Understanding relationships

Best therapeutic practice is informed by attachment theory in repairing attachment wounds.

These wounds stem from the way we are looked after by our caregivers.

Defining Attachment

John Bowlby famous psychologist defined attachment “as being a strong affectional tie that binds a person to an intimate companion.”

Attachment patterns

We develop attachment patterns from birth and they continue to evolve into adulthood.

Contributing factors shape how we attach

Our genes, and our personalities  shape our attachment patterns.  Early connections with our parents are also influential.   Adult relationship experiences impact our patterns of forming attachments.

As we have experiences in close relationships our personalities form.

The quality of our relationships influences our attachment styles.

The way we handle our current relationship is a product of our past relationships.

Our self-esteem influences our relationships

We develop thoughts about our self and other people from past relationships.

Our relationship experiences shape expectations about our current relationship.  The way we think about our social interactions are influenced by our relationships.

Belief systems

Beliefs about ourselves change for example if our partner is avoidant of closeness or ambivalent about commitment.

We become insecure and doubt our worth about being loveable.

This changes our attachment style to becoming less securely attached.

Equally if we are prone to being insecure in relationships there is hope.

Attachment styles

When we attract a securely attached partner who models and nurtures us we become securely attached.

Therapeutic intervention greatly assists individuals to modify their attachment style in the therapeutic relationship.

Research on attachment styles

Research shows that attachment styles are pliable as they are influenced by our relationships.

Securely attached people remain secure in the presence of anxious or avoidant attached people when they have ego strength to maintain their secure mindset.

It is important to understand individuals are not one attachment style within all contexts of their lives.

For example someone securely attached with their family and partner, can be avoidant or anxiously attached in the work place.

One attachment style is not better or worse than the other.  Importantly it is about how well you fit with your partner that matters.

There are four attachment styles named in attachment theory.  They are secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganised.

Disorganised attachment

Disorganised attachment style is when a child has experienced a disruptive attachment with their caregiver.   For example an absent emotionally present parent that is abusive disrupts a child’s ability to form healthy attachments.

People with a disorganised attachment heal by making meaning and sense of their story.  When they gain long term support from a therapist they can understand how their childhood experiences have affected their lives.

This understanding provides a new platform for them to make informed choices about whom to form healthy attachments with.

Secure attachment

Securely attached people are stable in relationships.   They are emotionally available.  Secures  do not use mind games to gain self-interest.  Purely focusing on the task at hand.  They forgive more easily and do not hold grudges.

Secure attachments originate from children having experiences with mothers sensitive and responsive to their needs.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller authors assert a secure attachment is developed when mothers possess a kind of ‘sixth sense’ and intuitively know when a child wants to be held. A secure attachment is formed between mother and child.

For example soothing a baby or child before they become emotionally overwhelmed is helpful.  As is giving them space to ‘be’ without interfering provides the ground work for a secure attachment to be formed.

People with a secure attachment style are programmed “to expect their partners to be loving and responsive.” They are unafraid of losing their partner’s love (Amir & Heller: 2011).

Securely attached people are emotionally flexible.  They forgive more readily as they are able to switch off negative emotions without becoming defensively distant.

A securely attached person will however instinctively recognise when a relationship is not wholesome.

It is helpful to recognise the principles of a secure attachment to understand what a secure attachment is.  Such principles are being available, not interfering, encouraging others, communicating clearly and honestly.

Securely attached people use language that is congruent with the context, do not generalise, and genuinely care about their partner’s well-being.

When a person wears their heart on their sleeve and lets their partner know how much they mean to them this strengthens the bond between them.

It is important to know that people have specific needs in relationships. For example while securely attached people are unafraid of closeness they also enjoy their autonomy.

Anxious attachment

Anxious attached people have a strong need for closeness. They often need reassurance from their partner that they love and respect them.

When an anxiously attached individual  commences a relationship with a secure attached person their anxiety reduces in time.

However it is more difficult for an anxiously attached person to navigate a relationship with an avoidant attached person.   This is because when an avoidant wants distance, distance makes the anxious person feel anxious.

Avoidant attachment

Interactions with an avoidant attachment style in intimate relationships can be challenging.   It is useful to identify the avoidant attachment characteristics to prevent any negative impacts on your self-esteem when feeling anxious.

These characteristics consist of being self-reliant, having an inflated opinion of self, dismissing another, suppressing loving emotions and seeing only the negative in others.

An avoidant person also assumes the other person’s actions have a malicious intent, and disregard their emotional cues.

Amir and Heller authors state “frequently avoidants feel independent and powerful only to the extent that their partner feels needy and incapable.  This is one of the main reasons avoidants hardly date one another” (Amir & Heller: 2011).

The challenge for avoidants is that neither of them are able to sustain emotional intimacy for them to stay together.

Relationship resolution

Avoidants are able to maintain relationships when they clearly communicate their expectations and needs directly to their partner in a non- blaming manner.

I agree with Amir & Heller’s assertion that “effective communication works on the understanding that we all have very specific needs in relationships, many of which are determined by your attachment style.”

For example, avoidants like distance either emotional or physical, secures like honesty and autonomy, and anxious like closeness and reassurance.

Understanding relationships

A person with an anxious attachment puts their partner on a pedestal and feels small and inferior in contrast to their partner.  They forgive their partner’s critical comments.  They often remember the positive attributes that their partner portrays.

Anxiously attached individuals ignore their own needs for closeness and distance when they become overly focused on their partner’s needs.

An anxious person unknowingly becomes accustomed to the highs and lows of emotions that come from being in a relationship with an avoidant attached person. This feels like an emotional roller coaster in the relationship.

Advocating for your needs in a relationship is necessary for your well-being.

Conflict resolution

It is helpful for individuals to educate and acknowledge their attachment patterns. Understanding the attachment style of your partner also helps to consolidate a relationship that is mutually satisfying.

When experiencing relationship struggles it is helpful to seek assistance from a therapist that is knowledgeable and compassionate about attachment styles.

References:

Attached by Amir Levine & Rachel Heller 2011.

Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors by Janina Fisher 2017