You hear about it all the time—one person being too clingy, one person being scared to settle down or commit. Maybe the language used is even harsher and more ignorant, like one person is “crazy” or the other “messed up.” What we’re often talking about, without even realizing it, are attachment styles. And, specifically, what happens when those attachment styles don’t line up.
You may be familiar with the basic ideas of the attachment theory of love without even realizing it. The attachment theory of love suggests that there are three different attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure. The theory is that we form these attachment styles when we are very young, based on our relationship with our primary caretaker as a child—normally, our parents or more dominant parent. Understanding these attachment styles—how they develop, how they manifest, and how we can manage them—can not only help you understand your past relationships, but also help you create healthier relationships going forward. Here’s what you need to know.
The Three Styles
The three attachment styles are very different from each other—though their names give a big hint into how they affect relationships. The anxious attachment style is someone who is constantly insecure in their relationship. They fear that the person will leave, they don’t ever fully relax into the relationship, and they may even self-sabotage. They can often come across as needy, demanding, or irrational—but it comes from a deep-seated fear of being left, often stemming from a distant parental relationship from childhood. This means that they will almost always be found in a relationship—even if it’s an unhappy one.
Perhaps surprisingly, these people are most often attracted to and found in relationships with those with an avoidant attachment style. Those with avoidant styles often feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed by too much intimacy, even if they crave it—maybe because of demands placed on them in their past or an abrupt abandonment. This can lead them to pull away, suddenly and often, seemingly, without reason.
As you might have guessed, the secure attachment style is somewhere in the middle. They don’t fear being on their own—in fact, they’re quite comfortable with it. But those with secure attachment styles also don’t feel overwhelmed by relationships. Both states, being with someone or alone, feel normal and balanced, meaning that relationships often run smoothly, without the person taking their partner’s behaviors too personally. Research has shown that while 60 percent of the population falls into this category, a big chunk of people—the remaining 40 percent—are split relatively equally between attachment and avoidant styles.
How They Affect Relationships
Avoidant and insecure attachment styles are often drawn toward each other, despite the fact that they are the least compatible. That’s because our brains try to repair old wounds through new relationships—even when it's not good for us. “In a sense, we set ourselves up by finding partners that confirm our models,” Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, writes. “If we grew up with an insecure attachment pattern, we may project or seek to duplicate similar patterns of relating as adults, even when these patterns hurt us and are not in our own self-interest.”
This means that if we developed an insecure attachment style because we had an avoidant parent, we may keep seeking out avoidant partners, even though it exacerbates our insecurities. Somewhere, we’re trying to set the first relationship right, even though it can make our lives—and our relationships—more complicated.
How You Can Manage Attachment Styles
Even if you think you fall into the secure attachment style, it’s still important to be aware of your style and how it can influence your relationships. Because it’s not just about your own style, it’s about your partner’s as well. If you can look back on your relationships and see a pattern of incompatibility in how you relate to one another and what you expect from a relationship, it may be that your attachment styles are to blame.
If this is the case, try to be mindful of your responses to issues in your relationship and how your attachment style might be at play. If you find yourself panicking that your partner isn't happy, when there’s nothing to indicate that they are actually unhappy, take a moment and try to gain some perspective. Remember that this is an old wound, rather than something that’s actually happening now. Give yourself some room to process the old trauma, but try to separate that from the present relationship. It takes time, but if you can put your instinctive response on hold long enough to take a step back and get some perspective, that can make a huge difference.
Of course, if the attachment style seems particularly engrained or if it stems from a personal trauma that you haven't dealt with yet, it may be worth seeking professional help. The attachment style can, in some cases, be more the symptom than the cause of your current dilemmas. Sometimes going back and dealing with the source, with the help of a therapist or counselor, is the only way forward.
Attachment styles can explain so much about how we interact with the world—and with each other. While we may not be able to become completely in control of our attachment style overnight, but understanding how we form our attachments can be invaluable to navigating our romantic relationships. But be kind to yourself, because there are often deeper issues at play—and never hesitate to get help if you need it.