Avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and secure attachment. What do they mean, and how can they help you?
Why do we do the things we do
Attachment unavailable - turns out it's not just a phrase you might see when unsuccessfully opening an email attachment. It might also feel a little familiar in some relationships.
You might have heard of terms like avoidant attachment style, anxious attachment style, anxious-avoidant attachment style, dismissive avoidant attachment style, and secure attachment style. They affect how we relate to others in everyday life.
And of course, they're central to our most intimate relationships.
Sometimes intense fear of abandonment, jealousy, or chronically avoiding commitment are signals to pay attention and work through the tangles of our earliest attachments.
No man is an island. We don't exist in the world by ourselves, much of our existence is about how we relate to the others around us in our family and community.
We are social creatures that like to celebrate birthdays with one another, tell one another about our work promotions, sit next to others for a meal and help each other through tricky and good times. When we think about our life experiences - from the biggest milestones, to the smallest everyday events, it's usually the humans involved that are the defining factors.
When it comes to relating to other people, 'what is my attachment style? is a great question.
At it's heart, it's really about whether you think the world is a trustworthy and friendly place - or a hostile one where you can't rely on anyone else.
The 4 'Attachment Styles'
Attachment styles were identified in the second half of the last century by psychiatrist John Bowlby, alongside colleague Mary Ainsworth.
They started off interested in the negative consequences of separations between mother-baby. They went on to see the huge importance of the quality of these earliest relationships.
Bowlby saw the extraordinary lengths that an infant would go to - just so they wouldn't be separated from their attachment figure. A baby's frantic search, cries, and clinging onto, are finely tuned evolutionary mechanisms - and the only way they know how to communicate their needs.
Then throughout the early years of life, each of us forms an 'internal working model' of attachment. This is basically one's deeply-held beliefs about the world that are mostly out-of-consciousness. These form the basis for the expectations you'd have about what's going to happen next in your life.
Can you expect to be loved and cared for - or abandoned?
A person with secure attachment generally has the ability to feel safe, stable and satisfied in relationships. Although it doesn't mean that they won't have relationship troubles!
They can thrive in meaningful, close partnerships. and are comfortable with intimacy. They are more likely to be warm towards others, and this can also sometimes extend to an increased ability to care for others.
Individuals who have had consistent experiences of being well-cared-for would tend to positively expect the same from others in the future.
The self-beliefs underlying this system are "I am worthy of love".
Avoidant attachment (sometimes referred to as "Anxious-Avoidant" or "Dismissive" in adults) is more likely to show up as avoiding intimacy, running away from commitment, and general discomfort with others getting too close. It's associated with a generally healthy view of oneself - but that doesn't really extend to relationships with others.
They might not see the positives in forming close relationships, but rather as "I just feel suffocated when I get into a serious relationship. All I can think about is losing my independence".
Anxiously attached people (also referred to as "Preoccupied" in adults) tend to worry about their relationships. Jealousy and a need for control over situations might surface from fear and worry of abandonment.
They are more likely to ruminate over losing their relationship, with thoughts like "does my partner really love me?", or "I wonder if they love me back".
Disorganised styles of attachment (sometimes referred to as "Anxious-Disorganised", or as "Fearful-Avoidant" in adults) come from a place of varied examples of love - perhaps some healthy, and some unhealthy.
If someone is not quite sure what to expect because of confusing examples of relating to others - or their fears are a little more subconscious, they might run from intimacy in certain circumstances, and be anxiously craving it in other times.
Wondering 'what attachment style do I have' is a valid, and valuable question to ask yourself.
Early life: the foundations of security
From the day we're born (even in the womb!), every interaction is telling us how we'll survive. Who will take care of us? What we can expect to happen next? Even though tiny humans - even newborn babies, might seem like they don't know a single thing, the drive for survival draws them close to their closest caregiver, often the mother in those first stages.
From the 19th and into the 20th century, false beliefs abounded that "too much affection" towards babies and young children would create coddled, helpless, and spoiled children.
Thankfully, research and theories moved forward to show that responsiveness is actually the most valuable and effective. It creates bonding and co-regulation when a young child's brain is not yet fully developed.
When a small child has at least one close adult as a 'safe base', they can be curious and free to explore the world around them.
One of the most famous attachment experiments is where a child would be put into an unfamiliar situation where their parent left the room for a short time, and when they were reunited, the reaction of the child would be quite revealing. Would they just be happy and content when they saw their mum again? Or would the little one continue to be inconsolable, or act completely unaffected by their presence again?
Adulthood: does it really matter?
Do you remember a birthday where you were asked 'do you feel different today? - now that you're a year older!'... well, 'no Tom I don't feel any different to 24 hours ago!'.
And the thing is, life happens subtly and slowly. We're always building on what existed yesterday.
Similarly, the patterns we've formed in childhood don't magically disappear once we reach adulthood.
If it's an obviously socially-unacceptable trait, someone might learn to mask and hide it a little more. But perhaps the trickiest part of attachment theory is its 'invisibility.' Sure, most emotional and psychological things are, but perhaps attachment even more so.
More often than not, it can be a shock that other people don't share the same inner thoughts and expectations, especially for people on the extreme end of trusting everyone, or trusting no-one.
The self-fulfilling prophecy
It goes without saying that trusting every single person in your path may sometimes not be the best tactic to survive in the world, but neither is trusting no-one. The internal compass of identifying trustworthy people around us isn't always simple, but it's incredibly helpful to realise when our compass is really out-of-whack.
Whether you expect the worst in a situation - or the best - the old phrase "I told you so" often comes out if expectations come true.
An unfortunate part of viewing the world as hostile is that it can tend to create a downward spiral of distrust, as someone may never fully invest in relationships.
For someone who views the world as friendly, an 'upward spiral' can be more likely to occur. This is where their high expectations are fulfilled more easily; they could be more likely to recognise the positive parts like care and affection, and accept support
If you fall into the former camp - don't despair. The first step to healthier relationships is often in that process of self-reflection, and admitting the areas where we need help.
Am I stuck with my style for life?
It's a pretty common reaction for people to feel a twinge of either regret or pain when reading about topics they don't feel have gone amazingly in their life so far.
You might feel like you didn't have the most secure base when you were really young, or perhaps you feel guilty that you didn't provide the perfect examples for your own children.
Some good news?
First, perfection is not expected, attainable, or even necessary.
Secondly, a misconception is that our emotional lives just 'are' the way they are. Sure you can grow other skills in life, learn new things - but what about feelings, what about emotional and relationship skills? Surely you're just born with it, and well you can't really go back and change your childhood, can you?
We're here to tell you that you can work on those things and see change.
If you're after an extra helping hand, a psychologist has the skill and knowledge necessary to identify these patterns. Change can be created through allowing older patterns space to heal, and by gaining tools to become more secure in the future.