It’s likely you’ve never heard about attachment style and how it influences your relationships. Originally studied by John Bowlby to determine the effects of infants when separated by their parents, ultimately his findings influenced the development of a broader relationship attachment theory. Bowlby observed the quality of feedback an infant receives before and after separation from its primary care giver greatly influences the child’s orientation to attachment. If the infant received consistent, positive feedback to bids for attention, and his/her needs were met, he or she would develop a secure attachment style. If the infant did not, a less beneficial style of attachment would form. As later research would show, we retain much of our attachment style into adulthood and beyond.
Many studies followed Bowlby’s initial breakthrough (Ainsworth, Hazan & Shaver, Brennan, and others). The results of key studies lead to the discovery that our attachment styles fall into four quadrants based upon intersecting levels of avoidance and anxiety (or the lack thereof). Individuals with a secure attachment style experience low levels of avoidance and anxiety. Those who experience low levels of avoidance, yet high levels of anxiety (greater needs for assurance, greater fears and worries) have a preoccupied (aka: anxious/preoccupied/insecure/dependent) attachment style. People who experience a great need for avoidance and little anxiety while avoidant have a dismissive attachment style. Others who experience high levels of avoidance accompanied by high levels of anxiety develop a fearful (aka: anxious/fearful/avoidant) attachment style. The graph below illustrates these four quadrants of attachment style.
It is estimated that approximately 50% of people have a secure attachment style. The balance of people are either preoccupied, dismissive or fearful/avoidant. A person with a secure attachment style generally holds a positive view of self and other, is non-anxious and attentive, and is comfortable giving and receiving intimacy. A secure attachment style lends itself to the most successful relationship outcome. An individual with a preoccupied attachment style has a less favorable view of self and potentially an inflated view of the other. The individual with a preoccupied attachment style desires greater degrees of reassurance and approval and experiences anxiety and a tendency to doubt their partner and blame themselves for their partner’s perceived lack of attentiveness. In contrast, a person with a dismissive attachment style feels suffocated and repelled by excessive intimacy and may have difficulty establishing a satisfying close relationship. An individual with this attachment style tends to be self-sufficient to the point they may avoid close attachments altogether. The dismissive attachment style man or woman highly values autonomy and may become defensive to emotional bids and copes with conflict or rejection by distancing themselves from their partner. Often people who have experienced trauma during childhood develop a fearful/avoidant attachment style. These individuals have great difficulty with trust and intimacy. They fear if they become close to another person they will end up hurt or abandoned. While they may desire emotional closeness, when faced with the opportunity, often their anxiety increases to the point they to avoid risk they preemptively end the relationship. The person with a fearful/avoidant attachment style tends to negatively perceive self and other and suppresses feelings as a coping mechanism to their anxiety and as a result often struggle in sustaining a relationship.
How Attachment Styles Influence Relationships with Each Other
People with a secure attachment style tend to seek others with the same attachment style and generally have satisfying, enriching relationships. Both partners in this case have the necessary levels of trust, communication, comfort and confidence to maintain an intimate relationship. This couple views each other positively, has a healthy outlook and maintains a reasonable expectation of a happy union.
A secure attachment style person paired with a preoccupied attachment style person may experience stress or frustration due to their partner’s ongoing fears and doubts. If the preoccupied party is aware and motivated to overcome their fears, they may learn to replace their faulty assumptions that create their anxiety and learn to trust themselves and others more. With the patience of a secure attachment individual, the preoccupied individual may even become more secure. If this couple has a strong enough bond and progress is made they can ultimately progress to have a happy, fulfilled relationship.
A secure attachment style paired with either a dismissive attachment style or a fearful/avoidant attachment style is likely not stay in the relationship as they would opt out to find someone who will fulfill their healthy relationship model.
A preoccupied attachment style joined with a dismissive attachment style often creates a familiar, but unhappy and unfulfilled bond. These relationships can last years, even decades, with the preoccupied individual trying unsuccessfully to gain greater connection with the dismissive attachment individual (often following a model created in their infancy with a primary caregiver such that if feels familiar), while leaving the dismissive individual baffled by all their partners “needy” attempts. The preoccupied attachment person blames themselves and the dismissive individual, while frustrated at times, remains largely unaffected by their partners pleas.
The fearful/avoidant attachment style is the most challenging of all attachment styles to pair with another. This individual does desire a close bond, but due to their life experiences, often jumps to fearful conclusions that lead to a distancing correction in order to feel “safe” from hurt. In other words, their anxiety is increased with the vulnerability that love entails and the pain that would result if they union dissolves. In this case, the fearful/avoidant individual would create distance or even preemptively end the relationship in an effort to avoid pain while convincing themselves that it was for the best and they did not need the relationship in the first place. The fearful/avoidant people often benefit from therapy to heal past wounds and to develop healthier coping mechanisms that enable them to manage their fears and allow greater vulnerability for a stronger bond.
Attachment theory is an interesting area of psychological study and one that has brought some very useful insight into human relationships. This article provides a cursory overview and we encourage those who have greater interest in this area to visit other sites for in-depth research and information.
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