Understanding Attachment Styles for Healthier Relationships

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Attachment styles play a key role in how relationships play out.

Without having some awareness of these patterns your relationships will most likely play out in automatic ways that can be good but also destructive if your style clashes with your partner.

In this post, I will touch on the basics of how attachment works in relationships. If you want to learn more about attachment theory in general check out the post I wrote about it here

Also, I learned a lot of this information from reading the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

3 Different Types of Attachment Styles

There are three main types of attachment styles.

  1. Anxious: these people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry a lot about their partner’s ability to love them and fear abandonment
  2. Avoidant: these people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness because they are afraid of intimacy 
  3. Secure: secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and comfortable with independence which allows for healthy relationships

These attachment styles predict how people respond differently to their views of intimacy, conflict, sex, communication of desires, and their expectations of their partner. 

All people in society fall into one of these categories or a combination of these categories. Understanding your and your partner’s attachment style is an easy way to reliably predict people’s behavior in any romantic situation.

We are programmed to act in a predetermined manner in relationships.

A Word On Dependency

We live in a culture that tends to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness, and dependency while exalting independence. 

While independence and self-reliance are awesome, we can’t forget the paradox that to have independence and self-reliance someone first needs a healthy level of internal attachment security.

This healthy attachment comes from dependency. Dependency with another loved one such as when we are kids with our caretakers or when we are adults with our romantic partners and friends.

The more dependent we are on one another the more independent and daring we become in our lives because we have secure connection as a base.

You can develop this healthy internal attachment on your own, but the reality is that as humans we are wired to be with other people in relationships. Our relationships play a role in co-regulating our physiology and internal security to take action in the world.

In summary, dependency is healthy, that is if we are with the right partner. 

If we are with the right attachment partner, there is co-regulation, support, and growth. 

On the other hand, if we are with the wrong partner who does not provide for our basic attachment needs then this can cause problems. 

This is why having a basic understanding of your attachment style and how it works with others helps you choose the right partner and communicate effectively.

Attachment Styles in Relationships

The first step in improving your relationships from an attachment perspective is understanding your attachment style. 

In general without taking a test the following are the basic principles of attachment styles:

  • Secure: If you feel comfortable with intimacy with your romantic partner and don’t obsess much about the relationship or your partner’s ability to love you back you’re probably secure
  • Anxious: If you crave intimacy and closeness but have a lot of insecurities about where the relationship is going, and little things your partner does tend to set you off you’re probably anxious
  • Avoidant: If you feel uncomfortable when things get too close, value your independence and freedom more than the relationship, and don’t tend to worry about your partner’s feelings or commitment towards you, you’re probably avoidant

The key is to understand what your attachment style is and what your partner is so that you can determine how to best work together and decide if it’s going to be a good fit.

The Anxious Attachment Style in Relationships

Anxious attachment styles need a lot of intimacy and reassurance in relationships.

Below are some of the key common points for the anxious attachment style:

  • They are usually more worried about their partner leaving them or breaking up and require reassurance
  • They usually overestimate their partner’s talents and underestimate their own
  • They usually have some anxiety when they are not around their partner 
  • When their system gets activated they can excessively attempt to reestablish contact
  • They can go into game playing or trying to make their partner jealous when the partner is busy and they haven’t heard from them

People with anxious attachment styles should not be dating someone avoidant because they need closeness and are more sensitive to signs of rejection or prolonged absence which avoidant people naturally do. 

The anxiously attached should find a more secure partner so that there is less avoidance and game-playing in the relationship and the secure person can help them manage their emotions as well as provide reassurance and clarity.

The Avoidant Attachment Style in Relationships

Avoidants are those people who are uncomfortable or scared of intimacy.

They tend to run at signs of emotional activation and have a harder time communicating in emotional situations. They are usually more self-reliant and less into social dependency as well as being more critical of others.

Below are some of the key common points for the avoidant attachment style:

  • Usually have a harder time committing
  • Can pull away after things start going well
  • They focus on small imperfections in partners 
  • Check out mentally when their partner is talking to them about something emotional or important to the relationship’s future
  • They tend to keep more things secret and avoid physical closeness

For avoidants, the following steps can help:

  1. Learn to identify deactivating strategies when you start to run at signs of intimacy 
  2. De-emphasize excessive self-reliance and focus on more mutual support
  3. Find a secure partner who can help
  4. Be aware of the tendency to misinterpret behaviors or be critical of quirks
  5. Remind yourself of the things you’re grateful for in your relationships
  6. Get rid of the perfect person fantasy
  7. Use distraction strategies when discussing more emotional things with your partner (go for a walk, hike, exercise, prepare a meal, etc.)

