How Learning Your Attachment Style Can Improve Your Relationship
In romantic relationships, we all behave and engage in different ways. For instance, some people need constant attention, while others are uncomfortable with intimacy. Attachment theory helps explain these differences.
"Attachment theory was developed in order to better understand how infants attach to their caregivers and how that impacts the way they navigate relationships in their younger years," says Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage family therapist, relationship expert and author of I Want This To Work. "Over time, attachment theory has also been used to understand how people build and maintain relationships as adults."
In other words, the patterns we learn in our early years transfer into our adult relationships, including romantic ones. Knowing this information then can help us build stronger, healthier relationships. To help with this, Earnshaw walks us through the different attachment styles and shares tips on how to heal them.
The 4 Attachment Styles
According to Earnshaw, there are two main attachment styles: secure and insecure. As the term suggests, secure attachment refers to feeling secure in the way you relate to others. Earnshaw explains this is established when a young child has a secure relationship with at least one primary caregiver who is predictable and reliable.
"People with secure attachment tend to be better at setting boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others and have higher self-esteem and confidence," Earnshaw says. "Within relationships, they tend to be more likely to seek out social support, maintain long-term relationships, and share their feelings with others." She adds that those with a secure attachment style also look for reliable partners and can maintain autonomy while feeling comfortable leaning into intimacy.
On the other hand, if a child couldn't rely on at least one caregiver, they may develop the insecure attachment style, which Earnshaw describes as feeling anxious about relationships. As a result, you use coping skills that were once effective in dealing with anxiety but aren't anymore. "We might find ourselves navigating adult romantic relationships with a lot of anxiety, " Earnshaw says of those with insecure attachment. "That anxiety might manifest in responding to any sense of distance by pursuing a partner or responding to any attempts at closeness by avoiding the partner."
Furthermore, there are three insecure attachment styles: avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized.
- Avoidant Attachment: For people with the avoidant attachment style, "intimacy creates discomfort," Earnshaw says, so they may pull away from their partner to help soothe themselves. "Avoidant people tend to worry that their autonomy will be taken away when they get too close, and they also do not know if they can truly rely on people to be there for them," she says.
- Ambivalent Attachment: The ambivalent attachment style, often referred to as the anxious attachment style, is characterized by feeling preoccupied with relationships. "The pull toward relationships is based on underlying anxiety, differing from secure individuals who are pulled towards relationships through an underlying sense of safety," Earnshaw says. "The preoccupation can create scenarios where the ambivalent partner pursues the other partner in ways that harm the relationship."
- Disorganized Attachment: Lastly, the disorganized attachment style is a mixture of the avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles. "Sometimes the partner pulls away, and sometimes they pursue," Earnshaw says.
How To Use Attachment Styles To Strengthen Your Relationship
The first step is to uncover your attachment style. However, Earnshaw notes that attachment styles can change. "Recognizing that your attachment style is not set in stone reduces the likelihood of over-identification and increases the likelihood you will feel motivated to work towards change," she says.
From there, Earnshaw suggests working on identifying your anxieties and the underlying reason for why you are either preoccupied with relationships or tend to avoid them. She says it could be fear of abandonment, worrying about losing independence, the fear of relying on others or something else.
Next, develop new forms of self-soothing. "If you are preoccupied, you might currently self-soothe the anxiety you feel by texting your partner a lot when you feel worried. Instead, work on taking a break and self-soothing by journaling, breathing or taking a walk," Earnshaw says. "If you are avoidant, you might self-soothe by withdrawing from the relationship. Instead, work on identifying your feelings and sharing them with a safe person. Ultimately, changing your attachment style will partially involve you learning to navigate your anxiety."
In addition to that, Earnshaw also recommends looking to secure role models. "Whether it's someone you know very well or a character on TV, begin to have a 'community' of people in your mind who are securely attached," she says. "Utilize these people as a model and try to think of what they would do when they are in challenging relationship dynamics." Moreover, working on building relationships with securely attached people, she adds, will also help you understand what it feels like to be in a secure relationship.