Tangled in Love - Attachment Styles

As Valentine’s Day looms nearer, many of us are thinking about our relationships –

whether we’re in a long-term relationship, just starting out, treading water in the dating pool or not even looking, 

evaluating whether our relationships are still working for us is an important part of life.


Taking the time to reflect on our needs in a relationship and whether they’re being met is an
essential part of looking after our wellbeing. If it works, what makes it work and how can we keep
nurturing that? If it’s not working, what’s getting in the way and can it be addressed? If not, do we
need to consider if leaving is the right choice?


The cycles that fuel the need for these questions, however, are often brought about through
our ‘attachment style’ – the unconscious driving force behind how we form and maintain our
relationships. Here is a brief breakdown of the main attachment styles, what often leads to them, and
how they can manifest in our relationships.


SECURE ATTACHMENT
What Is It?
A secure attachment style means we can feel settled and trusting in a healthy relationship. We are
able to identify and communicate about our needs, and can resolve difficulties with our partners.
We’re also more able to adapt to changing circumstances without feeling unduly threatened in the
relationship.


What Causes It?
Usually, people with a secure attachment style will have had a supportive and stable presence from a
caregiver throughout their lives. Divorce, separation and single parent homes do not mean you cannot
have a secure attachment style – it’s all in how such an event is handled by the family as to what
impact this has on a child’s development.


As children, those developing a secure attachment style will have been able to feel safe with
their caregiver(s), and that their needs were understood and met. Having clear, understandable
boundaries (i.e., rules have a rationale behind them) also helps with this – when the world is
boundaried in a meaningful way, it makes sense and is therefore less frightening. Secure children tend
to be able to engage in more exploratory play and not cling to their caregiver(s) – they trust that the
caregiver will be available if they’re needed.


What This Means For A Relationship
Secure attachment usually translates to a tendency for open communication in a relationship – the
key for the health and longevity of a relationship. Those with secure attachments also feel more able
and equipped to end relationships with partners that are ill-suited for them – they have the belief they
are worthy of love and are capable of finding a more suitable partner.


ANXIOUS-PREOCCUPIED ATTACHMENT
What Is It?

An anxious-preoccupied attachment usually reflects someone who struggles to feel at ease in a
relationship – they are often fearful of being hurt and can be quite sensitive to perceived criticism or
rejection. They may seek reassurance of still being loved by their partner, or rely on their partner in
many aspects of their lives (which in turn makes them more fearful of rejection – if the partner leaves,
they fear they will not be able to cope alone). They tend to experience emotion very intensely and can
often find this difficult to manage in the context of a relationship, as worries about rejection can feel
intensely distressing.


What Causes It?
Often, a lack of consistency in a caregiver’s emotional availability and involvement can lead to this
kind of attachment style – varying between being unavailable to being very loving, sometimes to the
point of being intrusive, can create a sense of confusion in the child.


Not knowing or fully trusting if their needs will be recognised and met appropriately, and not
being sure of where the boundaries lie, can lead the child to feel anxious and confused – leading to an
adult who fears being left or rejected (as the caregiver becoming emotionally unavailable was not
predictable), and who seeks reassurance of still being loved.


This unpredictability of emotion in the caregiver(s) means that the child lacks the opportunity
to consistently learn how to manage their own emotions – meaning that they often struggle to feel at
ease or know how to respond to their own feelings by themselves.


What This Means For A Relationship
Anxious-preoccupied people can often be seen to be very loving and caring in a relationship, investing
a lot of emotional effort. This can be to the point of feeling emotionally exhausted themselves, as this
trait of giving, giving, giving can have its roots in the fear of rejection or abandonment – as it only
provides short-term relief from this fear, the need becomes more entrenched over time.


Reassurance-seeking (‘Do you still love me?’ etc.) and overanalysis of communications (trying
to ‘read between the lines’) are also common difficulties – again in the search for certainty of being
loved.


These traits can, unfortunately, have the unintended consequence of driving partners away,
as they can begin to feel smothered and that their independence is being infringed upon. This is not
the intention of the person with an anxious-preoccupied attachment, who simply wants to be certain
of love.


This attachment style can often attract people with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that dismissiveness of the partner activates the need for
seeking reassurance and love and motivates the anxious-preoccupied person to engage in the
relationship. The other is that, because of this, anxious-preoccupied people will spend more time and
energy investing in a relationship with a dismissive-avoidant person than will someone with another
attachment style, who is more likely to leave the relationship when they do not receive affection back.
Unfortunately, this can lead once again to the self-fulfilling prophecy that others will reject
them, as partners may leave because they feel their boundaries have been pressed against too much,
or dismissive partners will not reciprocate in the way that they desire.