The key for people with an avoidant attachment style in relationships is to slowly grow the capacity to be with more emotional intimacy.

Talk about this with your partner and let them know that you want to improve but it’s not a strength. Become aware of your patterns and focus on ways you can buffer them. 

The Secure Attachment Style in Relationships 

The most optimal attachment style is being secure which allows for comfort with intimacy and comfort with independence.  

Below are the following key signals of a secure attachment style which those who are already secure have and those who aren’t secure can work on moving towards.

  • They expect their partners to be loving and responsive and don’t worry too much about losing their love
  • They are very comfortable with intimacy and closeness and can communicate their needs as well as sense their partner’s needs
  • They have more unconscious access to love and connection and less to danger and loss
  • Great with conflict and can handle conflict effectively 
  • Mentally flexible and open-minded. Not threatened by criticism and can revise beliefs/strategies
  • They don’t play games 
  • Comfortable with closeness and aren’t concerned with boundaries in close relationships
  • Quick to forgive
  • Inclined to view sex and emotional intimacy as one
  • Treat their partner like royalty once they are in their circle
  • Secure in their power to improve the relationship

Creating a secure base for our partners is one of the most important roles we can play in life. The following are the keys to creating that secure base in a relationship.

  • Be available: Respond sensitively to their distress and allow them to be dependent on you when they need it.
  • Don’t Interfere: Be there for them behind the scenes but allow them to grow in their own way in the world to accomplish dreams, goals, and interests. Help them in a way that allows them to cultivate their internal power and love instead of trying to do things for them.
  • Encourage: Provide encouragement and be accepting of their learning and personal growth goals.

Avoiding Attachment Clashes

If you get into a relationship where the attachment styles clash, it’s most likely that it will be a rollercoaster ride.

One example of that is when anxious and avoidant types get together. The following signs are typical of the anxious-avoidant trap.

  1. The rollercoaster effect: where there is an occasional high when the avoidant partner gets close but then it’s followed by an extreme dip because the avoidant perceives it as a threat and withdraws. This continues up and down.
  2. Emotional counterbalancing act: most avoidants inflate their self-esteem and independence in comparison to someone else. On the other hand, anxious types are programmed to feel inadequate so avoidants use this to bolster their self-esteem. This emotional counterbalancing is a sign of issues to come.
  3. Stable Instability: The relationship may last for a long time but an element of uncertainty persists. You may remain together but lack the intimacy you desire. 
  4. Fighting About Intimacy: there may be many dumb fights that all circle back to a lack of true intimacy and connection 
  5. Life in the inner circle as the enemy: if you are anxious you may find that you get treated worse once you become closer to the avoidant partner because when you get close it activates their deactivating system to withdrawal due to discomfort
  6. Feeling trapped: developing a sense that the relationship is not right but you have a hard time communicating or leaving because you feel emotionally connected to the other person

Developing a Secure Communication Style

On the path to having more secure relationships is developing effective communication and being able to tolerate more conflict.

5 principles of effective communication:

  1. Be genuine and emotionally brave about your feelings
  2. Focus on your needs and communicate them
  3. Be specific about what is bothering you or what you need
  4. Don’t blame or highlight their shortcomings but state the facts and find a solution
  5. Be assertive and unapologetic about your needs

Secure principles for dealing with conflict:

  1. Show basic concern for the other persons well being
  2. Maintain focus on the problem at hand not defending or trying to win
  3. Refrain from generalizing the conflict
  4. Be willing to engage
  5. Effectively communicate feelings and needs

Concluding Thoughts 

For me, the key is to understand your attachment style tendency and become aware of how your patterns play out in relationships. 

For example, I tend to have a pretty avoidant style so if I got into a new relationship it would help me to discuss this with my partner and tell them that I’m willing to work on it and find ways of balancing both of our needs. 

They could compromise a little bit by letting me have more space when I need it and offering support, and I could compromise by working with them to schedule more intimate dates while working on growing my comfort for expressing closeness. 

Overall, I think if someone is willing to become aware of their patterns, has the courage to communicate effectively with their partner, and makes small changes over time to improve their emotional security, people with more insecurity can change to being more secure over time.

This will make for a much healthier and more enjoyable relationship! 

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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.