We often don’t realize the power we have to improve our lives. Learning more about our attachment style gives us tools to enable us to understand more about how our minds work. Understanding attachment helps us understand how we relate and how we’ve learned to cope with relationship stress and, ultimately, how we are wired. An attachment style quiz or WeConcile’s relationship quality quiz can help us get started. (You’ll find links later in this article.)
While we look at our bodies as something we can make beautiful with a healthy diet and exercise, we do not tend to see how we can change our minds and emotions. Do we understand that we can improve our wiring so that our minds and emotions function optimally? That we can create relationships that are secure, supportive, and heal our wounds?
With the new information and research on attachment, neurophysiology, etc., we learn to rewire our regulator system as part of a couple. We can understand how our partners and our own brains work and create a relationship built on love and trust.
(It is important to note that being a couple is only one learning path of many. In the more Eastern traditions, where yoga and mindfulness training originated, the focus was on developing the mind from an individual perspective.)
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory refers to the mammalian need for close, secure, and connected relationships with those we love and need. It looks at how we deal with our experiences that frustrate our need for this safe connection and how these ways of responding as infants become hardwired into our neurobiology, impacting our present and future relationships. In other words, our behaviors are not pasted on. They are integral to who we are, how we behave, and are structural in nature.
Until we begin to change how we are wired, we are caught in these unsatisfying ways of relating. Part of this change includes understanding who we are and how we cope.
Another part of this change involves interventions that allow us to contact aspects of ourselves that are not currently available – memories, vulnerabilities, and new ways of relating.
Attachment styles are primarily a result of nurture
Research on attachment has shown that infants placed in an unfamiliar situation and separated from their primary caregiver will react in several ways upon reunion with the caregiver. It is important to note that the way the infant reacts can be predicted to a 75% degree of accuracy by the behavior of the primary caregiver to the infant. These behaviors are not emerging out of a void, but out of a relationship.
The infant seeks the security of the caregiver when alarmed or having needs. However, for example, if the caregiver has dangerous behavior, the infant is in a bind. It cannot approach the parent and so must find another way of surviving this collapse of behavioral strategy. It is out of these relational dilemmas that attachment strategies develop.
The four main attachment styles
Attachment can be secure or insecure. Even those who do not have a secure attachment style can develop it with therapy or relational work. Note: Different people call these attachment styles by somewhat different names.
- Secure attachment: Securely attached people were raised by caregivers who consistently attended to their emotional needs and provided a safe base from which the child could explore.
As adults, they are more likely to be satisfied with their relationship. They feel safe in their relationship, are emotionally connected and healthily interdependent. Securely attached individuals are secure at the level of their nervous system and physiology.
- Avoidant attachment (also called dismissive-avoidant or anxious-avoidant): Infants with avoidant attachment tended to have caregivers who, in some way, created anxiety in their infants. They may have avoided touch or ignored their infant’s and children’s emotional needs or needs for connection. They may have rejected the infant’s attachment behavior and have been dismissive of their feelings. These infants learned to suppress their needs in order to keep the caregiver near.
As adults, they tend to keep their distance from others. They feel they don’t need others. They more easily shut down and detach from their feelings. They have more difficulty in managing stressful situations. Rather than seeking support or help, they tend to withdraw. They often do not have good specific memories of their childhood. If asked for a particular memory, they will have trouble finding one. They may also show more aggression and use distancing as a way to reduce emotional stress. These people have buried their underlying anxiety and are disconnected from their needs.
- The anxious-ambivalent attachment style (also called anxious preoccupied or anxious resistant attachment): Caregivers of an anxious resistantly attached infant may have looked to their children to meet their needs instead of the other way around. They may have been inconsistent and sometimes available and other times misattuned, causing the infant or child to be confused or frustrated. They may have been insensitive to the infant’s attachment signals without being noticeably rejecting. The infant or child wants contact does not hope they can rely on this contact.
Anxious ambivalent attached adults may be afraid of abandonment. They can be clingy or jealous, fearful, or easily overwhelmed. They tend to be vigilant in an attachment relationship and will tend to have low self-esteem and low self-confidence. They do not trust anyone can be there for them.
- The disorganized-disoriented attachment style (fearful attachment) was added later and refers to children who have a less predictable pattern of attachment behaviors. Disorganized attachment is considered more transient than structural. It is an overlay of on top of one of the other models. The child or infant may have had a caregiver who had severe unresolved trauma and behaved in ways that were frightening and alarming to the infant.
People with this attachment style may switch between social withdraw and aggressive behavior. They may try to avoid their feelings because they are easily overwhelmed. They may have mood swings. They are fearful of getting too close.
