In romantic relationships we respond and behave in different ways according to our attachment styles. Attachment styles are often unconscious. For example, you might notice someone is very clingy to their partner and infatuated by them, wanting to be together all the time, whereas others may be more aloof and feel uncomfortable with too much attention and affection. Some attachment styles are very expressive showing a lot of love and emotion. Others can be like that at the start and then start to create distance when things get too close for comfort.
A person’s attachment style is formed in their early childhood and becomes the schema for future attachments, or relationships in adulthood. So, if a person had an emotionally unavailable or unloving primary caregiver which impacted their ability to bond with one another, this will impact the child’s ability to establish secure romantic relationships. This can be explained in more detail by The Attachment Theory.
John Bowlby first introduced the concept of The Attachment Theory in the 1950’s. Which summarizes how our attachment style as an adult is a mirror reflection of the relationship we had with our primary caregiver.
Bowlby put forward three key facts about The Attachment Theory –
- Children who were raised by dependable caregivers who were always there, nurturing and loving them, are less likely to experience fear compared to those who didn’t have the same confidence in their caregivers being there for them.
- Experiences in the early years are so ingrained in our brains that they form the foundations of future relationships, and these foundations stay the same forever, unless a person actively makes changes in their adulthood.
- The reason why children form these foundations for future relationships based on their bonds with their caregivers is because they are the first bonds they establish with the world around them. Understandably, we assume that how responsive our caregivers were to our needs as babies, is how others will be responsive too – that’s why some people are more confident in their relationships than others.
Mary Ainsworth took The Attachment Theory further when she conducted a clinical experiment on infants, which she named “The Strange Situation”. This experiment involved 12-month-old infants and their parents in a room together with a stranger. The parents were then systematically removed from the room, leaving the infant in the room with a stranger and then the parent was brought back into the room.
Ainsworth and colleagues looked at how the infants responded to their parents leaving, how they interacted with the stranger when the parent wasn’t there, and lastly, how the infants reacted when their parents returned.
Results showed that around 70% of the infants were visibly upset when their parent left the room and avoided the stranger when their mother/father were not in the room. When their parent returned, they were actively looking for them and were easily comforted by them and were friendly with the stranger. This showed that they were securely attached to their parents and trusted that their parent would protect them when they were around.
Around 15% of the infants became very distressed when their parent first left and then when their parent returned, they had a very difficult time being comforted. They were showing signs that they wanted to be comforted, like crying, however, they also resisted their parents comfort, as if they were “punishing” them. This showed that they were anxious and resistant in their attachment.
The remaining 15% of infants didn’t show many signs of distress when their parent left and then when their parent returned, they were actively avoiding contact with the parent and focused on playing with toys, rather than reacting to their parent returning. This showed they were dismissive and avoidant in their attachment.
There were also a small number of infants who exhibited a mixed reaction – where they were a blend of anxious and resistant but may have also shown traits of being dismissive and avoidant too. Infants in this category were often confused and dazed throughout the experiment and their reactions were confusing.
Taking Bowlby’s attachment theory and Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation”, it was concluded there are four attachment style categories –
Today, I’m going to explain each attachment style, including examples of what these types of attachment styles look like in romantic relationships and end with tips on how to build a positive relationship with someone who does not have a secure attachment style.
I will start with secure attachment style as it is the healthiest form of attachment. People who had a reliable, loving and nurturing primary caregiver, are those that are more confident in their romantic relationships as adults. They don’t fear rejection, are comfortable with intimacy and are more trusting of others.
As you can see from “The Strange Situation” experiment, the children who were securely attached to their parents had so much trust in them that only when their parent was around, they felt safe, and even though the stranger was there at all times, they were only friendly with the stranger when their parent was visible in the room.
This level of confidence and trust means also being comfortable to ask for help and emotional support when needed in romantic relationships, like the infants did when they sought comfort and reassurance from their parents when they returned. People who have a secure attachment style can also be there for their loved ones when they need love and support.
According to psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, around 56% of adults have secure attachment style, which is great. However, that means 44% of adults fall into the insecure attachment style which includes, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles.
