Reforming My Attachment Style
I was recently introduced to a theory of human connection called Attachment Theory through Amir Levine & Rachel Heller’s book Attached. Attachment Theory posits that there are 3 main categories of how we intimately relate to each other — secure, avoidant and anxious. Being human requires connection and intimacy, but each style of attachment engages differently with others. They are not fixed, but they do require consistent intention to change.
Secure attachment is pretty much what it sounds like. You are aware of your need for connection, you seek it and show up for those who are part of that most inner circle. You communicate effectively about your needs and have a reasonable ability to compromise for the benefit of the relationship while maintaining healthy boundaries. Secure attachers tend to have satisfying relationships and can improve satisfaction for all parties. Around half of all people are in this camp.
Avoidant attachment is common with those independent, never-satisfied types with really long lists of must haves. If you’re avoidant, you tend to keep people at a “safe” distance and need a lot of space. Avoidants need connection just like anybody else, but might look critically at those closest because the relationship feels too intense or claustrophobic. One in four people has this style, and avoidants are over-represented in the dating pool as adults because they’re more likely to end relationships looking for something “better”.
Anxious attachment is when preserving the relationship becomes more important than personal well-being or the quality of the relationship. There’s a bit of an obsessive approach to ensuring your person is there and still loves you. It’s hard to think about anything else if the relationship feels threatened in some way. Your needs (or your partners’ needs) might be ignored, replaced by a fixation on maintaining the relationship at all costs. About 20% of people are anxious.
According to the research, about 5% of people are a mixture of anxious-avoidant.
Hi I’m Jemma, and I’m an Anxious-Avoidant
I was scandalized, and oddly relieved, to identify so strongly with a great many aspects of attachment theory. I think I fall into the anxious-avoidant statistic, but am moving toward secure. Depending on the style of attachment my partners and loved ones have, different sides of my own attachment system has emerged.
With anxious attachers, I am a classic avoidant.
With avoidants, I become anxious.
And secures have been (unfortunately) booooooring, making me end or sabotage relationships in search of more excitement, avoidant again.
I can “effectively communicate” like a secure attacher, but I also can use my communication skills to mask or rationalize deeply lodged and irrational fears. By the time I’m done explaining myself, you may be convinced that I know exactly what I’m doing. But if you are just judging by my actions, or the trail of ended relationships behind me, it may become obvious I’m a bit of a disaster.
One ex told me when we broke up “I feel sorry for your next victim,” which, at the time, felt obscenely dramatic. But maybe…
Anxious and avoidant attachers often find ourselves in relationship with each other because the push-pull creates that drama that many of us mistake for LOVE. It’s the roller coaster so many songs and movies talk about, that passionate connection that suddenly drops out, highs and lows leading to heartache and misery and sometimes abuse. Relationships with secure people can feel boring at first, especially when your system is all riled up from the turmoil and cortisol of insecure attachment. But if we want to feel a safe and deepening intimacy, we can look at our attachment style and consciously choose to behave in ways that are more secure.
Compatible attachment styles are essential
Attached, and the subsequent articles I’ve read about this, are careful to state that there is no “wrong” attachment style. But obviously, those of us who desire more satisfying relationship may look critically at our histories of building roller coaster relationships. And I’m grateful for this way of assessing my own experience with relationships and giving me some tools for better choosing people I develop intimate relationships with.
It’s not the only factor in the decision of who to let in, but it’s certainly worth tracking if people are really interested in, and capable of, intimacy. It requires some serious conversations early on, and it requires people are willing and able to commit emotional energy to the relationship. I think other compatible interests need to exist, but if you’re not on the same page regarding intimacy, the relationship simply will not work.
And while I’m now aware that I want a secure attachment romantic relationship, I have been noticing — and appreciating — some of the skills insecure attachment has taught me. Just like any type of adversity, struggling with relationships for so long in this anxious-avoidant style has given me real super-powers when I look at it a certain way.
