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    What Is Attachment Theory

    In the ideal world, every child has flawless parents who unfailingly and lovingly attend to their needs for the basics (food, shelter, security) and emotional closeness.  Alas, there are no perfect parents and no perfect childhoods.  Not getting those important needs met over time can result in attachment wounds that we unknowingly carry into our adult relationships.  These attachment styles are deeply rooted in our core beliefs about what we expect from other humans based on past experience.  If you have the core belief that people will be unreliable, you will do what you can to protect yourself, even while seeking connection.  There are three main attachment styles as developed by researchers John Bowlsby and Mary Ainsworth are: avoidant, anxious, and secure.

    The avoidant type fears rejection, being hurt, and losing their fierce independence, where they can safely over-rely on self-soothing, they’ve come to believe that sharing their emotions with others and relying on others puts them at risk of getting hurt.  Avoidant types manage these often unconscious fears by avoiding conflict, avoiding intimacy, or even avoiding people and relationships altogether.  They are walled off, living behind a safe fortress, distanced from the very thing that could heal this wound: trustworthy love.  They want intimacy but fear it, so they often send mixed messages by enticing you in and then pushing you away.  There is nothing sexier to an avoidant type than a safe distance.  They can be aloof, withdrawing, and outwardly unemotional.  Some claim not to need anyone or to even dislike people, having few friends.  Avoidant types don’t do well with criticism and they tend to be dismissive of their partner’s gripes about them (that feels like rejection to them).   They subconsciously “build a case” against their partner that focuses on their flaws to reduce the sting of criticism and to rationalize having one foot out the door, ready to bolt if it gets too scary or hard.  Avoidant types can even exhibit people-pleasing if doing so it helps them avoid conflict and keep a safe distance from being truly known.

    The anxious type also fears rejection and being hurt.  But what they fear is being abandoned, so they’ve learned to double down relationally, appearing clingy, possessive, or jealous.  They over-rely on external soothing, not knowing how to effectively self-soothe.  Anxious types often have poor boundaries (their own and those of others). Independence, space, and time away are viewed as a threat of abandonment.  They tend to have low self-esteem and low trust, so they need a lot of reassurance and can overreact to minor conflicts.  It’s not that an anxious type needs more love than any other type (we are all wired for love and connection), it’s just that they mistrust the sturdiness of that love so they’ve learned to work hard to ensure they get it. This can backfire, driving away the very thing that could heal this wound: trustworthy love.  An unresolved conflict to an anxious type is excruciating.  If their partner needs time and space to process the conflict, they will have outsized reactions and will pursue and pursue in their efforts to feel safe and to resolve the conflict.  The anxious type can appear controlling and angry or desperate to get their needs met.

    The securely attached type has more ability to take things in stride, but they are not always perfectly secure. Their core belief informed by experience over time is that most people most of the time are trustworthy.  They have better boundaries and are not walled off – they are more appropriately vulnerable and available for love and connection.  They know how to auto-regulate (self-soothe) and they know how to co-regulate (be soothed with a partner), without over-relying on either one.  But even secure types, when stressed will also tend to exhibit avoidant or anxious behavior, depending on who they are in relation with.  It is helpful to see this on a spectrum, with secure attachment in the middle and avoidant and anxious behavior on the ends.  When stressed and in relationship with an avoidant type, they can also appear anxious.  When stressed and in relationship with an anxious type, they may be repelled and can also exhibit avoidant behaviors.

    When you find yourself in a relationship with someone who lives on the avoidant or the anxious side of the spectrum, compromise and communication will be crucial.  If you resemble the avoidant type as described above (or have been told that you do), it will be helpful for you to challenge yourself to co-regulate instead of over-relying on self-regulation in isolation.  Co-regulation might look like asking your partner for a hug, telling them that you feel a bit stressed.  It will also be tremendously helpful to communicate about what is going on with you and proactively reassure your partner.  For example, “Babe, I am feeling super stressed right now. I need some time alone to feel better, but I love you and this has nothing to do with you.”  Or, “I feel really upset right now and I want to cool down before we talk so I don’t make things worse.  I’d like to come back together in an hour to resolve this.”  This tends to stop the constant pursuit of the anxious type because you’ve set boundaries with clarity, love, and reassurance.  Stopping that worried pursuit will enable you to get the space needed to feel better and the safety to come back into the relational space.

    If you resemble the anxious type as described above (or have been told that you do), it will be helpful for you to learn to self-sooth (auto-regulate) when you’re feeling worried or stressed in your relationship, instead of over-relying on your partner for reassurance (co-regulating).  Self-soothing might include deep breathing, meditation, exercise, and distraction (watch something, do a chore, listen to music, get something off your to-do list). It’s not a good idea to call a friend or family to discuss this because that is just more co-regulation (you don’t need more of that) and it can poison your relationship by giving the impression that your mate is always hurting you.  Your people may start to dislike your mate and be unsupportive of your relationship out of misguided loyalty and protectiveness.  I say this with love in my heart: you have a tendency to take things personally and to blow things out of proportion.  It will be helpful for you to pause when you are relationally stressed to consider the fact that you are very likely overreacting.  Think back to a few times in the past when this was true.  Think about the stability of your partnership over the long haul.  If it has been mostly stable and loving, this is likely just a momentary speed bump, and speed bumps are meant to slow. you. down.  Do not pursue.  I know it’s hard, but do not seek reassurances from your partner if they are not in a position to offer that to you at the moment.  It will make it worse for both of you.  Helpful communication from you will sound like, “Hey, I sense you need space right now.  Take the time you need.”  Or, “I’m feeling stressed. I’m going to go to the gym.”  These statements show trust, honesty, and self-confidence.

    Great books on the topic of attachment that I’d recommend reading or listening to are:

    • Stan Tatkin’s “Your Brain on Love” and “Wired for Love”
    • “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
    • “Anxiously Attached” by Jessica Baum
    • Terrence Real’s “Us” or “Fierce Intimacy”