She goes through my phone all the time, but when I go through hers suddenly I’m invading her privacy, being controlling, and acting paranoid.”
“It’s not my fault you do suspicious things. I don’t. If you didn’t flirt with other girls maybe I wouldn’t have to go through your phone all the time.”
This kind of exchange is something I hear all the time. It’s a perfect example of how adult attachment styles can cause conflict in relationships.
About 40% of adults have an attachment style that causes relationship problems. Why are some partners OK with you taking a vacation solo, while others are constantly suspicious? Why do some people want to argue, while others wall up? It has a lot to do with… you guessed it, attachment styles.
Your adult attachment style determines your relationship patterns. They shape how you act when you’re close, how you deal with conflict, and in a lot of ways, are the deciding factor in whether or not your relationship lasts.
The Basic Adult Attachment Styles in Relationships
Secure Attachment: If you have a secure adult attachment style, you have a positive view of yourself and other people. You don’t panic or freak out when your partner goes out. You feel a normal amount of worry if your partner is running late or doesn’t call, but you’re able to cope with those feelings. Dealing with anxiety, jealousy, insecurity, and other negative emotions aren’t overly difficult for you.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: Out of all the adult attachment styles I see in couples counselling, this one is the most prevalent. If you have an anxious attachment style, you feel insecure about your relationship, question your partner, and struggle to trust your partner. Even if your partner tries to provide reassurance, the feelings of insecurity and anxiety persist.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: If you claim you don’t need relationships, this might be you. You focus on your career, your hobbies, and love your independence. When someone gets too close to you, you feel like they’re interfering with your own interests and pull away. You like to wall up or walk away when conversations get too emotional. When things aren’t going well, you convince yourself you don’t care and create distance between you and your partner.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment: Imagine the source of your pleasure and your fear are the same person. You want to get closer, but if you get too close you might get burned. You’re really happy at times, but then you snap out of it for a second and remember that you have to be on guard. When your partner wants you, you feel suffocated. When your partner isn’t being affectionate, you panic and scramble to get reassurance.
How Do Adult Attachment Styles Develop?
Maybe a few of the points above seem familiar… but how did you become this way? And can you change? If so, how?
Anyone can change anything about themselves with enough knowledge and the right skills. It starts with understanding how your adult attachment style developed, and how it’s affecting your relationship.
Secure Attachment: Develops from healthy affection. You grew up with a relatively stable family and home environment. When you took time to do your own thing, your parents were there when you were done. For the most part, they encouraged and supported you.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: Develops from inconsistent affection. It’s likely that you grew up with addicted parents. This style develops when parents are sometimes affectionate, caring and supportive, but other times absent or abusive. Because you don’t know which you’re going to get, you constantly need to test the waters. Once you know things are OK, you feel relief… but it’s only temporary.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: Develops from a lack of affection. Your parents probably encouraged you to be independent, or didn’t pay attention to your needs. Maybe they were unable to care for your needs, and you became a little parent yourself. Because you developed an independent, self-sufficient role so early on in life, you became your own critic, your own guardian, your own care taker, and you don’t feel like you need anyone else.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment: Develops from abuse. You needed your parent to feed you, clothe you, and provide you with shelter, and they did. But they were also cruel, and abused you mentally, physically, emotionally, or all of the above. You walked the line – close enough to get the essentials, far enough away to avoid the abuse. You may tell yourself your parent(s) were good people, just bad parents. Many people I see with this style have a split view of their parents, loving the good side and hating the bad, and mimic that with their partner.
Special Note: Sometimes, I have clients with great childhoods who have negative adult attachment styles. As you’ll see in the next section, your style can change due to really good/really bad relationships. A secure person can become anxious or avoidant after an abusive relationship, for example. If you connect with unhealthy attachment styles in the first section, but not the explanations in the second section, chances are that’s why.
Change Your Attachment Style, Have Better Relationships
If you’ve ever heard that “people don’t change”, forget it – it’s bullshit. I wouldn’t have a job if that saying was true. I’ll talk you through the basic process in this section, but it’s no replacement for quality counselling and couples therapy.
The most important tool in your arsenal is a technique called cognitive reframing. If you don’t know what that is, make sure you read this.
Secure Attachment: Do your best to understand your partner. Openly discuss the patterns that are happening and work together to create new, healthy patterns. Follow the advice I give for each of the unhealthy styles and provide as much support, love, and patience as you can.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: Being suspicious and accusing your partner don’t help. In fact, the more often you accuse and frustrate an innocent person, the less reason they have to maintain innocence. Your brain has created a pattern to help you, but it’s doing the opposite. To break this pattern, you have to take a giant leap. As long as you keep snooping phone messages, flinging accusations, and interrogating them, the pattern will continue. Your brain will tell you that the things you’re doing are preventing cheating and other forms of emotional pain. The only way to break the cycle is to prove yourself wrong, so challenge yourself – the next time you want to accuse or interrogate, try not doing it and see what happens.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: Don’t take too much pride in being able to wall up or walk away. Walking away or shelling up when you’re angry isn’t a good thing (most of the time). Until you learn to continue talking to your partner even when you’re feeling strong emotions, issues will continue to come up again and again. As your casual relationship turns more serious it’s perfectly normal for you to spend less time doing the things you enjoy independently. Take a giant leap and rely on your partner for something once in a while. It feels really nice to have someone you can depend on, but you’ll never have that unless you give your partner a chance.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment: You have a lot of really deep work to do. Your parents are (supposed to be) the safest, most loving people in your life. When they abuse you, it sends a really nasty message about the world and people in general. You’ll have to make good use of the cognitive reframing technique I mentioned earlier, and question the conclusions you’ve made about the world. Ask yourself where your negative beliefs about relationships come from, and if those beliefs make sense.
The tough thing with this style is your beliefs are often so suppressed you won’t be able to access them. You might have to hack your brain a little bit and watch for emotional outbursts. Whenever you feel stronger emotions than make sense for a situation, something deep has been uncovered and is escaping through the situation you’re experiencing. Pay attention to those situations, and watch for common factors in your outbursts.
Here’s What To Do Next
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For all my psych nerds who want serious knowledge, here’s a really good in depth breakdown of attachment theory.