Super-Powers of Insecure Attachers
The relationships where I was an anxious attacher, starting with my mom, made me hyper-sensitive to subtle details. I can sense when a mood shifts and something is not quite right. When I don’t take this personally and instead use that noticing to help the people I love feel seen and valuable, I can be an incredibly intuitive partner. It’s important that I practice patience with this skill and don’t let my brain jump to conclusions. But being aware of other people’s mental states can help me be there for them in perceptive ways.
Likewise, I can appreciate how attuned other anxious attachers are. And learning how to calm them by making them feel safe, I’ve had success in quickly resolving escalating conflict. It’s amazing to feel a clash magically transform with a bit of love and attention.
In contrast, my long and illustrious experience with avoidance has helped me become skilled at delivering difficult news. It might mean looking like the bad guy, but there are times when I really appreciate that I’m capable of being in uncomfortable conversations. I am also genuinely okay giving people space to process their experiences and feelings, especially if they communicate that need to me. I come alive for adventure and trying new things, and generally enjoy being in unfamiliar situations and new environments. I don’t overly rely on others to take care of me when I am upset. I’m very self-reliant and enjoy my own company.
I have learned over the past few years how hurtful being an avoidant can be to others and how unsafe it can make people feel, but I think going from avoidant to secure can be an incredibly valuable transition. I don’t know if I can explain to a non-avoidant person how scary it feels to have someone demand my availability for their well-being, but it is a feeling that I would have done almost anything to avoid in the past. Understanding this feeling, I think, enables compassion and empathy for the avoidant people in my life and be a bit of a bridge for them.
Being in relationship with avoidant people is definitely maddening at times, but when they feel safe (ie. not smothered), it can be incredibly fun and adventurous. If you want a fun travel companion, avoidants are the best. New experiences give them that thrill they look for and you can sink into a deeper connection while sharing something new together. Just be ready to give them some space when you get back home.
Balancing Me and We
I know I want to experience the deep intimacy a secure attachment person is capable of, and I am more conscientious of seeking that capacity. It requires effective communication, awareness of your own needs and placing a proper value on the well-being of the unit. It’s about balancing me and we.
I’m relieved to discover my attachment style is not a life sentence, that I can make decisions that help me cultivate more healthy intimacy in my life. I have a few more tools to sidestep those magnetic connections with people incapable of intimacy, the relationships that end in heartache and hurt for everyone involved. Although people don’t carry flashing signs with their attachment styles, there are many clues if you can read between the lines.
And at the same time, my history gives me a lot of empathy for those of us with insecure styles. We often want close, healthy connection. We don’t sabotage relationships on purpose. It’s almost like something steps in to block us from the thing we really want. It’s a struggle for everyone involved, especially the person who doesn’t really understand why their relationships are so difficult.
Questioning love in quarantine
I’m sure a lot of people are assessing their relationships right now. Being single during the pandemic has been really lonely at times. But I know being stuck with a partner has its own set of challenges, especially for people in relationships riddled with drama. There is no perfect situation, but the intensity of this moment has given all of us a chance to consider our priorities and relationship needs.
I hope more people will start to approach those closest to them with a sense of curiosity and gratitude, with a commitment to doing their part to create healthy intimacy. I know I’m invested in healing my destructive patterns to experience building a durable, satisfying relationship.
I am ready to get off the roller coaster, but I also long to be understood. And I can see how that connection might even be best created with another formerly insecure attacher. My history with substance use/abuse is similar. I almost need someone who understands what it’s like to be self-destructive in some way, but who is consciously practicing new behavior. While I am not only my most difficult parts, they are an important part of my being.
So to my fellow reformed insecures, just know that I believe a deep and wonderful intimacy is out there for us. And it may be even better because we know what it’s like to be in a hell of our own making.
We just have to continue our practice of self-reflection, commitment to others, and patience.