Identifying and understanding our relationship attachment styles — as well as our partner's — can help us understand the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses.
According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, our attachment styles are born out of the bond we form with our first primary caregiver, usually a parent.
Our relationship with these caregivers has an overarching influence on the way we act in future relationships. There are three main groups of attachment styles:
Anxious: where we may feel insecure or vulnerable in our relationships
Secure: where we feel comfortable in our relationships
Avoidant: where we may try and keep our distance as that feels safe
Learning how to take charge of our attachment style and understanding our partner’s style gives our relationship the best chance to succeed. For example, people with a secure attachment style tend to believe their romantic partners were and are there for them, so they act accordingly.
Conversely, people with insecure attachment styles may have had a belief in the past that their partner would either abandon them or overwhelm them, and so they act in response to that belief.
In my practice, I often see what looks like, at first blush, startlingly different stories of relationship battles. Amazingly though, they almost all boil down to attachment styles and how one person’s operating system connects with their partner’s operating system.
Let's take a look at two people on each end of the attachment spectrum, Sarah and Sanjay. Each was working hard to make sense of their relationships, wanting to love and be loved, and their styles were impacting their relationships in very different ways.
Sarah has an anxious attachment style. She came to see me as she was finding it hard to keep a relationship going. Her relationships would start out well, she often thought her partner was the one, but something would go wrong fairly quickly.
If she hadn’t heard from her partner when she expected it, she would respond either by sulking or by becoming frantic — calling and texting repeatedly. She felt like all the good men had gone and she was now just meeting men who didn’t want to commit. Her last partner said to her: “You’re too much, I can’t breathe”.
Sarah was brought up by her mother after her parents divorced in her early childhood, and she had seen very little of her father since then. She didn’t feel like her parents were available, and this repeated itself in her present relationships where she needed a lot of reassurance.
What was happening for Sarah was that, in the early stages of a relationship, if she felt like she wasn’t being made a priority by her partner, it triggered her internal safety alarm. This led her to use protest behavior to try and get her feelings met.
Protest behavior is any action that is used to re-establish a connection with a partner, and often involves trying to get their attention by punishing them or sulking. It’s the adult equivalent of stamping our feet like a hurt and angry child — and is often unhelpful in a relationship.
The second client of mine, Sanjay, has an avoidant attachment style. Both of Sanjay’s parents ran a family business and worked long hours. They put pressure on him to succeed at school, so school work was a priority in his early life.
His parents sacrificed a lot for him to have a good education but they were not able to spend much time with him. He soon learned to be independent and self-sufficient and got a lot of praise for this.
Sanjay came to me at the insistence of his wife. They seemed to argue all the time and she felt that he was cold towards her and lacked empathy. He, on the other hand, felt suffocated by her level of emotional demands. He felt that he was a good provider and wasn’t appreciated.
Sanjay’s operating system as 'avoidantly attached' served him well growing up. But after he got married, it caused him problems because he found it very hard to provide the level of intimacy that his wife desired. The more she pressured him to engage, the more he felt like running away.
Sanjay and Sarah took the time to discover why they were experiencing such strong emotions and were then able to understand why their attachment styles were being triggered.
They went on to discover the small things they were able to do that would soothe their emotions and enable them to make the intimate connections they so dearly wanted.
This exercise will help you think about how your attachment style may have impacted your present and past relationships, and how those relationships may have impacted your attachment style.
Grab pen and paper, and give yourself plenty of room to write your answers.
Start by thinking about your relationship history. Write the names of your current and past partners at the top of the page. Now take yourself back to each of these relationships in turn and ask yourself these questions:
What was the relationship like? Can you remember any patterns of behavior? For example: was the relationship generally harmonious, or did you repeatedly break up and makeup, or perhaps you drifted apart?
What were the situations that triggered your attachment style? How did those situations make you feel, think or behave?
Can you recognize any attachment styles in either you or your ex-partner?
Could there have been a different way of operating?
Now let's think about your present relationship:
Is it completely different from your past relationships or are there similarities?
What expectations do you have about it?
Are these expectations useful or a hindrance to its success?