Despite what some self-help or dating advice would lead you to believe, developing healthy emotional attachments with other people leads to greater happiness, productivity, and stability in one’s life. If your childhood was happy and supportive emotionally with parents you will develop a secure attachment style. If parents were critical you are likely to develop an anxious attachment style. If you parents were neglectful or abusive you are likely to develop an avoidant attachment style. Read on.
Attachment theory isn’t new, and its research is robust. It was developed in the 1950′s by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has evolved and developed up until present day, encompassing the nature of relationships between family members, romantic interests and even friendships.
Your attachment strategy can probably explain a great deal of why your relationships have succeeded/failed in the manner they did, and perhaps why you’re here reading this right now.
According to psychologists, there is FOUR attachment strategies people adopt: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.
Secure: People with secure attachment strategies are comfortable displaying interest and affection. They are also comfortable being alone and independent. Secure attachment types obviously make the best romantic partners, family members and even friends. They’re capable of accepting rejection and moving on despite the pain, but are also capable of being loyal and sacrificing when necessary. Secure attachment is developed in childhood by infants who regularly get their needs met, as well as receive ample quantities of love and affection.
Anxious: Anxious attachment types are often nervous and stressed about their relationships. They need reassurance and affection from their partner. They have trouble being alone or single. They’ll often succumb to unhealthy or abusive relationships. Women are more likely to be anxious types than men. Anxious attachment strategies are developed in childhood by infants who receive love and care with unpredictable sufficiency.
Avoidant: Avoidant attachment types are extremely independent, self-directed, and often uncomfortable with intimacy. They’re commitment-phobes and experts at rationalizing their way out of any intimate situation. They regularly complain about feeling “crowded” or “suffocated” when people try to get close to them. In every relationship, they always have an exit strategy. Always. And they often construct their lifestyle in such a way to avoid commitment or too much intimate contact. This is the guy who works 80 hours a week and gets annoyed when women he dates want to see him more than once on the weekend. Avoidant attachment strategy is developed in childhood by infants who only get some of their needs met while the rest are neglected (for instance, he/she gets fed regularly, but is not held enough).
Anxious-Avoidant: Anxious-avoidant attachment types (also known as the “fearful type”) bring together the worst of both worlds. Anxious-avoidants are not only afraid of intimacy and commitment, but they distrust and lash out emotionally at anyone who tries to get close to them. Anxious-avoidants often spend much of their time alone and miserable, or in abusive or dysfunctional relationships. According to studies, only a small percentage of the population qualifies as anxious-avoidant types, and they typically have a multitude of other emotional problems in other areas of their life (i.e., substance abuse, depression, etc.). Anxious-avoidant types develop from abusive or terribly negligent childhoods.
Different attachment types tend to configure themselves into relationships in predictable ways. Secure types are capable of dating (or handling, depending on your perspective) both anxious and avoidant types. They’re comfortable enough with themselves to give anxious types all of the reassurance they need and to give avoidant types the space they need without feeling threatened themselves.
Anxious and avoidants frequently end up in relationships with one another, far more often than they end up in relationships with their own types. Avoidant types are so good at putting others off that often it’s only the anxious types who are willing to stick around and put in the extra effort to get them to open up. For instance, a man who is avoidant may be able to successfully shirk a secure woman’s pushes for increased intimacy. After which, the secure woman will accept the rejection and move on. But an anxious woman will only become more determined by a man who pushes her away. She’ll resort to calling him for weeks or months on end until he finally caves and commits to her. This gives the avoidant man the reassurance he needs that he can behave independently and the anxious woman will wait around for him. Often these relationships produce some magnitude of dysfunction as they fall into a pattern of chaser-chasee, which are both roles the anxious and avoidant types need in order to feel comfortable with intimacy.
Anxious-avoidants only date each other or the least secure of the anxious types or avoidant types. These relationships are very messy, if not downright abuse or negligent.
Knowing and Changing Your Attachment Type
If you don’t have an idea what your attachment style is yet and want to take a test, you can take this one.
If you’re constantly worrying about your partners, feel like they don’t like you as much as you like them, want to see them 24/7, need constant reassurance from them, then you’re probably anxious. If you’re comfortable dating people, being intimate with them and are able to draw clear boundaries in your relationships, but also don’t mind being alone, then you’re probably secure.
The good news is that your attachment style can change over time — although it’s slow and difficult.
Research shows that an anxious or avoidant who enters a long-term relationship with a secure, can be “raised up” to the level of the secure over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, an anxious or avoidant is also capable of “bringing down” a secure to their level of insecurity if they’re not careful.
Also, extreme negative life events, such a divorce, death of child, serious accident, etc., can cause a secure attachment type to fall into a more insecure attachment type.
For instance, a man may be more or less secure, get married to an anxious type, bring her up to a more secure level, but when they run into money trouble she falls back to her anxious level, cheats on him and then divorces him for all of his money, sending him into a tailspin of avoidance. He goes on to ignore intimacy and pump-and-dump women for the next 10 years, afraid to become intimate with any of them.
Secures exhibit both positive self-images and positive perceptions of others. Anxious types exhibit negative self-images, but positive perceptions of others (hence their needy behavior). Avoidants exhibit positive self-images and negative perceptions of others (hence their arrogance and fear of commitment), and anxious-avoidants exhibit negative perceptions of just about everything and everyone (hence their inability to function in relationships).
Using this model as a roadmap, one can begin to navigate oneself to a more secure attachment type.
Anxious types can work on developing themselves, creating healthy boundaries and fostering a healthy self-image. One of my most common pieces of dating advice is for men to find something they’re passionate about and good at and make that a focal point of their life rather than women.
Avoidant types can work on opening themselves up to others, and enrich their relationships through sharing themselves more. Another one of my most common pieces of advice to men is that it’s your responsibility to find something great in everyone you meet; it’s not their responsibility to show you. Become curious. Try not to be judgmental.