Attachment: Understanding How You Relate To Others

The specific way we relate to other people in our intimate relationships as adults is something that is established during the first two years of our lives as a result of the type of relationships our parents or primary caregivers fostered with us.  The type of attachment style we develop is determined by the ways our parents or caregivers responded to us in our early childhood, especially during times of distress and discomfort because it influences our social and emotional development.  Understanding our thoughts, feelings, and expectations regarding individuals we are in relationships with as adults as well as when we become parents ourselves can help us better manage these relationships by increasing insight and identifying areas of improvement in order to promote secure attachments.  So what is your attachment style?

Secure: Individuals who possess a secure sense of attachment to those they are close with exhibit a positive view of both themselves and the people they are in relationships with. Secure individuals place great value on both their independence as well as their close relationships.  Secure individuals most likely formed secure attachments to their parents or caregivers as infants and children as a result of being attuned to in a way that they felt confident in exploring the world because they were able to seek out and receive emotional support when needed.

Dismissive: Individuals who possess a dismissive sense of attachment to others tend to place little to no value in their relationships and prefer to be by themselves.  Dismissive individuals tend to suppress their feelings as well as avoid and distance themselves from others, especially when conflict arises.  Dismissive individuals most likely formed avoidant attachments as infants and children as a result of experiencing their parents or caregivers as insensitive and emotionally unavailable, especially during times of distress. Avoidant parents or caregivers send the message to children that their needs are not important and that they should be able to take care of themselves.

Preoccupied: Individuals who possess a preoccupied sense of attachment to others exhibit a negative view of themselves that is manifested through self-criticism and feelings of insecurity.  Preoccupied individuals tend to constantly seek out approval or validation from others however the desired responses are usually not rewarding for them.  Preoccupied individuals typically exhibit a lack of trust and a fear of rejection from other people, which can promote clinginess and dependency on other people.  Preoccupied adults most likely formed anxious and ambivalent attachments as infants and children as a result of experiencing their parents and caregivers as being inconsistent in their responses; at times they felt attuned to whereas other times they felt dismissed and never knew which response they would elicit.  Parents or caregivers who are unpredictable in his or her parenting behavior tend to promote suspicion, lack of trust, confusion, and feelings of insecurity in their children. 

Fearful-avoidant: Individuals who possess a fearful or avoidant sense of attachment to others tend to be emotionally detached from themselves even though they seek out relationships with other people. Once relationships reach a level of emotional intimacy, fearful-avoidant individuals usually become uncomfortable which triggers painful thoughts and feelings from his or her past and prevents them from being able to separate the past from the present situation.  Fearful-avoidant individuals most likely formed a disorganized sense of attachment to their parents and caregivers as infants and children.  Disorganized attachment is generally associated with parents or caregivers who are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abusive towards their children, causing children to feel afraid of the individual who is supposed to provide safety and support. It is common for abused children to dissociate from themselves as a way to block out the trauma from their consciousness, which is a reason fearful-avoidant adults are detached from themselves and others.

After learning about the different types of attachment, hopefully it is obvious that secure attachments are the healthiest and most satisfying styles.  Even though the type of attachment we form during our childhood likely carries on to adulthood, it is possible to change it if it falls in the other three categories.  Because our attachments are formed within relationships, they must also be altered within relationships and usually requires professional support in doing so.  An experienced and well-qualified therapist can assist individuals with making sense out of their attachment history in order to begin to rewrite a new story that is more aligned with a sense of security, both individually and in our close relationships.

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT