“Love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh
I spent many years feeling completely crazy in my relationships. Throughout my relationship/dating life, I craved closeness and intimacy so much, but then would push someone away who was getting too close. I wanted closeness, but it scared me. Whenever I was single, I felt fine, but lonely. Yet, whenever there was a guy in my life, I felt insane and overwhelmed by my own emotions, which to me was a lot worse than just feeling lonely. I always thought something was wrong with me, but I could never figure out what it was or how to fix it.
Currently, I am in possibly the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had, and all those crazy emotions I used to feel before are nearly nonexistent. However, I’m sure I haven't reached the point of being emotionally healthy all the time. My secure relationship with my boyfriend somehow led to me feeling anxious about one of the most secure relationships I’ve had for years – with my best friend. On expressing these insecurities to her, she explained to me I have an anxious attachment style. I had no idea what she was talking about, but after much research and self-evaluation, I’ve learned a lot.
Attachment styles are based on how anxious or avoidant we feel in our closest relationships, which produces either secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, or fearful avoidant attachments. Here’s a breakdown according to the Youtube video “The Four Attachment Styles of Love”:
- Secure: You feel comfortable going to your partner for support. You allow your partner freedom, and “tend to have an honest, open, and equal relationship where both partners can thrive and grow together at a healthy pace.” Because of your higher emotional intelligence, you can communicate your feelings effectively, and can work to find solutions to problems instead of attacking your partner. You are highly resilient and “understand how to move past obstacles with great care and self-awareness.”
- Anxious-preoccupied: You tend to over romanticize love, because it’s easier to bond with a fantasy than someone in real life. You are often attracted to those you can save, or who can save you. You “can be demanding, obsessive, and clingy.” You have the tendency to overanalyze situations, have mood swings, and “mistake turbulent relationships for passion.” You can struggle with “insecurities, low self-esteem, and establishing a strong sense of self.”
- Dismissive-avoidant: You are emotionally distant, self-sufficient, independent, and avoid true intimacy. You seek space more frequently than is healthy to push yourself away from being vulnerable with your partner. If your partner threatens to leave, you “have the ability to shut [your] emotions down and pretend like [you] don’t care.” As a result, you have very few close relationships.
- Fearful-avoidant: You fear being too close or too distant from your partner, as well as wanting intimacy and resisting it. You “can be unpredictable and often are overwhelmed by [your] own emotions.” You know you have to seek out love, but when people get too close, they hurt you. You “fear being abandoned, but struggle being confident in [your] partner and relying on them,” which leads to you clinging to your partner when you feel rejected. You probably have very few close relationships.
Our attachment styles are formed during our first years, and are directly correlated to the emotional and physical bond we had to a primary caregiver. According to John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, as infants, we “ask” ourselves if our attachment figure is nearby, accessible, and attentive. If we can answer yes, then we feel loved, secure, confident, and are more likely to play with others and be sociable. We feel safe to explore the world, because we know that we have a safe base to return to anytime. In essence, we develop a secure attachment style.
Conversely, the Youtube video “The Attachment Theory - How Childhood Trauma Affects Your Life” explains how we can develop an insecure attachment. If we have a weak bond with our primary care giver, then we become insecurely attached. We’re afraid to leave or explore the world because it’s a scary place, we don’t have a safe place to return to. We learn to mistrust, lack social skills, and have troubled relationships.
If we have a parent that acts unpredictably, we can become clingy, more emotional, and anxious about our relationship with them, which can lead to an anxious attachment style. If our caregiver is overly strict and reacts with anger every time we show too much emotion, we become fearful of them. We learn that “to avoid fear, we have to avoid showing feelings,” which can lead to an avoidant attachment style. If we have inconsistent caregivers, or a parent who ranges from overly stressed to abusive to loving, we become anxious of “the people [we] seek security from, a conflict which totally disorganizes [our] ideas about love and safety.” This can lead to what the video deems as an anxious disorganized attachment, but it can also be labeled fearful-avoidant.
Mary Ainsworth developed a technique to determine the attachment styles of infants very easily. It’s called the “strange situation,” during which the infant is separated from their mother for a short period of time and then reunited. Sixty percent of infants demonstrated a secure attachment by being easily comforted when their mother returned, because they had a parent who was consistently responsive to their needs. Twenty percent were anxious-resistant and showed extreme distress at being separated. It was difficult for them to be soothed, and when their mother returned, they showed conflicting behaviors of wanting to be comforting, but also wanting to punish their parent for leaving. The other twenty percent were avoidant. They didn’t appear too distressed by the separation, and when their mother returned, they actively avoided seeking eye contact, and sometimes turned their attention back to playing with objects in the room.
Knowing that my attachment style for a very long time was fearful-avoidant, I was curious to know what it was as a child, because I have many traits of the secure attachment style as well. As it turns out, my mom explained that when I was an infant, it was very easy to soothe me. It made sense to me, because the first years of my life were the only years that I lived with both my parents so had easy accessibility to both of them. I developed a secure attachment, because they were consistently there and responsive to my needs. I’ve been told by many members of my family that I was a very happy and loving child. However, by the time I reached middle school and all throughout high school, my peers would comment on how sad or angry I looked all the time. That’s because between my toddler years and middle school, my life changed.
