directory to schedule an appointment.
“Pregnancy Belly”, Courtesy of PetraSolajova, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Mother and Daughter”, Courtesy of Neildodhia, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Kissing in the Snow”, Courtesy of StockSnap, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Fight”, Courtesy of Antranias, Pixabay.com, CC0 License