The common relationship traits in those with a secure attachment style includes –
- Can express their emotions appropriately.
- Can set healthy boundaries when needed.
- Are happy when alone and when with their partner.
- Have a healthy approach to intimacy.
- More capable of discussing problems in relationships in a constructive way.
- Accept and learn from mistakes and can move on from difficulty easily.
Hazan and Shaver found 19% of adults have anxious attachment style, which is driven by a huge fear of abandonment. Infants in Ainsworth’s “The Strange Situation” experiment who fit into the anxious attachment style were those that were distressed when their parents left and then craved comfort but were almost punishing their parents by resisting their efforts to comfort them because they were filled with anxiety and feelings of being abandoned again.
Much like the infants who were anxious when their parent left and distressed when they returned, people with anxious attachment style are very insecure, clingy and need a lot of validation to feel comforted. They read too much into things like their partner taking too long to respond or not answering the phone and then punish them when they do respond because they are holding on to the resentment of what they felt.
The most common relationship traits in those with anxious attachment style includes –
- Experience more stresses in relationships that are both real and made up, which lead to jealousy, anger, mood swings, being oversensitive and obsessive.
- Feel more nervous and more insecure about relationships – especially in romantic relationships.
- Needs constant words of praise, approval, and validation to know they are accepted and if they do not receive the validation, they react negatively and obsess over it.
- They often expect the worst in people before thinking of all possible options.
- Often misinterpret the words and behaviours of others due to constant negative thinking.
- Are more focused on drama and feel more comfortable in troubled relationships.
- Struggle to be alone and so may flit from bad relationship to another bad relationship.
Avoidant Attachment style
According to Hazan and Shafer, 25% of adults in romantic relationships have an avoidant attachment style. This is heavily linked to a fear or closeness or intimacy. They have trouble being close to others and lack trust in relationships. They maintain distance between themselves and others, which is exactly like the infants in “The Strange Situation” who were classed as having avoidant attachment style. These infants weren’t phased by their parent leaving and actively avoided them when they returned. People with avoidant attachment style prefer to be alone, even when around others, they can tune out.
The most common relationship traits in those with an avoidant attachment style includes –
- Avoid being genuinely intimate with others, where they may be vulnerable.
- They preach about being free and not being tied down to anyone or anything.
- Prioritize work, personal goals, their own passion projects and travelling etc above romantic relationships.
- Often have commitment issues and can move from relationship to relationship easily. If they are in relationships, they prefer to behave in a way that prioritizes their independence over their partner.
- Very few genuine friendships or close relationships.
- Can possess narcissistic traits or be very passive aggressive.
I used to be this type and I have worked very hard on recognizing my triggers and adapting my behavior to not let it sabotage my relationship.
Lastly, we have the disorganized attachment style, which can also be called fearful – avoidant attachment style and anxious –avoidant as it is a mix of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Those with disorganized attachment style are very conflicted – they want to be loved and crave attention, however, they also avoid it as much as they can. They want to be in a loving relationship, however, they take actions that show how reluctant they are to get close to someone.
Disorganized attachment style has been heavily linked to increased sexual acting out behaviours and violence in romantic relationships. Which can be because of the inner conflict within the individual.
The most common relationship traits in those with a disorganized attachment style includes –
- A lot of inner conflict – having deep desires, whilst also fighting the urge for intimacy.
- Lack confidence and trust in others and expecting them to be unreliable.
- Experienced difficult life experiences like being abandoned by family/friends, losing loved ones, and dealing with grief or abuse.
- Always suspicious of others and stuck in a negative cycle of thoughts.
- Struggle to make deep meaningful connections with friends and in romantic relationships.
- Expecting the worst when in relationships so not fully letting go when with a loved one.
- May struggle to fully let go in sex and be seen
One lady that came to me for help because she was ruining her relationship and worried her partner might end things. She was in so much conflict, she felt she loved him and wanted to be so close to him and build a future with him but then fearful negative thoughts would come up and she would then cancel seeing him the next day. Whenever they had activities planned for a few days in a row, always one she would bail out of and not give a reason. Her messaging to him also was sporadic, sometimes she would reply straight away and chat all day, other times she would not reply at all. He loved her so much, but was getting tired with the lack of consistency. He didn’t know where he stood, he found himself tempted to play games back and not respond and leave her be.
