When you’re in a relationship with someone, the way he or she acts toward you and how he or she fulfills any commitment to you is deeply rooted in his or her past.
To understand better what capabilities and weaknesses people have, and to understand how you and your partner react to your needs and go about getting them met, it’s important to understand your attachment styles. Your pattern of attachment is established in early childhood, and it sets the pattern and working model for how your relationships will function in adulthood.
What are attachment styles?
Attachment styles are the ways we form relationships and relate to others. As relational beings, we form meaningful connections and relationships with others. God created us in His image (Genesis 1:26-27), and as He is an eternal being who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He is eternally in relationship and the very expression and definition of love (1 John 4:16). We gravitate toward meaningful relationships precisely because we are patterned after a relational God.
That need for connection and the desire to belong can be fulfilled or frustrated to various degrees when we are children. When we are infants and children, all our needs must be met by our parents or caregivers. We look to them for comfort, nurture, soothing, and support.
Attachment theory, which was first developed by a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, suggests that to the degree that these needs are met, especially when one is in distress, a person either becomes securely attached or insecurely attached. If one is raised in a caring and warm environment where these basic needs are met, it is likely to result in a secure attachment. Not having those needs met will lead to insecure attachment.
Your attachment style refers to the pattern of behavior you exhibit when it comes to your relationships, and it is closely related to your childhood. Your attachment style is about how you behave and interact with others in your relationships, and how you go about getting your emotional needs met in those relationships.
Some people have styles that lean toward avoidance and anxiety in how they relate to others. Those who are more secure demonstrate an ability to form meaningful and loving bonds with others.
Depending on your attachment style, your relationships will be marked by certain behaviors that promote the flourishing of those relationships, or they may be marked by behaviors that undermine their health. Being aware of your attachment style helps you understand your actions and patterns of thought that may be sabotaging your relationships.
The four attachment styles.
According to Psychology Today, “Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.” There are four attachment styles or patterns, and these are anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure attachment.
Anxious attachment. This form of attachment is what develops from inconsistent caregiving or parenting in which needs are met but sometimes not. Without consistency, the child can’t predict what the parent or caregiver will do in the future or whether they will be available. The instability and mixed signals that the child receives disrupt that child’s ability to develop a healthy sense of others’ availability.
Avoidant attachment. A child develops an avoidant attachment in situations where their needs are entirely ignored, or caregivers are simply not attuned to the child’s needs. In some situations, the parents or caregivers avoid meeting the child’s expressed desire for affection and support, or they react poorly to the child’s expression of emotions such as sadness, fear, or anger.
Disorganized attachment. This refers to an attachment style that develops due to a caregiving environment that isn’t safe because of neglect, trauma, or abuse. While desiring closeness from a parent or caregiver, the child simultaneously pushes them away because that proximity and intimacy are a source of pain.
Secure attachment. A secure attachment develops when a child receives consistent and predictable care from their parents or caregivers. They cultivate a sense of safety in the child, which allows the child to develop into an individual who feels lovable and has a healthy sense of self.
While being somewhat independent, a child with secure attachment nonetheless maintains emotional closeness with their parent or caregiver. With this pattern of relationship, a person with a secure attachment style feels they can replicate secure and healthy relationships with others.
How they affect romantic relationships.
Depending on your attachment style, how you relate to your romantic partners will differ. Some of the behaviors that flow from attachment styles can undermine your relationship.
Anxious attachment will often result in a person struggling with low self-esteem, and he or she may have a fear of being abandoned. This can result in constant worries that their relationships will fail, leading to a need to be constantly reassured or validated by loved ones that he or she is enough.
A person with an anxious attachment may appear clingy and needy to a romantic partner. While he or she may be highly attuned to the needs of others, the need to be reassured may result in poor boundaries and conflict in a romantic relationship.
Avoidant attachment can result in a person being a romantic partner who is closed off from others and struggles to cope with emotions. A person with an avoidant attachment will often consider their romantic partner and others as needy when they seek out emotional intimacy. This may result in their partner feeling rejected or neglected.
Avoidant individuals may also prioritize their independence and steer clear of relationships to avoid building bonds with others and potential pain from emotional hurt. Such a person may resist deeper commitment toward a significant other and avoid depending on others, which makes for a one-sided relationship.
Disorganized attachment can affect a romantic relationship by showing a lack of trust and fear of getting hurt. While individuals with a disorganized attachment might desire to be close to their loved ones, that fear of hurt and lack of trust leads them to be unpredictable, to struggle with expressing or dealing with their emotions, and to sabotage their relationships.
If your partner has a disorganized attachment style, you may struggle with feeling confused about where they stand, and their inability to deal with their emotions constructively can be a point of conflict.
Secure attachment means that a person has a healthy balance between independence and closeness to others. He or she has high self-esteem and doesn’t carry a feeling that his or her relationships are under threat. Additionally, he or she can trust others and can communicate openly and honestly with others. This attachment style leads to relationships that feel secure, healthy, and safe.
Overcoming issues stemming from particular attachment styles.
Just because you have a particular attachment style does not mean you’re doomed to act out certain patterns of behavior. Being aware of your attachment style and understanding the history that lies beneath it all can help you take steps forward toward a healthier relationship dynamic.
Thankfully, the past does not have to determine your future, and the Lord can renew you in your mind and in how you relate to others (Romans 12:1-2). In Christ Jesus, we are new creations – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).
Your attachment style can change toward a more secure one as you encounter friends and other loved ones who relate to you in healthy ways. Thus, having good friends that show you consistent care can nudge you closer toward healthier relationship dynamics. With hard work and the help of a licensed therapist, you can:
- Learn anew what a healthy relationship looks like.
- Learn new forms of trust in different relationships.
- Maintain healthy relationships characterized by open, honest, and consistent communication; trust; and a healthy balance between independence and emotional closeness.
- Become comfortable giving and receiving love.
Get in touch with one of our counselors today to overcome any negative effects your attachment style is having on your romantic relationship.
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