One thing that we can all agree on, is that the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on how satisfied and happy we are in our lives. On the flip side, when our relationships aren’t going well, or when we feel we are repeating the same mistakes over and over again, we can feel helpless, overwhelmed, frustrated and despairing for the future. A good way to start to address this issue is to look closer at our attachment style. This concept has been around a long time in psychology — basically it refers to how we relate to others and how we feel about the important people in our lives.
Generally we all fall into one of three categories — secure (where you feel comfortable in relationships), anxious (where you feel a bit stressed out by relationships and feel quite insecure), and dismissing (where you might avoid relationships or appear cold or aloof). There is another category that we call ‘mixed’, which is a combination of dismissing and anxious — a person can be ‘clingy’ but at times also cold and dismissing, depending on the situation.
Our attachment style is based on our experiences early on in life, and the type of care we received from our parents. If there wasn’t much warmth or your family was more an ‘arms length’ kind of family, you may be dismissing — if you had a lot of disruption or people leaving, you might be more the anxious type. If the people that you had in your life growing up were unpredictable or frightening, you might be more of the ‘mixed’ attachment style — because you’ve received conflicting messages about what you can expect from the people close to you.
People who have had positive relationships throughout life will often be securely attached, but there are some exceptions. For example, if you’ve had a really difficult and challenging romantic relationship, with lots of breaches of trust or on again, off again experiences, you might have developed an anxious or mixed attachment style because of this. Similarly, if you’ve had a really good and solid relationship where you felt safe and secure, it may have ‘healed’ an anxious or dismissing attachment style.
Some relationship counselors talk about the pull between intimacy and autonomy, and this is a good way of thinking of the anxious and dismissing styles of attachment. Anxiously attached people will crave intimacy, and dismissing people will crave autonomy.
Attachment style is really interesting, as it determines so much of how we relate to the world. It can even determine what kinds of ‘problems’ we have, in our friendships or at work. Attachment style relates to a concept which we term ‘object relations’ — which is really how we perceive other people in our lives.
It is a bit tricky to go into, but basically if you have had mostly good experiences with people during your developmental period (so, 3-10 yrs), you will perceive others as mostly good — you might be a bit wary around strangers, or people who seem a bit unpredictable, but your ‘object relations’ will be positive.
However, if you have had some people in your life who frightened you, neglected you, or harmed you in some ways, your object relations will be less positive. You might be much more likely to be suspicious, frightened of intimacy, sensitive to rejection or defensive when it comes to getting close to someone.
So, how does our attachment style impact our adult lives? Here are some examples of clients whose attachment styles were causing them grief:
Sophia had an anxious attachment style, as after her parents divorced, she didn’t see her father for a long time afterwards and didn’t feel close to him. Later on in her life, when she was dating, she found herself questioning whether her partners were really interested in her. Her behavior could be described as ‘clingy’ and she found that relationships would end very quickly, as she was constantly seeking reassurance that her partner loved her.
Josh had a dismissing attachment style, as he had been raised in a household where his parents had needed to work a lot and so weren’t emotionally available to him. He learnt early on in life not to ask for help and to be independent and rely on himself. Later, when he got married and had children, he had a lot of trouble with his wife, as he felt suffocated when she asked him for emotional support. They had a lot of arguments as she felt that he was too cold with their children, and had no empathy.
Austin had a mixed attachment style, as he had been raised in quite a volatile household, where his mother was angry and violent and his father withdrawn and depressed. He had a lot of issues in his workplace, as he would sometimes have angry outbursts at colleagues when he felt frustrated or disrespected, and would also be quite sensitive to criticism or rejection. He would sometimes ‘block’ a colleague who he felt had wronged him and had been reprimanded for bullying at work.
Maybe you can see from these examples how attachment issues play out for us in our daily lives. Often even our most basic interactions are informed by our attachment — if I am an anxiously attached person, I might be really nice to people around me, in order to ensure that they continue to love and care for me. If I have a dismissing attachment style, I might stop responding to text messages from someone I am interested in, because I am starting to feel trapped or suffocated. Often these actions aren’t conscious — we ‘know’ that we want to pull away, or cling, but we aren’t really sure why.
So — what is the solution to this? It can be really challenging to address an issue like this, as our attachment is very deeply rooted in our personality and our behavior. The good news is that self-awareness is a good first step. Being aware of what kinds of things have shaped our object relations, can give us a clue to what belongs in the past, and what to pay attention to now.
Some examples are below:
Brigid had an anxious attachment, as she had a former partner who had been serially unfaithful to her and she felt that her ability to trust had been destroyed. In her current relationship, she was preoccupied with thought of her boyfriend cheating on her, believing she wasn’t good enough, and being left for another woman.
When she was triggered by an event (e.g. Boyfriend being late, checking his phone, etc.), we worked on Brigid being able to notice those emotions (fear, anxiety, helplessness) and not act on them, using self-talk to assess whether this was something that she needed to worry about now (How is this different to what happened? How is it the same?). Being able to sit with the awareness and notice her self-talk, made it possible for her to gradually change her responses. Over time, this became easier and easier, and although she still felt triggered from time to time, this was much less distressing and she was able to separate the past from the present.
John had a dismissing attachment style, and had a lot of issues with his boyfriend when they moved in together. John felt trapped and suffocated, and resented having to lose his independence and freedom. We worked on finding ways for John to meet his boyfriend’s needs for time together, while still keeping his independence. John had not ever learned to negotiate or ask clearly for his needs to be met, and we worked on ways that he could ask his boyfriend for space and show him that he cared for him. Over time, John was able to feel happy and fulfilled in the relationship, and his boyfriend was able to understand that John cared for him and needed his own time, in order to recharge and be emotionally available to him.
As you can see, a lot of this is about self awareness and being able to contextualize our emotional responses. Of course we will respond to strong emotions, particularly if they are about our relationships — the key is to understand whether we are sabotaging our relationships because of things that have happened long ago. One of the great things about insight is that it gives us the opportunity to look at our behavior and see whether it is helping us and getting us closer to what we want. If we are finding that the same patterns are repeating in our relationships, and we are having trouble having our needs met, this is a sign that some self-examination is necessary.