DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 14: ATTACHMENT AND RELATIONSHIPS
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we discuss attachment and how this influences our relationships, interactions, and perceptions of the world around us.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
ATTACHMENT & RELATIONSHIPS
“Attachment is the strongest block to realization”
—- Maharaj-ji, Hindu Guru
Thinking about our attachment to things can sometimes be a trickier question than it appears at face value. It is clear to see that we are attached to people we hold intimate relationships with, to our prized possessions, to our lifestyle, and to our environmental comforts, but what is less pronounced is how views on attachment actually stretch far beyond these obvious measures.
Though not the focus today, it is also notable that principles of attachment can refer not just interpersonal relationships, but rather how we engage with anything, whether that be a person, place, object, task, or even self-perception. The overlying implications of our attachments might be one of our most accurate predictors of behavior, and therefore a more thorough understanding of our attachment proclivities can be one of the more useful aspects of self-awareness.
Attachment fits well in our theme of misunderstood realms of psychology because how we attach to things has much more influence on our behaviors and perceptions in relationships than solely the simple choices themselves. Attachment is also something that is very deeply ingrained– and while we may not have any ability to change this, the positive news is that every attachment style has manageable coping skills– they are just not always orthodox.
Attachment, at least from the most psychologically defined angle, is most commonly seen in the form of attachment theory. This is a psychological model developed by John Bowlby which purports that the type of bonding that infants experience with caregivers often determines the way in which that human relates with the world around them throughout the remainder of life.
The formation of attachment is based on four characteristic factors: proximity maintenance, or the desire to be around people, safe haven, or how comfortable someone is with returning to the primary caregiver in fear, secure base, or how reliable the comfort of being with a primary caregiver presents, and separation distress, how the child reacts to removal of a primary caregiver. To put most broadly, the question being asked is “how is this baby learning to trust the world?”
Four attachment ‘styles’ are identified under this model:
Anxious (or ambivalent) attachment
While we will cover these very shortly, it is also worth considering how the perception and stigma around ‘secure’ vs the three ‘insecure’ attachment styles can become convoluted. While ‘secure’ attachment certainly makes behaviors easier to understand and appears to be an ideal, this by no means implies that insecure attachments are doomed to be detrimental. It is a harsh reality that certain attachment styles may experience more barriers when interacting due to contradictory approaches towards communication and conflict resolution, but the very assumption that developing secure attachment is the only healthy attachment progression creates a problematic value judgment that would be similar to saying that “a neurotypical person is more well adjusted than a neurodivergent one”.
While there is truth that certain behavioral patterns are more widely accepted and understood than others, a more realistic view on attachment is that humans have no control over their own attachment style and viewing relationships from the correct perspective, rather than the ‘secure’ one, may be a much more effective approach.
Anxious (or ambivalent) attachment: Anxious-ambivalent attachment develops when a caregiver presents inconsistently during upbringing. The caregiver is sometimes engaged and responsive, sometimes distracted and unavailable. The infant therefore has no stable expectation of relationship security, and becomes ambivalent in perceptions of relationships. This creates a behavioral expectation pattern that tends to present great insecurity in relationships, need for constant reassurance, and overall a grand heightened desire for intimacy but maladaptive perception that others do not want to be with them. A person who is anxiously attached may always have these feelings, but can use attachment style to better understand self-regulation.
Ex: A person becomes nervous when their partner leaves for a business trip and becomes very preoccupied with negative but unwarranted thoughts about the partner meeting someone and leaving them on the trip. The person may respond by demanding further communication or internal rumination.
Avoidant (or dismissive) attachment: Avoidant-dismissive attachment occurs when a caregiver is rejecting or unavailable during infancy, forcing the infant to self-soothe and distance themselves emotionally from the primary caregiver. This foremost creates skepticism and hesitance around forming close relationships, preference of more casual and distant relationships, and perhaps most prominently, the defensive perception that the individual does not need connection, despite the fact that most humans do indeed desire close relationships (which therefore creates internal and possibly unrecognized turmoil). Individuals with avoidant attachment can certainly attain healthy and sustainable intimate relationships, but it is clear to see where taking a typical approach can create very unexpected reactions that result in large, seemingly impassable barriers.
Ex: In a new romantic relationship, a person becomes overwhelmed by the amount of communication from their partner and deliberately becomes more strict and keeps distance by limiting the amount of time and communication between the two in protection of independence.
