Here are some things I hear frequently in my practice:
“Why does my partner need to call me three times a day to ask me if I love him? It drives me crazy!”
“If I don't respond to every text message my wife sends me, she gets angry. Doesn't she realize that I'm busy?”
“My husband won't let me in. I ask him what he is feeling, and he just shrugs. Is something wrong with him?”
“I can't seem to find anyone that I am compatible with. I've met lots of people, but none of them make it past the third date. What's wrong with the world?”
If any of these sound familiar, or if they sound similar to things you've said or heard in your relationships, you might want to learn about attachment theory.
Basically, people attach (or bond) to each other in predictable ways, and attachment theory is a model for understanding how people form those attachments. Originally it was developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby and described how children bonded with their mothers. In the 1980s research done by Hazen and Shaver showed that attachment theory applies to adult romantic relationships. Now we think that attachment theory applies to most kinds of human relationships.
(Bonus fun fact! Research from theUniversity of Haifa shows that people's emotional responses to television characters matches their attachment styles, particularly when those television characters were taken off the air. In other words, that Big Sad you had when Firefly was canceled might have had a lot to do with your attachment style, not just your love of quality narrative and innovative Sci-Fi.)
According to attachment theory, there are four broad styles of attachment. Here they are, and to make it easier to remember, I provided a familiar example of each.
Secure (Clair Huxtable)
People with secure attachments are comfortable being in relationships and also comfortable being independent. They can set boundaries and maintain them. People with secure attachment can recover from rejection, even if they do not like it. Generally, people with secure attachments are confident that their partner loves them, and do not seek many reassurances.
Anxious-Preoccupied (Rachel Berry)
As the name suggests, the anxious attachment type is characterized by anxiety around intimacy. Often, people with this style have trouble being alone or single, and sometimes they would prefer to be in any relationship—no matter how bad—rather than be single. They need frequent reassurance and affection from their partners. The theory holds that people with anxious attachment are looking for reassurances from their partners to counter their negative opinions of themselves. This is the attachment style of the person who asks, “do you love me?” dozens of times a day. This is also the attachment style of the person who goes through your text messages or your email looking for evidence that you're cheating—behaviors like this are driven by anxiety around the security of the relationship.
Dismissive-Avoidant (Liz Lemon)
The avoidant type is uncomfortable with intimacy, and is often characterized by high levels of independence. Sometimes people with avoidant attachment will feel “suffocated” or “smothered” when in relationships with others, regardless of the level of intimacy. The person with dismissive attachment style usually has the ability to talk themselves out of any relationship. When confronted with their avoidant behavior, this person will likely rationalize it away. (For example: I have been told that “there aren't any good dating prospects in metro Detroit.” Really? We're supposed to believe that there are 3 million people in metro Detroit, and all of them are either taken or terrible? Somehow, this is hard to believe. You may have heard something similar.)
Basically, it's a combination of both the anxious type and the avoidant type. This person is is frightened of intimacy, and but actively seeks it out. In order to balance these conflicting desires, the fearful-avoidant type often lashes out at anyone who gets close to them, even though this person very much wants to be close to others. This is the least common attachment style.
So how do I know which type I am?
First, let's recognize that these are technically points on a complex continuum of our lives. In other words, you may find that your attachment style alternates between two, or that you are mostly one style, with some features of another. Our lives are complex tapestries, and any psychological model is just that—a model designed to give us a way to understand and talk about complex people.
So once we have that understood, if you want to know what your type profile looks like, you can take a test here.
Too much work to take that test? Hazan and Shaver, the researchers mentioned earlier, used these three paragraphs to determine attachment style very quickly. Read them all, and notice which one you identify with.
A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
If you identify as paragraph A, you are likely dismissive-avoidant in your attachments. If you identify with paragraph B, you are likely secure in your attachment. And if you identify with paragraph C, you are likely anxious-preoccupied. If you identify with both A and C, you are likely fearful-avoidant.
So now what? Can my attachment style be changed?
Yes, it can. But it will take time and hard work. The kind of attachment style you have will dictate what you can do to begin the process of working on developing a secure attachment.
If you have anxious-preoccupied attachment, you will probably benefit from working on your sense of your self. If you can come to place where you can say, “I'm OK and you're OK,” then you're doing a good job of working towards secure attachment. Work towards being able to look at your own life and say, “I'm a human, and I have flaws, but overall, I like who I am. Other people will like me, too.” How do you do this? Well, think about ways of developing self-esteem and self-acceptance. There is not room here to talk about how to improve these things, but there are lots of resources out there. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.
If you have dismissive-avoidant attachment, you will probably benefit from improving your opinion of others, and your openness towards them. See what your particular pattern is—do you work until you don't have time for relationship? Do you find fault with everyone in your life? Do you refuse to let other people see “the real you?” Figure out what it is that keeps you from opening up, then stop doing that. Be prepared for some anxiety to accompany this process. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.
If you have fearful-avoidant attachment, you want to do what is suggested in both paragraphs above. You want to develop a sense of yourself as being capable and likable. And you want to learn that you can protect yourself and still stay in a relationship, not run from it. This requires both an improvement in your own self-assessments, and an increased ability to tolerate others. While this is a challenging path, it is certainly possible. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.
You may have noticed that I wrote “get some psychotherapy if you need it” for all of these. Why did I do that? Because individual talk therapy is a very effective way of coping with challenging attachment styles. The reason is the therapeutic relationship itself. Developing and maintaining a relationship with a therapist is a major factor in changing attachment styles.
My partner is driving me nuts! S/he has anxious/avoidant/fearful attachment. What can I do?
Well, one of my cardinal rules in relationship therapy is “if you have a need, say it out loud.” So consider sending your partner the link to this article (or one like it—use Google) and have an honest conversation. Your partner deserves the opportunity to have emotional healing, just like you do. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone who is struggling is to point them in the direction of help.
And—I cannot stress enough how this is an “in addition to” suggestion, and not an “instead of” suggestion—get really honest about your attachment style. Be fearless in your assessment of your own style, so you know if you are feeding into the relationship dysfunction. Then take the steps necessary to get the healing you need.
Helping yourself develop a secure attachment will also go a long way towards your partner's healing as well. Studies have shown that people who have insecure attachment styles will actually start to be more secure when they are in relationships with people who are secure in their own attachment style.
Bartholomew K, Horowitz LM, (1991). "Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model". J Pers Soc Psychol 61 (2): 226–44
Fraley, Chris R. 2010. “A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research.” Retrieved online at http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
Hazan C., Shaver P.R. (1987)."Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process". J Pers Soc Psychol 52 (3): 511–24.