Attachment styles are strategies on a continuum
These strategies, while described as concrete types, are actually characteristics on a continuum. These characteristics include:
- Secure versus fearful
- Low anxiety versus high anxiety (arousal states)
- Low avoidance versus high avoidance
- Preoccupied versus dismissive
It is important to note that due to infants and children having more than one caregiver and relationship, we develop context dependent states of being. We may behave differently in one relationship than another.
How does attachment theory affect you and your relationship?
Attachment style delineates responses and behaviors to our attachment partner. These behaviors determine how we deal with intimacy, feelings, and emotional support in our primary attachment relationship.
WeConcile’s relationship quality quiz will show you the practical impact of attachment on your relationship in the following categories:
Emotional Safety and Connection – This indicates how emotionally safe and connected you feel in your partnership. If you scored high on this, your relationship feels secure to you – whether you were raised to be securely attached, or you earned this by improving your relationship and making changes. How do we know if we are secure in terms of attachment? We feel safe. We feel as if we can lean on our partner and s/he is there for us. We feel connected. We feel soothed in our relationships.
Family of Origin Understanding – In terms of attachment theory, as we begin to explore our family of origin deficits and wounds and share these, we begin to understand why we react as we do to our partners. As a person explores their family of origin, they may realize that when they were upset, nobody comforted them. Because of this, they may have become ‘clingy’ or developed a strategy of not needing others. Often, individuals are not aware of how they were treated as children. They may have a story in their heads that they had a ‘great childhood.’
It is only as a person explores through guided questions and memories that they tend to become aware of what they actually experienced. Drawing a blank or having a bodily reaction to specific questions about how one’s caregivers responded to them during times of need are clues. Once both partners become more aware of what actually happened in their childhoods, they can more easily provide support rather than react to their partner’s survival strategies and ways of coping.
Feeling Understood – In terms of attachment theory, we want to feel secure, and this means our partner understands us. Feeling understood makes a big difference in helping couples get through relational challenges. This is part of the repair that can occur in a relationship. As we each feel understood by our partners, we can begin to change our wiring and create a more secure attachment with our partners.
Positivity – Those who are securely attached tend to relate more positively to others. When we score high on positivity, we know that we have an important skill set in place to help us in our relationship with our partners.
Conflict Skills – When we have developed an understanding of our survival strategies, attachment style, and how to co-regulate in a relationship, we find our conflicts become much easier to manage. (Co-regulation means we help regulate each other’s emotions so that we feel calm and safe.) We can defuse our heightened emotions and use our understanding of each other. Those who develop a secure attachment with their partners have much better conflict skills.
Sexual intimacy – Newer relationships tend to have more dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which increase sexual attraction. Later as the relationship matures those hormones tend to diminish with oxytocin and vasopressin increasing as trust and understanding improve. Oxytocin is often called the cuddle hormone. While less exciting, it causes a deep and safe love feeling.
Often sexual attraction diminishes when the relationship progresses but trust and understanding are not high enough to allow for the release of oxytocin and vasopressin.
Our attachment style also impacts our sexual patterns. Securely attached partners allow for more sexual ease. Partners can respond to each other’s sexual preferences without compromising their own needs. On the other hand, for example, if you are highly anxious, you may be afraid of losing your partner’s interest. You may compromise your individual needs to your partner’s needs rather than find mutuality.
Learn more about your attachment style and relationship quality with these quizzes
Take the 10-question WeConcile Relationship Quality Quiz https://weconcile.com/quiz to see how you score on the above relationship areas. While this isn’t a direct attachment style quiz, it looks at the manifestations of your attachment style in your relationship.
I like this attachment style quiz a lot. It breaks down your attachment styles by percentage.
The importance of creating a secure attachment
What happens when we do not have a secure attachment style? We wreak havoc on our relationships. Instead of your relationship being a safe haven for you and your partner, it is fraught with emotional conflict. You can your partner judge each other. You struggle with your differences. You are sure you are right, and your partner is wrong. You simply don’t see that your struggles are coming out of having an insecure attachment. You don’t see that one person’s attachment style causes them to withdraw from the connection (because they are disconnected from their needs,) and the other’s attachment style causes them to feel insecure and abandoned.
Rather than being able to connect and co-regulate each other neurobiologically, more anxiety is created. Rather than being able to be vulnerable with each other, communication is stuck on the surface level of the couple’s problems. Rather than being able to say, “I want you to feel safe with me,” the dialogue is, “Why can’t you stop clinging? You are driving me crazy.”
These internal biases prevent us from being in a healthy relationship. When we judge another, we block healing in ourselves and them. The answer lies in seeing your relationship as a journey of growth and evolution that allows you to restructure yourself and create more open-heartedness in your relationship.
WeConcile will help you create a secure attachment in your relationship.
If you have a lot of conflict in your relationship, you may find it helpful to read my article, Are You Arguing in A Relationship?
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