Secure attachment: I place this attachment style here because it is, perhaps ironically, actually just balanced management of the first two styles. Secure attachment is believed to form when a caregiver has managed their own stress as well as offered adequate attention and soothing to the child (notably without OVERsoothing), resulting in a balanced and full-spectrum awareness that we can both enjoy and trust others in relationships while also knowing we will be ok alone. The results of secure attachment often appear as self-confidence, ability to take accountability, good boundary setting, ability to feel connection in absence of partner, and great resilience and self soothing ability. A person who is securely attached will still face relationship issues, but will likely have a more regulated and optimistic approach than someone with an insecure attachment style.
Ex: Two people are appreciating their own self-development in a long-distance relationship with minimal anxiety of the separation creating interpersonal issues
Disorganized attachment: also known as fearful-avoidant attachment, this style typically derives from a traumatic or neglectful relationship with a primary caregiver. This style can form due to an abusive relationship with the caregiver directly, but also due to the caregiver being in a traumatic situation themselves. The infant develops a disoriented perception of holding both fear and comfort perceptions of the caregiver, and this typically manifests in large and volatile emotional patterns with very little, if any, self-soothing abilities. These individuals may face the largest challenge in adult relationships, as they may find great difficulty in perceiving relationships outside of love/hate emotional extremes and struggle with oscillation between intense desire for connection with a perception that they are undeserving of love. This attachment style is also prone to developing cluster B personality disorders, and though realistically more challenging than most, can be managed just as any other.
Ex: A person begins to feel closer in a romantic relationship, but upon the partner suggesting that the two start dating, the person immediately responds by telling the partner that the relationship will be a disaster and completely cuts off contact
While it can be easy to look at this on a very surface-level perspective and determine that there are clearly right and wrong actions taken by primary caregivers, things are obviously much, much more complex. The reasoning behind insecure attachment formation is likely more connected to the environment of the primary caregiver as well as the management of the caregiver’s own mental health rather than actual malevolent action towards the infant.
THE PROS AND CONS OF ATTACHMENT
While reading attachment styles, it likely has become clear as to why we view secure attachment as an ideal. But perhaps using this very same perception in a different framework would be a more helpful view of how to manage adult relationships with awareness of attachment style.
Much like my views on diagnoses, I would argue that none of these attachment styles fully encapsulate any individual, and no individual would ever be entirely defined by their attachment style. I also do not believe that anyone is “perfectly” securely attached, but rather somewhere on a continuum between anxious and avoidant views on attachment that is deemed “regulated” in comparison to others on more extreme sides of the spectrum. While our attachment styles are fixed to some degree, this is not too different (and connected to) our emotional reactions being out of our control. When we learn to work with our attachment style rather than against it, we may begin to have more healthy and fulfilling relationships.
PRO: A NATURAL PATH TO AWARENESS AND CONSIDERATION. While anxiety is certainly not a renowned positive motivator by any stretch, the silver lining of a preoccupied mind picking up many details and sensations is that it indicates we are definitely capable of noticing our internal changes. In hopes of not simplifying the lifelong challenge of managing an overactive mind– you can definitely trust me from personal experience here– this ability also gives us the natural skills to begin to develop the emotional intelligence that can turn adversity into a benefit. While hypervigilance and constant assessment of a relationship has obvious downfalls, it also leads to thoughtful, considerate, and creative elements of personality which may be perceived as one of our larger strengths to our partner.
CON: “THE CLINGER”. But of course, the trope of a person with anxious attachment is also rooted in truth as far as unmanaged presentation. Someone struggling to realize their relationship with this attachment style may find themselves commonly labeled as clingy, needy, overbearing, or insecure, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Unmanaged anxiously attached individuals will likely be highly validation-seeking (or at least desiring), may impulsively demand or manipulate communications with others in response to ambivalent feelings, and likely have a hard time ‘stopping themselves' despite conscious awareness of being anxious and preoccupied. Anxiously attached styles are the most vulnerable to become trapped in unhealthy relationships due to struggles with self-assuredness.
An important distinction to make here is that a disorganized attachment style and anxious attachment style may present very similarly in ambivalence around whether a partner wants to be with them. While a disorganized style may feel this way because they believe they are undeserving of love, an anxious style is battling their own ingrained confusion of whether they can trust what another person is saying in this context.