My parents stopped living together when I was about five years old, and for the rest of my childhood, I would alternate between parents every day. It was a lot of back and forth, and though I saw both parents nearly every day, my life was split in two. I no longer had the consistency of both parents being easily accessible. They had vastly different parenting styles, so when I was one parent, it would be a certain way, and when I was with the other, it would be another way.
Supposedly, if we develop a secure attachment by the age of two, we can easily make friends, have a positive outlook on life, and are optimistic. Fraley explains that “a secure child tends to believe that others will be there for him or her because previous experiences have led him or her to this conclusion.” He or she will seek out relational experiences consistent with these expectations, but if new experiences are inconsistent with their expectations, then they develop new ones, which can change their attachment style.
In my earliest years, I learned that my parents would always be there when I needed them, but that got altered when I had to go back and forth all the time. I learned that they wouldn’t always be available to me, which altered my attachment style and outlook on life. Not only did I go back and forth between two parents, but since my dad moved in with his two brothers that also become father figures to me, I had many inconsistent caregivers. I knew they all loved me, but they all had different methods of raising me, some healthier than others. My parents no longer living together also meant that I was left alone with my mom, who was very angry often and her anger got directed all at me simply because I was the only one there. I never did anything to incur her wrath, and she knew that, but my mom wasn’t the healthiest person when I was growing up.
During these years of inconsistent caregivers and an angry mother, I learned to feel anxious about my relationships, and fearful of my mother’s unpredictable wrath. It’s during these years that I think I grew a fearful-avoidant attachment style. However, the most interesting thing I learned from studying attachment styles is not what category you fall into, but instead to what degree you experience anxiety or avoidance in your relationships. For example, I learned my mom had a fearful-avoidant attachment style as well, but hers was far more severe than mine, and hers was shaped by experiences far worse than mine.
Which brings to me how my attachment style grew in severity during my middle school years. From the time my dad fell in love with someone new up until about three years ago, my life underwent chaos and instability like I had never known prior. My mom fell into depression, and became homeless for a time. While I was in seventh grade, I used to stay in motel rooms with her when I wasn’t staying with my dad. Over the next five years, my mom and I moved about fifteen times, usually never staying somewhere for longer than three months, and sometimes even less than that. We got kicked out of every room we rented. All the while, my dad married when I was thirteen, bought a house with his wife, and started a new family.
I continued to go back and forth between parents – from the constant moving around with my mom, to the stability of my dad’s new life. My life was a disorganized mess, and I first fell in love during this time. I didn’t know it, but I showed all the signs of a fearful-avoidant attachment. In my relationship, I felt so in love and wanted to be so close to him, but then out of nowhere would emotionally shut down and it was like my feelings for him never existed. I caused him a lot of pain, but over the years he consistently loved me, and I learned to ignore when my emotions turned off.
My life changed anew when it was my dad’s turn to lose everything when I was sixteen years old. He lost his new business and his house, ironically during the time my mom finally found a consistent place to stay for the next seven years. Soon, I was living with the two uncles I grew up with, both not the best fit to be parents.
Then I went off to college, moving every year, which is normal, but for someone who already moved so much, it only added to my unstable life. After I graduated, I stayed with my uncle for a year before being kicked out. Then I stayed with a family friend for nearly a year before leaving. I stayed with my dad for a month until finally, finally moving into my own apartment where I have stayed for the past three years. To say my life has been tumultuous is a modest way of putting it.
I think all my healthy qualities come from my early years of secure attachment, and all my unhealthy attachment traits have been learned over time. Fraley says that according to studies, the correlation between child-parent attachment and adult romantic attachment is modest at best. If we are secure as children, we can grow up to have secure relationships, but as my life has shown, we can also learn from new either good or bad experiences.
Fraley explores the similarities between child attachment and adult ones. For starters, the same statistics that infants experience in attachment styles is the same for adults – sixty percent secure, twenty percent avoidant, and twenty percent anxious. It honestly baffles me that sixty percent of the people out there are healthy individuals who can attach securely. Maybe that just means I know too many unhealthy people.
Other similarities between child and adult attachments include:
- both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
- both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
- both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
- both share discoveries with one another
- both play with one another's facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
However, when someone with an insecure attachment style falls in love with someone else who is also insecure, our insecurities and defenses rise up. Avoidants who fall for anxious attachments will tend to emotionally check out when things are intense, which creates clinginess in their partner who has the desire to feel close when feeling rejected. Aviodants tend to not understand why their anxious partner is being ill-tempered or upset, and that they are acting that way because they are trying to express their longing. Those who are avoidantly attached prefer sex with strangers, are scared of cuddles and intimacy, and find strategies to remove themselves from people who get too close.
