When I finished my degree I didn’t think that, some of the psychological theories I learned at the time would have me questioning myself all these years later, but recently one of the most famous developmental theories has been playing on my mind.
Attachment Theory explained by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth proposes that emotional attachment in humans can be traced back to our earliest bonds with our parents or carers. How well we formed attachments with them has a direct influence on our emotional attachments as adults.
So ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ issues are a REAL thing!
So what are the attachment styles I hear you ask?
Psychologists work on the assumption that there are 4 attachment styles.
Arguably this is the attachment style we ALL want but I’m afraid I have bad news, we can’t all be secure according to research about 50% of the population have this attachment style. It’s generally thought that to develop a secure attachment style, as an infant you needed to have all your needs met and receive sufficient amounts of love and affection. This then leads to well-adjusted adults who are comfortable displaying interest and affection, are happy to be independent as well as being able to prioritise relationships but can also draw clear boundaries.
So the guy or girl, who likes holding your hand in public, who calls when they say they will, who opens up to you and is loyal, but is also able to give you space is most likely a person with a secure attachment style. Securely attached people are also able to accept rejection and move on from toxic relationships if the need arises.
Now onto the ‘bad’ news. The remaining 3 types of attachment all fall in the Insecure category. Whenever I think of insecurely attached people Philip Larkin’s poem ‘This be the Verse’ comes to mind which starts, “They fuck you up your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do…”
It’s estimated that 20% of the population are anxiously attached and the research also suggests that women are more likely to be anxious types than men. Anxious attachment strategies are usually developed when a child receives unpredictable or inconsistent levels of care. People with an anxious attachment style tend to have lower self-esteem and regard others more highly than themselves. They often romanticise relationships and have an over-reliance on outside validation which translates into a preoccupation with or desperation for intimate relationships, and often a fear of abandonment which causes them to cling even tighter.
So that psycho ex who called you 100 times a day, who needed you more than you needed them, who wanted constant reassurance, was jealous, overly emotional, and clingy and most likely has never been single and moved onto the next very fast after they realised you were done done? Well it’s highly likely they had an anxious attachment style.
The Avoidant Attachment style is developed when a child only has some of their needs met (for instance they were fed regularly) but other needs were neglected (they weren’t held enough). Avoidant types have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others around them and often feel they aren’t able to depend on others to fulfil their needs. They avoid abandonment by keeping others at a distance and feel they don’t need others for emotional support or appear to care as much about developing close relationships. Avoidants are highly independent and are generally uncomfortable with intimacy and displays of vulnerability. They dislike neediness in others and often feel suffocated. The Avoidants motto would be ‘it’s not me, it’s you!’
So if you’ve ever felt like you’re constantly chasing someone, or they haven’t wanted to engage in the ‘Where is this going?’ conversation. If things have seemingly been going well but once it got more serious they pulled back or ghosted then it’s most likely you’ve met an avoidant. Maybe unsurprisingly, men are more likely to have avoidant strategies and estimates suggest 25% of the population are avoidant types.
Weirdly enough, although they appear to be at opposite ends of the scale, research has found that Anxious and Avoidant types often end up in relationships with each other.
Fearful Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Only 5% of the population develop a Fearful attachment style, those with this style may have experienced turbulent, neglectful or possibly abusive childhoods. The Fearfuls experiences have taught them to be distrustful and fearful of intimacy although this is something they deeply crave, they also have a strong need for independence. Because of these conflicting needs they may be unable to sustain the connections they long for.
So how do you spot a Fearful avoidant?
They will exhibit highly emotional behaviour and fear abandonment but also fear being trapped. They may be unpredictable and have a tendency to rapidly shut down if pushed to share intimate thoughts and emotions.
While our childhood experiences are a determinant of how we connect with others, there are other factors that influence our attachment styles. They can and do change over time and can also shift based on the person we’re interacting with. Generally everyone has one dominant strategy but as with most behavioural traits our attachment style falls along a spectrum and we will occasionally display some of the behaviours from the other strategies although they aren’t our dominant style.
Some top tips for Insecurely Attached people
- Know your attachment style – Having an idea of attachment theory and better yet your own attachment style can help you to understand and regulate your behaviour but also spot other peoples attachment styles early on, to (hopefully) stop you falling back into negative patterns. Equally understanding other peoples attachment styles will help you relate better to any behaviour that seems alien to you. If you want to find out what your attachment style is you can take this quiz.
- If you exhibit anxious behaviour – You can develop yourself by working to create healthy boundaries with loved ones and focus on developing a positive self-image. Another practical thing you can do is to find something you’re passionate about and good at outside of intimate relationships and make that a priority in your life.
- If you exhibit avoidant behaviour – You can develop yourself by working on the ability to open up to others and sharing more of yourself. Focus on finding something you admire in other people, practice curiosity and try to become comfortable asking for help.
- For all insecurely attached people – Increase the number of securely attached people in your life. The great thing about Secure types is they can provide balance to both Anxiously attached individuals by providing them the reassurance they require and those with Avoidant attached traits by being able to give them the space they need.
- Having said all that it’s also important to embrace your attachment style, if you need reassurance own it, if you need your independence lean into it, if you are happy either way fantastic. The right people for you will be able to accept you for who you are!
- But most importantly of all – COMMUNICATE – If your needs aren’t being met, be open and honest with those you love and try to find some form of compromise – especially if you happen to be in a Anxious and Avoidant pairing.