PRO: HIGHER STANDARDS, HIGHER QUALITY. While avoidant attachment styles may find the natural internal recognition of their emotions and wants more challenging than anxious styles, and likely find it harder to even get into a relationship, there is an additional benefit of having more critical thinking within them. Starting relationships from an approach with very guarded and rigid boundaries can actually be a very healthy beginning– provided that the avoidant style also begins to recognize signs that their guard can begin to be let down at an appropriate time. Additionally, there are many times in life in which being able to shut down a concerning thought is an absolute benefit, and if an individual learns how to hold off these emotions for management at a more appropriate time, we then see a very admirable and excelling example of emotional intelligence.
CON: “THE UNLOVABLE”. The largest challenge of an avoidant style finding fulfilling and healthy relationships is likely their own perceptions. A person with avoidant attachment had no choice but to learn how to fend for themselves, and while being a lone wolf creates great independence, this can easily be overcorrected to the perception that a person will never need, or even want, a truly deep connection with others given that they only feel comfortable doing things themselves. With many glamorized examples in the media using the cliche of “learning how to love/trust/connect” with a seemingly unrealistically perfect partner in unsustainable ways, there is also great skepticism in meeting someone who also may be truly understanding and supportive of the way they see things rather than needing to change themselves to become a completely different attachment style. An inability to trust may be valid and necessary to a degree, but also extremely limiting if the individual never challenges this feeling over a lifelong span.
An important distinction to make here is that a disorganized attachment style and avoidant attachment style may present very similarly in hesitance towards starting a relationship. While a disorganized style may again feel this way because they believe they are undeserving of love or perhaps cannot regulate themselves in relationships, an avoidant style is becoming overly rigid and defensive in protection of independence and lack of prior experiences that suggest that intimacy is not always a dangerous place.
PRO: YOU WILL EXCEL AT RELATIONSHIPS! In the end, relationships will likely come easiest to someone who has a secure attachment style, not just for their own managed and regulated feelings of a partner, but also in how a partner is going to respond to their behaviors. Someone who feels comfortable in conflict with a partner and naturally responds to the situation with confident, sustainable coping strategies will, at the very least subconsciously, create trust and security within the other. On the other end of things, a securely attached individual is less likely to remain in a relationship which does not feel sustainable, and may have a more balanced approach to being single which does not feel the need for a relationship while still being open to starting one.
CON: CAN LACK PERSPECTIVE ON INSECURE ATTACHMENTS. But this being said, a secure attachment does not guarantee any increase in empathy, openmindedness or tolerance for other attachment styles, and may even be more prone to judgment, othering, or arrogance if the perception of their attachment is seen as the fixed, objective, ‘correct’ way. While the nature of secure attachment does suggest that individuals of the style would be more likely to possess adequate regulation to learn how to best adjust and manage their relationships with those of insecure styles, this does not mean there cannot also be confusion and misinterpretation around how another individual is responding. Which, without understanding, can easily be seen as disengaged, malevolent or attacking.
While some styles are naturally more compatible with one another, perhaps the paramount message is that all styles CAN be healthily compatible– PROVIDED THAT we are viewing them for what they are and what they need rather than assuming secure attachment is the only healthy answer.
PRO: HUMANS ARE SOCIALLY MIMICKING. I feel a need to be honest and say that there is a clear and unfortunate injustice in the discrepancy of difficulty that this attachment style faces in comparison to the others, and the very nature of the condition means that even the most demonstrative and engaging secure attachment styles are possibly, perhaps even likely, to be rejected as good examples. But this being stated, the hesitation to this perception is rooted in fear and confusion rather than anger and hostility, and just being around positive models (preferably in a platonic or therapeutic capacity) can very slowly begin to create a counterargument that may be helpful in understanding how a disorganized style individual could begin to find a way to transpose these coping skills to their own lives.
CON: A VERY DIFFICULT LIFE IF UNMANAGED. And unfortunately in an obvious way, this style can create some of the most painful and unmanageable living conditions that we can face emotionally as humans. A person who continually goes through extreme emotional states and reacts in an explosive, drastic, and unpredictable manners is certain to find difficulty in sustaining relationships. The further a person finds themselves ostracized and judged, the further we feel from improvement, and the more likely we are to engage in self-sabotage or isolation.
MANAGING ATTACHMENT IN RELATIONSHIPS
Alright, so last month I promised that this would all connect to emotional intelligence; here it is now.
Certainly, things would be easiest if we were all just securely attached. CERTAINLY, this is not reality. Even amongst individuals that would be considered securely attached, there is most likely a proclivity to trend towards a more anxious or more avoidant response when under duress or in heightened emotional situations. In some ways, we could argue that regardless of initial attachment, a person can eventually become “securely” attached should they develop a high level of emotional intelligence around whatever attachment style they were born into.