During the breakthrough program we worked on clearing her negative thoughts about relationships, her fears of being hurt, abandoned and cheated on. She also didn’t see herself as attractive enough, interesting enough which was affecting her confidence in many areas of her life, not just her relationship, so that had to be cleared. Lastly she had a huge fear of a man interfering with her work success and finances. She had worked so hard to gain her financial independence after her marriage broke down and was scared giving time to someone else might distract her from her business. After doing my breakthrough program, she felt at peace, she knew that she could have a loving close relationship, her business and maintain a close connection with her children. Before she had struggled to see this and she realized that her man had done nothing to show her that he couldn’t be trusted, infact the opposite, he had been so patient and kind, she just had to take the leap of faith and trust open heartedly.
If you are a supporting partner with a loved one who shows signs of one of the 3 insecure attachment types, you may wonder how you can be there for your partner or make them feel better. I will share my top tips here for each insecure attachment style here.
To support a person who shows signs that they have an anxious attachment style, you may find it hard to maintain a positive relationship because they need a lot of validation and attention, and they can accuse their partner of being unloving or unkind because they constantly misinterpret their partner’s behaviours or words.
Samantha and Ben had been together for a year and a half and shared that they had a solid relationship full of love and loyalty. Samantha knew that Ben loved her, however, she would find herself overthinking a lot of small things that would build up and cause small conflicts. For example, Samantha felt like she was constantly messaging Ben first during the day and initiating conversations, which she felt she needed to feel involved in all parts of Ben’s life. Ben felt like he was showing love when he was physically with Samantha, but as he had a lot of responsibilities at work, he would have the odd day where he wasn’t able to text or call and even if he explained it to her beforehand, she couldn’t help but think was going off her or she had done something wrong.
I worked with Ben and Samantha to identify the top 3 things they loved about each other, the best 3 things they love in their relationship from my list of 27 relationship needs, and then 3 behaviours or reactions / responses that they would love each other to work on. This helped them both to understand what one another need to feel loved and what actions make them both not feel fully happy and comfortable in the relationship.
It’s also very important for a partner who is supporting someone with an anxious attachment style to follow through on promises and compromises because this adds fuel to the anxiety fire. When a person has anxious attachment style, they are already seeking extra validation and being let down reinforces those anxious thoughts.
Make sure to set clear boundaries too – for example, if your partner tends to create an issue out of nothing and this causes arguments that can escalate, it may be helpful to say “I’m going to walk away to avoid this turning into an argument and we can talk about this when we are both calmer. I love you and want us to work through this without upsetting one another.” In fact, a study that was carried out in 2019 highlighted that seeing gratitude and care from a loved one reduces attachment anxiety.
If your partner shows signs of an avoidant attachment type and they like to create distance between you both, are limited in their communication and may seem cold, it can leave you feeling unloved, confused and abandoned. They may put work before you and your couple plans and it’s important to not take this personally instead stand your ground and share what you will and will not accept. Your efforts for love may go unnoticed and not be reciprocated which again will need to be addressed.
John and Rachel booked individual breakthrough sessions with me as they were fighting a lot more than they used to and they both had totally different ways of dealing with situations which caused even more conflict and misunderstanding.
Rachel was very closed off from her emotions and tended to make decisions by herself without consulting John, which left him feeling like his opinion wasn’t important and that Rachel was almost disregarding him as an equal partner. Rachel would react aggressively if John shared his feelings, and this would push his buttons and force him to react to her. Leading to shouting at one another.
Through the individual breakthrough sessions, it was clear that Rachel’s past experiences of abusive relationships led her to close off from emotions, and even though she chose to be in a relationship with John she was so scared to fall into a trap of relying on a partner, that she became hyper independent and didn’t feel she needed to consider John’s feelings on her life. She wanted love but didn’t know how to love in a healthy way.
