What's Your Attachment Style?

mother and baby monkey

Can you remember what was going on in your life from birth to about six years old? Probably not, but rest assured you were doing something that affects you deeply to this very day: forming your attachment style. We form our attachment styles early based on the availability and responsiveness of our parents. When we're young, if our needs are met in a warm, loving, stable environment, then we have a better chance of growing into adults who can attach to others in healthy ways. If our need for support and reassurance was not met, it can lead to problems attaching to others and forging healthy relationships later in life.

If this rings a bell, take heart. You're in good company. Many adults breathe a sigh of relieve when they identify their predominant attachment style because so many questions are answered. Oh, that's why I crave affection, or Now I understand why I don't easily trust others! According to noted child development specialist and attachment theory pioneer John Bowlby, there are four styles of attachment:

  1. Secure: Most likely to say, "I get along with others well and attach to them easily. It's fine having them depend on me and I feel good about doing the same. " Are You A People Pleaser? How To Tell & What To Do
  2. Anxious: Most likely to say, "I wonder what they want from me. I wonder if this will work out. Why didn't he call me back? It's probably something I did wrong."
  3. Dismissive-avoidant: Most likely to say, "I'd rather be alone! Why is he so clingy? I don't want to be bothered."
  4. Fearful-avoidant: Most likely to say, "I've been down that road and they're all the same! It's best to stick with what you know. People are out to get what they can and will walk all over you if they get the chance. "

Some people will find hints of their personality in more than one of the styles listed above, but in general, we all lead with one primary style. Can Our Marriage Survive An Affair?

In an ideal world, all of us would have the ability to attach securely to others, but we don't live in an ideal world. We grow up in homes were mothers are depressed and detached and may lack parenting skills, and where fathers are emotionally numb. As children we are molded by what we experience.

The good news is as adults we can reshape, remold, and learn to manage the tendencies associated with our attachment style to maximize our lives and relationships. What's more: as you learn more about your attachment style and needs you are better equipped to select a partner who compliments your personality and style of engagement.

Last year I worked with a woman who was struggling in her relationship. She said, "I just want more affection from him. It would help me to validate his feelings for me. He's only affectionate in the bedroom. I like hugs, kisses, warmth, and holding hands. He says I'm clingy and needy. I disagree. These things are a normal part of a relationship."

That would be true if she were not dealing with a dismissive-avoidant personality style where attachment is concerned. Her bonds of attachment were strengthened through physical affection, doing things together, and touching. He was put off and in some cases even reported feeling repulsed be her desire for more affection in the relationship.

They were barely functioning as a couple, and at the end of the day it was an oil and water match. He was not willing to change his style of engagement and she couldn't imagine continuing on in what felt like a cold relationship. These two people have no business cultivating a relationship because constant clashes are inevitable. Love Lessons From Steve Jobs: How To Live Before You Die

We should not look to relationships to meet all our needs, but we should not perpetually feel like we're reaching and begging for more in our closest relationship either. Similarly, if we feel as if our counterpart is requesting more attention, and affection that we're capable or comfortable giving, we should look into alternatives to avoid feeling as though we're being suffocated to death.

If you're in a relationship with someone who has a dramatically different attachment style than you, it can indeed work, if the awareness level and sensitivity to the differences are kept at the forefront of the relationship, combined with a willingness to compromise. For example, Ben grew up in multiple foster homes. As a result he never felt connected to anyone or much of anything. By the time he was a teenager, he had developed a full blown fearful-avoidant style of engagement with others. He lived in constant fear that the women he was involved with would pull the rug from underneath him and leave.

Ben's girlfriend Stacey leads with a secure attachment style. She did not understand why he became so jealous when she spent time with her friends, but wanted to work through the issues. Ben also expressed a willingness to make changes in the way he behaved in the relationship.
They moved forward in a committed relationship and it's going strong to this very day.

Many attachment style combinations can work out. Justin can best be described as a man who leads with a secure attachment style. He is outgoing and enjoys spending time with his friends as well as his girlfriend. Janna is his girlfriend. She attaches to others, but anxiously and also battles anxiety. It's especially difficult for her to manage in social situation with Justin, but she wants to spend quality time with him at gatherings and events. They have a loving relationship, and talk about the differences openly. With Justin's support Janna has reached the point where she's comfortable accompanying Justin to social gatherings more frequently. Quiz: What's Your Communication Style?

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Pay attention to the amount of bend and compromise available in the relationship. It's important not to judge someone else's style as good or bad. A style is just a style, much like a wool scarf versus a silk scarf. Neither is better, they're just different. It really boils down to understanding who you are and what you need to thrive in a relationship. For some of us that means a lot of space for others that means constant warm contact. Cultivating a strong sense of awareness and some level of flexibility increases your chances of finding and maintaining a healthy relationship!