Kate McLisky is a clinical psychologist with a background in mental health research. Kate works clinically with an integrative therapeutic approach to help clients of all ages to manage and reduce symptoms of mental health disorders.
What is “attachment”?
In very simple terms, attachment is the way that way connect and feel emotionally secure with other people. The term attachment is used differently here to how we might normally use it, where “attached” simply means “connected to”. In psychology, your attachment can either be a secure and attuned connection, or a disorganised attachment, often characterised by unpredictability, neglect or abuse.
How are attachment styles formed?
Like many things, attachment comes back to your early childhood and relationships with primary caregivers. THANKS MUM AND DAD. Such a cliché, huh?
From birth until three or four years of age is the most important period of attachment formation. How our caregivers respond to us in times of emotional stress is the most important factor in determining our attachment style. If they are attuned to our needs, available and are able to be present, calm and caring during times of stress, we are most likely to form a secure attachment. For many of us, however, our attachment style falls into the “insecure” category.
The four main attachment styles
We can divide attachment styles into four categories: secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganised (or fearful-avoidant) attachment.
Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to form close and loving relationships with others in which they can tolerate both closeness and distance. Tolerating closeness means being able to accept love and care from others, experience emotional intimacy and show vulnerability. Tolerating distance means that securely attached people generally don’t experience huge distress when their partner or loved ones need time or space to themselves, have their own interests or spend time with others. Research suggests that around 50-55 per cent of the population has a secure attachment style.
Anxiously attached people tend to have a strong fear of abandonment, and correspondingly cannot tolerate emotional distance from others, and may frequently seek validation in relationships. This can look like “needy” or “clingy” behaviour, such as worrying if you have not had a reply to a text, or feeling jealous about a partner’s other interests or relationships. Those with an anxious attachment style have often experienced inconsistent responses to their emotional needs in childhood, with caregivers sometimes available or over-involved and sometimes emotionally or physically unavailable. Around 20 per cent of the population have an anxious attachment style.
Individuals with an avoidant attachment style have difficulty tolerating closeness, or emotional intimacy, with others. Individuals with this attachment style find it difficult to trust others and can seem aloof and distant in relationships as their core belief is that others cannot meet their emotional needs. This attachment style is often linked to emotionally unavailable caregivers in childhood, from whom the child learns that their needs cannot be met, and they must suppress their desire for closeness to avoid disappointment and distress. Around 20 per cent of adults have an avoidant attachment style.
Those with a disorganised (or fearful-avoidant) attachment style have cannot tolerate either distance or closeness in relationships, meaning that they desperately crave affection, but also try to avoid intimacy as it is frightening and unpredictable for them. Individuals with a disorganised attachment style have often experienced neglect or abuse in childhood, and will often have other difficulties in adulthood, such as disordered use of alcohol or substances, emotion dysregulation, increased vulnerability to abuse and risk of violence in relationships. Around 5-10 per cent of people have this attachment style.
How does my attachment style impact my relationships?
Those with an insecure attachment style are more likely to feel frustrated by a pattern of relationships that are not mutually satisfying for both partners. Those with an anxious attachment style may consistently feel that they are rejected by others, and that their needs are “too much” for a partner to meet, whilst individuals with avoidant attachment may feel burdened and frightened by their partner’s needs and attempts to connect. Those with a disorganised attachment style might find that they are constantly dissatisfied in relationships, craving closeness but feel hopeless in approaching relationships. For many, it can feel like this pattern is unavoidable, and that it is a problem with who they are, intrinsically, rather than something that can be changed.
Am I stuck here forever?
The good news is that whilst attachment styles are created in early childhood, we all have an attachment pathway which can change to become more (or less) secure over time. To create a more secure attachment style, individuals need to experience safe, secure and loving relationships. That’s it! That could be a warm and trusting relationship with a therapist, friend or partner. This takes a lot of work, from becoming more able to regulate emotions, identify and assert your needs, communicate, set boundaries and help with identifying appropriate and healthy others to enter into a relationship with. You can start with listening to podcasts or audiobooks, reading books, seeing a therapist or simply talking to a trusted friend about your experiences in relationships, and asking for advice. It may feel frightening at first, but the payoff is well worth it.
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Article written by: Kate McLisky
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez at Unsplash
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.