DISMISSIVE-AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT
What Is It?

The dismissive-avoidant attachment style is characterised by someone who values their
independence. They tend to be self-reliant, avoidant of discussing their feelings and can appear to be
closed off or, at times, aloof. They also tend to withdraw or shut down in the face of conflict rather
than discussing it.


What Causes It?
Some of the common causes for this attachment style are having emotionally unavailable caregivers,
or caregivers who placed high importance on achievement over emotional bonding with others.
Childhood expectations may have been clear, but they did not leave much room for feelings.
As the child learns that their needs will not be recognised or met on an emotional level, they
learn to become self-reliant and do not trust that others will be there for them. This is often the root
for the need for independence. Those with caregivers who have been highly critical may thus also
learn to avoid conflict and to emotionally shut down to prevent further hurt.


What This Means For A Relationship
Many people with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style will downplay the importance of
relationships, and instead focus on building and maintaining their self-esteem through avenues that
only rely on themselves, such as academic or work accomplishments.
They will tend to be closed off emotionally – not with the intention of being rude, but at its
heart, for self-protection. They have not had the opportunity to learn that others can be trusted to
recognise and value their emotions, so they expect to receive dismissal if they expose a vulnerability.

At its root, this shutting down is borne of a lack of trust that their feelings will be validated and seen
as important (and they have often learned to invalidate and diminish their own feelings).
The strong need for independence can make negotiation and flexibility in the relationship
difficult, as acquiescing to another’s needs can feel stifling, interpreted emotionally as a loss of
independence – and losing independence is terrifying, since they see themselves as the only
dependable person in their lives.


All this can make it difficult to form a bond and deepen it, as they are slow to let anyone in
through the exterior walls of their personal life and feelings.


People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style often attract people with the anxious-preoccupied style. 

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that their dismissiveness activates the anxious partner’s need 

to gain closeness, causing them to invest more in the relationship. As the dismissive person feels imposed upon 

and pulls back further, the anxious person continues to pursue them. The second reason is that people with the 

other attachment styles will tend to recognise the dismissiveness earlier on, and leave the relationship as they do 

not gain the emotional reciprocation they are looking for, but are less anxiously motivated to seek it out.


This, unfortunately, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the dismissive-avoidant
person is left by partners, or ends relationships themselves as they begin to emotionally deepen,
reinforcing the cycle of never learning that others are capable of handling their emotions.


FEARFUL-AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT
What Is It?

At its core, the fearful-avoidant attachment style is one of mixed emotions: the intense desire for close
intimacy, and the fear that they will be greatly hurt by it. This style is almost a blend of the previous
two, whereby a person experiences intense and distressing emotions (including longing, loneliness,
fear) and at times moves towards seeking a relationship quite intensely (as in the anxious-preoccupied
style) but then becomes overwhelmed by such feelings, suppresses them, and withdraws from the
relationship (as in the dismissive-avoidant style).


What Causes It?
This style often has its roots in an unstable relationship with caregivers, and has been associated with
various forms of abuse in many (but not all) cases. Love, security, rejection, hurt and harm have
become tangled together in the child’s understanding of what relationships should be – the innate
urge to bond has become confused with mixed signals of danger, leaving them both desiring and
fearing intimacy.


What This Means For A Relationship
This attachment style can leave the person feeling deeply conflicted in a relationship, often caught
between a desire to leave and a desire to stay, a desire to open up and a desire to shut down. This
veering between one extreme and the other can be exhausting emotionally, and confusing for the
person.


Partners are often in equal confusion, feeling unsure of where they stand with someone who
is close on one occasion, and shuts down and withdraws on another. As they can often be unsure of
how to respond to best meet the fearful-avoidant person’s needs, the self-fulfilling prophecy can occur
– that other people will not understand, or will get frustrated, angry and leave. People with this
attachment can sometimes be drawn to people (unconsciously) who confirm the old cycles of hurt.


WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Learning to communicate effectively about your needs in a relationship requires being able to identify
those needs, where they come from, and how to best have them met in a supportive way. My
therapeutic approach can help with this by:


- Exploring what your goals are for your relationships.
- Helping you to understand where your beliefs and assumptions about relationships came from
(without placing blame – simply understanding).
- Identifying what your needs are in a relationship.
- Identifying how learned behaviours or thought patterns are getting in the way of your needs
being met.
- Learning new skills (including challenging negative thoughts, communication skills, learning to
calm anxiety and be present with your partner, for example) to better meet your needs.


You can contact me for a free consultation on 02895 600 274, or email me at info@rianlloydcbt.co.uk.


I look forward to hearing from you.


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