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Do you know your attachment style?
All of us have typical ways of connecting with others, based in large part on our earliest relationships with our primary caregivers. When we’re newborns it’s believed that we experience ourselves as merged with those around us—a kind of undifferentiated state of fusion. As we grow and develop and have more experiences, we start to discover that we’re separate from others. Mom isn’t always available, even when we want her to be.
But with luck, we learn that our caregiver returns after going away, and comes to our aid when we cry. We develop confidence that our connection is still there even when the person is not physically present. From that “secure base” of consistent attachment, as researchers have described, we build confidence to explore our world, knowing the love and security we need will be there when we come back.
Our early life experiences and other factors will determine the particular way in which we connect with others, which will involve a greater or lesser degree of relationship security. Scientists first studied these ways of connecting in toddlers, through a setup called the “Strange Situation” paradigm. By observing the kids in the laboratory, researchers identified patterns of behavior called “attachment styles” that described the children’s way or relating to their mother. Many of the kids seemed relatively secure in this connection, while a significant percentage showed other styles, like indifference to their mother or being fearful and clingy.
I recently discussed attachment style with psychiatrist Ben Hunter on the Think Act Be podcast. These early relationship patterns typically persist into adulthood, as he noted: ”We’re largely seeing in adulthood what has been engrained from interactions as young children.” About half of adults will have a secure attachment style. They feel and act confident in their attachments, trusting that the people they care about won’t abandon them. They enjoy being close to others, while maintaining a healthy sense of separateness.
The other fifty percent of adults have one of two insecure attachment styles. About half fall into the anxious style of attachment, meaning they have a hard time trusting that they won’t be abandoned by others. They often crave more closeness than others are willing to provide, and are constantly seeking reassurance that others care about them.
Avoidant attachment looks like the opposite of anxious, as the person tends to move away from the possibility of close connection. These individuals may seem emotionally distant and reluctant to commit. They may send mixed signals, appearing to be “all in” in a relationship and then withdrawing.
Dr. Hunter noted that the effects of attachment style are pervasive, not only in our intimate relationships but also in our connections to friends, family—even in our professional relationships. For this reason, addressing attachment style in therapy can be very helpful in understanding and improving the quality of one’s relationships.
Ben Hunter: “Psychotherapy is all about finding your blind spots and understanding your style of interacting with people, and if we’re helping our patients find their blind spots, their way of interacting with people seems like a great place to start.”
Attachment Style Affects Use of Social Media
Dr. Hunter went on to describe how one’s attachment style can influence their experience of messaging and social media.
BH: “If two people in a securely attached relationship are using text messages to interact throughout a day, and one person goes four to six hours without being able to respond, the securely attached person comes up with very rational and valid reasons why the other person hasn’t responded in the five- to ten-minute window that people expect these days. They’re not assuming that the other person doesn’t care about them or isn’t thinking about them, or worse. Those thoughts just don’t really come to mind, or if they do they’re easily pushed away. And that’s a hallmark of secure attachment in this age of social media.”
However, these technologies may be more problematic for individuals with less secure attachment styles. The key difficulty seems to come down to being able to tolerate some level of uncertainty about the other person, as Dr. Hunter explained.
BH: “You get this false sense of security with social media that you know where someone is all the time and what they’re doing and you know so much about them because you’ve seen their pictures on Instagram. The folks who are insecurely attached are often trying to generate more information and do research and figure things out by looking at these contact points like social media, and inevitably it’s a distress creator rather than a distress resolver. But we just never get a full picture of a person, and for securely attached individuals, the key is that they’re able to tolerate uncertainty to a much higher degree than people who are insecurely attached. They’re not using social media and text messaging in a way that’s based around bolstering this very false sense of complete information that we have now. They’re just trying to communicate in a way that’s more convenient than using a phone, or the only way that’s possible during the work day sometimes.”
These ideas are consistent with findings from a research study I led that came out earlier this year. We found that individuals who were high on FOMO (fear of missing out) were more likely to have an anxious attachment style.
Interactions Between Attachment Styles
One of the most interesting and important aspects of attachment is what happens when your attachment style encounters another person’s. In the case of two securely attached individuals, the results tends to be positive, as Dr. Hunter explained.
BH: “If you have two people who are securely attached, that’s a beautiful thing to see. There’s give and take, and both parties make adjustments to help the other person feel secure in the relationship.”
What happens when partners have very different attachment styles?
BH: “You often see the kind of ’Pursuer—Distancer’ type of relationship that relationship researcher John Gottman described, where you have someone with an avoidant personality who very much wants contact and wants to be reassured but doesn’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there, who’s matched up with someone who is very dependent and is more than willing to show just how interested they are and how they’re still committed to the relationship. And it kind of works and can generate an equilibrium that lasts for a long time. Unfortunately it’s founded on anxiety for both parties, and it further entrenches the insecure attachment of both individuals and leads to greater distress. For many people it’s lasted through decades of marriage or other kinds or relationships, but these are typically not the happiest couples or families you’ll see.”
At other times, though, the partnership begins to break down.
BH: “The needs on both sides often continue to escalate, to the point that it’s unsustainable for one or the other person. The person who is anxious needs a level of reassurance that the avoidant person can’t provide, and the avoidant person needs certainty to a degree that the anxious person can’t provide. The avoidant person wants an attachment that is completely unique and frankly not realistic because they want the person all to themselves. They want a completely exclusive relationship. But the anxious person will tend to need other people around them—they can’t sit in the house all day by themselves—so there’s always a threat in some way to the avoidant person.”
Everyone Wants Connection
One thing that became clear during our discussion is that individuals with an avoidant style actually want deep connection, even though they seem to run from it.
BH: “People who have an avoidant attachment style look for security, and are often very afraid of being rebuffed. They’ve probably experienced some degree of shame in their life from their desire to connect to someone, like being dumped in an unceremonious way, or perhaps it was parents who made children feel ashamed for needing parental warmth and love. That’s really where it starts for a lot of people.”
Indeed this need for connection that looks like a lack of interest was apparent in the original research with toddlers.
BH: “That was one of the most misunderstood things about the avoidant kids in the Strange Situation test. They were doing their own thing, playing with blocks, and it looks like they don’t care at all that Mom’s in the room. And we might be thinking, ‘That’s great, maybe they’re a really independent toddler who just doesn’t need Mom very much.’ Unfortunately that’s just not the case. The degree of anxiety they’re actually experiencing at the time they’re appearing uninterested is very high.
“And it’s the same thing you see in adults who are attached in an avoidant way. They act as if they don’t need relationships, as if it means nothing to them to jump out of a relationship quickly when they sense any danger or have any fear of that potential shame or rejection, but in reality they experience so much anxiety as they constantly monitor the relationship for reasons to leave.”
Interested in assessing your own attachment style, or having your partner assess theirs? There are online self-tests, including this one through Psychology Today: Relationship Attachment Style Test.
The full interview with Dr. Hunter is available here: Love and Relationships Through the Lens of Attachment.