When a person with an anxious attachment falls for an avoidant one, they may feel needy or crazy for wanting more from their partner. Their way of dealing with what they “legitimately need may be aggravating things hugely.” Asking for intimacy too directly can trigger an avoidant partner and cause them to pull away. An anxiously attached person needs to tread lightly when asking for closeness with their avoidant partner. It’s important for the anxiously attached person to know that “things aren’t as bad as they seem,” but instead they are perceiving problems as greater than they are or even when they are nonexistent.
Throughout all these years, and after that first high school relationship, I exhibited anxious attachments with my friendships, and fearful-avoidant with every guy I tried to date. My dating life was similar to all the moving I had done. I had learned to never get comfortable with someone who was going to leave, but at the same time I craved closeness and intimacy the same way I craved a stable place to live. I acted in so many unhealthy ways, never understanding why I couldn’t keep a guy around, why I could never let someone in. I would alternate from being super clingy and desperate, suffocating too many guys, and then completely pushing them away, wanting nothing more to do with them.
On top of all my own unhealthy tendencies, I fell hardest for those who were avoidant, excluding my first boyfriend who I believe had a secure attachment style, but even with him it took me a long to get close to him. For the most part, I had very tumultuous relationships with the avoidant guys I fell for. My emotions were so up and down, the relationship seemed constantly changing, and I did perceive this as passion.
Whenever a guy outright liked me and was comfortable with wanting me, I would be completely turned off by their openness to love. However, if a guy showed interest, but was hard to get close to, then it felt safe to throw myself at someone who I knew would be incredibly difficult to get close to. The fear was in the mutual intimacy, because if I allowed that, then that meant I was vulnerable to being abandoned and getting very hurt.
Friendships felt safer to get close to, but even with those, I nurtured them with anxiety, always feeling like I had to be the one who made the most effort just so I could keep them in my life. I pride myself on making all of my friends feeling very loved by me, but this need stems from the insecurity that if they don’t feel completely loved, they’ll leave. There have been plenty of times I’ve suffocated friendships with my needy love, causing them to do the very thing that I was afraid of - leave.
However, through it all, I’ve managed to maintain long-term good friendships that last years. I exhibit many qualities of the secure attachment style, because I can communicate my feelings with them, know how to work through problems, and feel like I can rely on them the same they can rely on me.
After so many tumultuous years, it took my life finally stabilizing for me to be emotionally ready for a healthy relationship. The healthier I feel, the less appealing those rollercoaster relationships of the past are to me. I romanticize them less and now see them for what they really were.
While I express traits from the fearful-avoidant and anxious-preoccupied attachments, my current boyfriend has traits of the fearful-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant attachments. We began our relationship rocky, but both eager and ready for something healthier. We have many similar negative life experiences, which is at times is both good and bad for our relationship. I think that healthy individuals can walk into a relationship no problem. Some unhealthy adults run into one. My boyfriend and I baby crawled our way into this.
We slowly, very gradually dealt with every obstacle that came up, and plenty have appeared. But at each one, we learned how to overcome it and move forward because I think that deep down we think the other person is worth working through it. I think we have a funny way of arguing and dealing with conflict. We always have two arguments. We have the first one where we’re angry, repeat ourselves a lot, and don’t listen to a word the other person says. Then, usually after about a day or two, we have the same exact discussion, repeat the same exact things, but this time without anger and with open ears.
We have hardly ever attacked the other person, and never belittle. It’s taken a long time, but gradually we feel more comfortable going to the other for support and relying on one another. I try to show him that I am someone he can rely on, because I know he feels like he has never had that, and for his part he tries very hard to be supportive. Our relationship is not perfect, but we put in a lot of effort to make it healthy. It is still hard for us to be completely open and loving with one another. When he does something that disappoints me, I still instinctively want to shut down, and I believe he has a fear deep down that I’ll abandon him the moment he truly lets me in. But as two unhealthy people, we’ve worked our way through this relationship the best way we could.
Fraley says there are two types of models that exist to show how childhood attachment is related to our adult ones. One model “assumes that existing representations are updated and revised in light of new experiences such that older representations are eventually “overwritten.”” The other model says that our first attachment style is preserved, not overwritten, and “continue to influence relational behavior throughout the life course.” I’m no psychologist (though I think I’d be great at it), but from my personal experiences, a little of both seem to be true. The secure attachment style I first developed has influenced the relationships I’ve had throughout my life, but new experiences did overwrite plenty of my expectations on relationships.
The reason I share all this is because I wish I knew and understood more about the attachment styles and why I acted the way I did for so long. Now I understand, and I hope to be helpful for others to understand their own attachment styles as well. The most hopeful thing I learned during my research was that having a secure relationship can help in developing a secure attachment style, even as an adult. My life had to stabilize first, but now I’ve been working on having a secure relationship, and the longer I work at it, the healthier I feel emotionally and mentally. My attachment style is still anxious, and the fearful-avoidant style does come out at times, but I hope one day to simply be secure.
*originally published on jilianaserna.wordpress.com
Adult Attachment Theory and Research
The Attachment Theory - How Childhood Trauma Affects Your Life
The Four Attachment Styles of Love
What Is Your Attachment Style?