Features and Opinion Editor Édith de Faoite breaks down how attachment theory can be a useful tool in sorting you out.
A friend recently described me as “skittish” when it comes to my romantic endeavours. An unsurprising statement if you know me. This unwelcome commentary on my relationships (or lack thereof) urged me to look into the theory of attachment styles. Although I had heard of them before, I had never taken the time to fully break down and understand the concept. The resulting research floored me and I felt very seen when I did a Buzzfeed style quiz that let me know that I have an avoidant attachment style.
Attachment Theory is the culmination of the work done by two psychologists: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Their work looked at the effect that childhood relationships have later in life. The work of both researchers examined the relationships between infants and their primary caregivers. As infants, we are evolutionarily programmed to form an attachment to our primary parental figure in order to stay alive. The way in which our primary caregivers treated us when we were children impacts the way in which we view and act in relationships in our adult life. There are 4 attachment styles: secure (that’s the one we all want), anxious, disorganised and avoidant. People with a secure attachment style are boring, unexciting losers who have a positive attitude towards both themself and others and who are able to sustain long and meaningful relationships, in their romantic relationships and in their platonic ones. People with a secure attachment style are trusting in relationships. They believe that the other person will always treat them well and they don’t doubt their interest in them. These people have generally had healthy relationships during their childhood and into their adult life, which means they are able to replicate that when they enter into relationships as adults. God, I wish it were me.
The other three attachment styles all fall under the umbrella of being ‘insecure’ attachment styles. People with an anxious attachment style tend to have a negative view of themselves and think of themselves as lesser than the other party in the relationship. These people tend to over-analyze the other person’s behaviour in an effort to gauge how they’re feeling. People with an anxious attachment style are often very perceptive as they are constantly worried that others will treat them badly. They monitor other people’s behaviour so they can alter their own behaviour if they sense a change in mood. Generally, these people tend to place the blame on themselves when there are problems in the relationship and they need constant reassurance that the other person cares for them and likes them. Being abandoned is a constant worry and, because of this, they can become overly clingy and desperate, which can cause issues for the other person in the relationship. This attachment style stems from a childhood where the primary caregiver was inconsistent in their ability to fulfil the child’s needs. The lack of reliability of the parental figure leaves the child with a sense of anxiety regarding the relationship, which follows them into their adult relationships.
Disorganised (or fearful) attachment presents itself as a fear of intimacy and close relationships. As the name suggests, people with a disorganised attachment style have an unpredictable behaviour pattern in their relationships. This is because they believe that their partner is inherently unpredictable and they cannot trust them and they rarely feel safe or secure in the relationship. This attachment style is often a result of a traumatic or abusive upbringing, where the person had to rely on someone that they often feared. This leaves the person with a looming sense that they will be hurt or abandoned. As a result, people with a disorganised attachment style often have short and unstable relationships that end abruptly. They may also end up in adult relationships that mirror the traumatic or abusive relationships from their childhood as that is all they know. These people struggle in relationships as they can act volatile and erratic due to their past experiences.
Finally, avoidant attached people (it’s me, hi) generally avoid entering into relationships. These are the people that are often called, in my experience, “fiercely independent”. In relationships they tend to push the other person away. In my case, it also means running a mile in the other direction when a person expresses an interest in getting to know you. There is also the common theme of avoidant attached people acting apathetic and disinterested in others when they attempt to reach out. Oftentimes, being faced with emotions and feelings can be the catalyst for this, as the avoidant attached person fears their emotions and the ramifications of them. They (we) use what are called ‘deactivating strategies’ in order to distance themselves from the other person. These strategies can manifest in many different ways. For example, they may focus on the other person’s flaws in order to justify not getting close to them. They may also pursue relationships they know are not going to work out. So if you only pursue Darren from down the road who has the emotional intelligence of a microwave, you may have an avoidant attachment style.
It can be helpful to establish which group you fall into, as you can identify the ways in which your attachment style affects your behaviour, both when pursuing someone, and while in a relationship. It can also be of use to identify the attachment style of the other person in the relationship. For example, people with an avoidant attachment style and people with an anxious attachment style may struggle in a relationship as the anxious attached person will get clingier when faced with uncertainty, whereas the avoidant attached person will pull away and become more distant when this happens. However, like with most things, if you identify your attachment style, you can notice the patterns and behaviours you exhibit when faced with these emotions and work on them. Maybe hope is not lost for us yet.