I helped clear her trauma from past relationships and release the negativity so that she was able to welcome love and appreciate John’s efforts to be the partner she has always wanted.
If you are like John, the supporting partner, it can feel so disheartening to be treated as a flatmate, you also may find their passive aggressive behavior isolating themselves, stopping communication hurtful. It may be especially hard when they don’t want to listen to your feelings and get tired of talking about emotions. Intimate communication can feel uncomfortable to them. However, there are things you need to remember when you’re in a relationship with a person who has avoidant attachment style.
Don’t chase your partner. If they need downtime or space, give it to them, because chasing an avoidant partner can push them further away. This may sound counterproductive but when a person is forced to show love or emotions, they are more likely to turn away, but if they see their space is respected then they may start to trust and open up more.
If your partner opens up a little or does something that shows their vulnerability, praise them. Show them how much you appreciate them letting you in and you’re there for them when they are ready to keep opening up. Show them love and kindness which will help them to soften up and trust again.
It’s very important, as a supporting partner to an avoidant person, that you fill your time with your own hobbies, passions and friendship circles. Partners are there to compliment your life but are not there to fill your life. Happiness is from inside and so you can do whatever you need to do make yourself happy. Your partner may just be drawn closer to you if you are living a great life and thriving in everything you do.
Disorganized attachment style
If your partner shows traits of disorganized attachment type it can leave you feeling like you are walking on eggshells not knowing how your partner will feel on any given day as they are very conflicted in the way they behave. One day they may open up and be loving, tell you they are so happy with you and want to spend the rest of their lives with you. Another day they may be totally closed off and struggle to connect with you.
This was certainly the case for Ashley and Charlie who had been together for 5 years and married for 2. Ashley was extremely loving and caring and always felt it was her job to fix other people, however, recently she was struggling to cope with Charlie’s hot and cold approach to their relationship.
Charlie was constantly second-guessing Ashley and found it hard to trust her when she was out with friends. He found it easy to get lost in a cycle of negative thinking and a simple night out for Ashley would end in abusive texts and accusations of cheating.
Charlie had very few close friends and didn’t have much of a relationship with his family and this gave him even more time to overthink everything.
Ashley wanted support to work on their relationship as Charlie was not ready for individual or couple’s counselling in that moment, so I gave Ashley the tools and top tips to maintain a loving relationship with Charlie, whilst loving herself too.
When you are in a relationship with a person who shows traits of disorganized attachment style, you must pay attention to the small things. For example, communicating things clearly. Those with disorganized attachment style are used to confusion and chaos because of their inner conflict, so they benefit from clear, simple conversations that reduce the noise in their mind. So, try to stay away from too many questions or topics of conversation that they might find triggering.
Be mindful of your tone of voice and gestures. The way we say something and how we say it can really influence the way the other person reacts. For example, if they have grown up in an abusive household where the abuser talked in a loud, overpowering voice and left them feeling vulnerable and helpless, they may get defensive if you talk in a loud tone, even if you don’t mean anything by it. Talking in a calm, soothing tone can make your partner feel safe and prevents them feeling like they are in an aggressive situation.
Lastly, give reassurance. You may not feel like you need to, however, remember the way your partner is behaving isn’t linked to you, rather it is because of the experiences they had with their primary caregivers which has shaped the person they are today. So, being in a loving relationship with someone means you can support your partner by reassuring them of your love for them, giving them regular hugs, kisses and doing things that make you both happy. Let them see and feel your love and not just hear you say you love them. Actions speak louder than words.
Working through different attachment styles in relationships can be tricky to do alone if both partners have some form of insecure attachment styles. As I’ve explored today, there are many deeper-rooted reasons for developing different attachment styles so until those experiences have been processed and healed, it is hard to move on.
I have had great success with my 3-day intensive breakthrough program it’s an individual program and often couples both opt to do it with me. If you can resonate with what I have discussed today, feel free to reach out to me and we can discuss how we can work together to build a healthier and happier future for you. Check out my website at www.nicolabeer.com
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