Adult attachment styles

Updated: Sep 5

An attachment style is the regular manifestation of particular traits in relationships. These develop during childhood (see our previous blog article about it here) and remain into adulthood unless amended through corrective experiences.


There is secure attachment, and there are three insecure attachment styles. Most people experience traits across the continuum of attachment styles; however, typically we all adopt one primary attachment style.


Security in relationships is often defined by emotional responsiveness. Insecure attachment styles can occur when needs for comfort, closeness and security are not adequately met.


1. Avoidant Adults: Dismissive

These individuals experienced caregivers as dismissive and critical. The caregiver may have ignored, shamed, or rejected their child when they showed distress or a desire for connection. As a result, avoidantly attached adults learned to hide or suppress their emotions or needs in relationships, or process emotions alone. They may believe that they shouldn’t need others.


Avoidant adults tend to be independent (behaviourally and emotionally), highly self-reliant and emotionally distant. They can be passive-aggressive and/or narcissistic. They are uncomfortable with intimacy, disclosing feelings or vulnerabilities, expressing needs or asking for help. They worry closeness could make them vulnerable (and may lead to rejection), or take away their independence, or may subject them to emotional obligations. They don't want to rely on anyone, fearing dependency or a perception of being weak. They prize autonomy, even in committed relationships. They may have many acquaintances, but few close relationships. When they lose an important relationship, they may feel an initial wave of happiness or relief. This is usually eventually followed by a wave of despair.


They dismiss the value of close relationships and are unwilling to address attachment issues in a serious way. They may idealise parents and deny past negative parental behaviour. They tend to have guarded and defensive answers about childhood and do not want to reflect on their past.

They avoid conflict and can shut down emotionally during arguments. They are angry, critical or intolerant to the needs and feelings of others. They need considerable reassurance, affection and praise, but do not ask for it. They can be cool, controlled, ambitious and successful. Other priorities often supersede relationships, such as work, social life, personal projects, fun, etc.

Typical statement: “I don’t tell him I’m upset because I can take care of my feelings myself.”

2. Ambivalent/Anxious Adults: Preoccupied

This develops when caregivers alternated between warmth and rejection unpredictably. This leaves individuals with a sense of urgency and fear that they may lose important people at any moment. Looking for consistency, ambivalent adults are often overwhelmed and clingy.


They are preoccupied with thoughts about preserving relationships. As soon as an important person leaves them, even for small everyday things, they begin to mistrust the connection and feel anxious. Hyperfocused on others, they lose contact with themselves. Struggling to self-soothe, and not connected to their own needs and wants, they continue the cycle of reaching out to others (and trying to please them) in order to find themselves. But this doesn’t work. Over reliance on external factors fosters continued overdependence, loss of control, and even more self-abandonment.


They are oversensitive to the nuances of others, they overanalyse the depth of relationships and are easily jealous. They desire a lot of validation. They may feel panic or despair when they perceive rejection or abandonment. They overstate feelings in order to be heard, via over-detailed stories or habitual complaining. They tend to negatively interpret others’ actions. Constantly working on (real or imagined) issues, they have frequent arguments and rarely get resolution.


Attempts to stabilise connections through hypersensitivity, jealousy and overstatement; do not work. It pushes people away, which reinforces the idea that others will abandon them. Anxiety undermines trust and prevents deep connection and growth. But they fear that stopping their worry will result in loss.


They have a profound desire for closeness, but when they achieve it, they fear it (and can be rejecting). The desire for closeness is connected to the belief that such connection isn’t possible, and their behaviours keep this paradox alive. They expect to be let down, hurt, or abandoned. They fear inconsistency and future loss. This ensures pain and regular relational triggers. They deflect or minimise partner’s attempts to show love, or find ways to create disconnection – arguing, being defensive or jealous. They qualify, negate, or diminish the support and love they receive.


Typical statement: “I turn to him when I’m upset, but it doesn’t really help me feel much better.”


3. Avoidant/Anxious Adults: Disorganised Style (only 3-5% of the population)

Disorganised adults do not have an organised approach to relationships. Often these adults exhibit behaviours that suggest a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. As children they had histories of abuse, neglect, or severe loss. Their parents were unresponsive, inconsistent, punitive and insensitive. They learned to view others as unavailable, threatening and rejecting.


Disorganised adults show many antisocial behaviours such as explosive rages, a lack of empathy and remorse. They do not give love and affection easily. They are selfish, insensitive, refuse personal responsibility for their actions, and disregard rules. They are unresponsive to their partner's needs. They are afraid of genuine closeness and see themselves as unworthy of love and support. Because of their damaging early experiences, they have a greater need for safe and secure relationships, yet lack the trust in their partners to help create it. Their experience of severe attachment trauma makes them vulnerable to a variety of problems.


They unconsciously script others into past unresolved emotional patterns and dramas. They have not mourned lost attachment figures and not integrated those losses into their lives. They may dissociate to avoid pain; be confused and incoherent regarding past events.


References:

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume II: Separation, anxiety and anger. In Attachment and Loss: Volume II: Separation, Anxiety and Anger (pp. 1-429). London: The Hogarth press and the institute of psycho-analysis.

Heller, D. (2019). The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.

Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find- and keep-love.

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