One of the more robust findings of psychology, to have withstood the tests of time, is the theory of infant attachment, first put forth by psychologist, John Bowlby and subsequently furthered by Mary Ainsworth. According to this theory, infants primarily exhibit three types of attachment patterns with their primary caregivers—secure, anxious or avoidant, with a small subset displaying a blend of anxious-avoidant styles. In his insightful book, Attached, psychiatrist and relationship expert, Amir Levine and writer, Rachel Heller, argue that these same attachment patterns can be found in romantic partnerships of adults. Understanding your own attachment pattern can thus help you select a suitable partner. If you are already in a relationship, knowledge of each partner’s attachment pattern can help a couple navigate their relationship more seamlessly.
How attachment style affects adult relationships
Basically, attachment impels us to seek psychological and physical support from our partners so that we feel safe. When our emotional needs are fulfilled by our partners, we become confident and more outward-looking.
Our attachment patterns also impact our physical health. A study conducted by psychiatrist Brian Baker, examined the influence of marital partners on people with mild blood pressure. Those who reported being in robust marriages benefited from spending time with their spouses, i.e., their blood pressure actually reduced. On the other hand, those in non-optimal marriages experienced an increase in blood pressure when their partners were present. Our partners also play a role in how we view ourselves, thereby heightening or undermining our sense of self-efficacy.
According to Levine and Heller, two dimensions underlie our attachments styles. The first relates to our “comfort with intimacy” or whether we avoid getting too close to our partner. The second dimension reflects our anxiety about our partner’s “love and attentiveness.”
A secure attachment style involves low anxiety and avoidance. Secure adults are comfortable with closeness and exude warmth and love. An anxious style entails a high degree of doubt and uncertainty regarding the relationship yet the person is comfortable with intimacy. Anxious people tend to require constant reassurance from their partners. An avoidant style, in contrast, implies that the person is uncomfortable with closeness but is not anxious about the relationship. Avoidant individuals prize their independence more than the relationship. The anxious-avoidant style includes high degrees of both anxiety and avoidance.
The vast majority of people fall under the secure group, about a quarter are avoidant and around 20 percent are anxious. A small subset, less than 5 percent, fall into the meld of anxious-avoidant.
What determines our attachment style
Adult attachment research suggests that, when it comes to relationships, we tend to behave in a “predetermined manner.” Our attachment patterns in adulthood stem from our genetic predispositions, childhood attachment patterns with our parents and our experiences in life, including past romantic relationships. Further, attachment patterns seem slightly mutable with one in four people shifting to a different style over a span of four-years, on average. Levine and Heller also assert that we shouldn’t necessarily view the anxious and avoidant styles as “pathological”, only different.
You may assess your own attachment pattern using the Experience in Close Relationship (ECR) questionnaire, that is available online here [takes just few mins to complete].
Researchers have observed that avoidants rarely pair up together, possibly because neither of them can create the emotional bond that holds two people together. People who are secure wish to be close to their partners. At the same time, they are not antsy about getting rejected and give each other sufficient space, both physical and psychological. They are neither clingy nor distant. However, sometimes, a secure person may be too forgiving of a partner’s misdemeanors and may even feel completely responsible for their “partner’s wellbeing.” If you are a generally secure person, but start doubting yourself or find yourself behaving in odd, mistrustful ways, chances are that you are enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship.
Those who are anxious don’t have issues with intimacy. However, they are overly sensitive to the tiniest of “perceived threats to this closeness”. They are highly emotional and tend to feel overwhelmed when this happens. As they are flooded with dread, they are unable to communicate their actual feelings to their partners and may behave in inexplicable ways, creating a lot of tension and drama.
If the partner of an insecure person is “sensitive and nurturing enough,” they may be able to quell their partner’s anxiety by reassuring them of being loved. Once the anxious person feels validated, their oversensitivity can actually be a bonus because they are attuned to their partner’s needs and moods.
If you are the one with an anxious attachment style, then you need to be aware that your emotional system tends to be hypervigilant and easily aroused. Instead of reacting to every slight, remind yourself that you tend to latch onto false and hasty assumptions while catastrophizing minor misdemeanors. Also, learn to assert yourself by stating your needs for connection and reassurance explicitly. Further, if you are anxious, you may avoid partnering with someone who has an avoidant style as those two styles tend to exacerbate the worst traits in the other.
Here’s what to do if you have an avoidant style
According to Levine and Heller, avoidants tend to view their partners as needy, especially if they are anxious. Additionally, they don’t necessarily acknowledge that they too have needs and insecurities. They also overemphasise the importance of self-reliance, not realising how deeply interconnected and dependent we all are as human beings. Unfortunately, avoidants are often not consciously aware of these thought patterns.
If you are an avoidant, building your self-awareness is the first step towards a warmer and more satisfying relationship. Instead of overstating the need for self-reliance, try to value mutual support. Notice and appreciate positives in your partner more often. Levine and Heller also note that avoidants, just like anxious individuals, grow more secure when they are paired with someone with a secure attachment style.
If you are paired with an avoidant partner, don’t hesitate to assert your need for closeness. If they pull back or make you feel extremely needy, when in fact you are not, consider seeking help from a couples counsellor or relationship expert.
Communication is the key
While two people with secure attachment styles are likely to have a harmonious relationship, research shows that “mixed” couples—i.e., wherein one partner is secure and the other insecure (either anxious or avoidant)—also fare just as well in terms of functioning and conflict resolution. Whatever your attachment style, all relationships benefit from effective communication, wherein both partners can express their authentic needs in respectful ways without feeling judged or belittled by the other. In a true partnership, both partners are sensitive and responsive to each other’s needs while allowing the other to “become the best person” he or she can be.
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