No matter what style, it starts with us. First and foremost, we must identify, accept, and understand what attachment style we most align with. If we have insecure attachment, we likely have developed maladaptive patterns due to the style, and overcoming the shame, guilt and pressure to be something different may be the hardest barrier to learning to work with our behaviors. For secure attachment, it may be the reverse view– just because this style is most easily applied does not mean that other styles are totally unmanageable or incompatible.
Are you a pusher or are you a puller? At risk of oversimplifying, a good metaphor for the engagement of attachment styles is looking at who is “pushing” (initiating, progressing, planning, encouraging, overengaging), who is “pulling” (suggesting, coaxing, asking for more, demanding, manipulating) and a third of “standing put” (upholding own boundaries, withholding emotions, rigidity). The purpose of simplification is to see how some of these combinations can be more or less tricky than others. Two pullers are in a tug of war, two pushers can very quickly feel distanced, and two people standing put are obviously going to have great issues with moving forward. The exhaustion of either a pusher or puller combined with the uncomfortability that someone standing put being pushed or pulled feels creates a whole myriad of confused and misunderstood dynamics!
Understanding these combinations, for better or worse, gives us the clearest view. Understanding our role in the landscape of these attachment styles can make us both empathetically boosted to better understand and regulate our challenging relationships… and can also let us know which styles we might be better off reducing interaction with going forward. In troubling, drawn out relationships which are having a hard time ending, understanding difference in attachment styles as a major component may be helpful in reframing the relationship rather than need for sweeping emotional judgment or continued regression due to blind faith in unrealistic expectations.
Without overly romanticizing, a contrast can eventually become a compliment. While anxious-avoidant style pairings are near certain to face conflict, this might actually be for the greater good of a relationship should both partners successfully utilize emotional intelligence for management. Looking at the compromises that each has made over time, the anxious partner may become more resilient and comfortable in their preoccupations and find that taking time to think is beneficial to not just their relationships, but their own perceptions. The avoidant partner may slowly become more comfortable expressing their own emotions, and may begin to see the value in communication due to their partner’s consistent communications. The compromise in perceptions make more important discussions become prominent in a relationship, a stark contrast to the typical “dealbreaker” issue of neither side feeling heard. Both partners are likely to improve towards a secure relationship pattern with this approach, but only with careful scaffolding using their natural comforts.
Attachment style is an experience-centric concept. Perhaps most overarching is the idea that attachment styles form from the experiences that we have had, and therefore our contrasting dynamics form because everything outside of our own experience seems scary, confusing, or incorrect. When we are viewing other people with differing styles from solely our own perspective, we are likely to perceive them in a negative light. If we start to view differing styles from their own parameters, there is a pretty large perceptual difference between thinking our partner is ignoring us and that means they are upset with us and understanding our partner has avoidant proclivities and just needs some time to themselves to re-regulate.
Though the start is extremely impactful, full development of our attachment style does not end in infancy, and the plasticity of the mind, particularly for the next 24 years, is still very much malleable. We can learn to cope with things we could not before, we can learn to identify and avoid certain maladaptive patterns, and we can even begin to adapt ideas from foreign styles should we find a way to incorporate them into our views.
However, it is still important to view our natural attachment style as the base for how we approach our growth and development within relationships. In both anxious and avoidant attachment styles, the most successful approach will come from learning how to understand and manage these uncontrollable proclivities towards a more balanced mentality rather than trying to force ourselves into something we are not and becoming disappointed when we cannot reach an unattainable goal. For disorganized styles, processing and coming to terms with trauma and self-acceptance is a more direct focus before relationship issues, but even this process is rooted in understanding which of our own perceptions are coming from. And for secure attachments, gaining understanding on insecure attachment styles will make for better relationships and a wider range of people to connect with.
Regardless of attachment style, we can gain a much more rounded and inclusive understanding of humanity if we realize that there is certainly more than one way to give and receive connection while recognizing that specific ways may be more effective in our society. If we begin to understand that our differences in attachments are not too far from our differences in what types of movies we watched in childhood, our music taste, or expectations around how to behave at a restaurant, we may begin to see that these seemingly dire conflicts ultimately are also responsible for our ability to learn, grow, and appreciate life from interaction with others.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
MENTAL HEALTH AND MEDICATION
No, I did not become a psychiatrist– but next week, Nick will discuss some of the common medications used in mental health and hopefully give a more clear perspective on some of the stigmas and misunderstandings that can happen both in over and under medicating.
At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence.
We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can
express themselves authentically and reach their goals.
For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.