Understanding Adult Attachment Styles

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Understanding Adult Attachment Styles (2016)In the real world of relationships, it can be hard to know when to hold on to the rope between you and your partner, or when the reason for holding on to that rope is based more so on bullheadedness, power and control, co-dependence, or many other forms of personal and relational dysfunction.  How do you know when to get a crash helmet, or replace the old worn out rope with a newer stronger version?

In the real world, we face disappointments and demoralizing dead ends.  It could be a marriage that began with all the hopes and dreams of life long bliss and happiness, but on that path things happened and divorce crept in.  No one plans on divorce happening, for it entails the wrenching apart of two souls.  Perhaps your dead end is a lost job, a career snuffed out by changing times and technologies, a business deal which has collapsed in the eleventh hour.

Dead ends, as horrific as they sometimes can appear, need not be the end to beat all ends.  In reality, dead ends are not only the closing of a door of opportunity, but the process whereby a vacuum is created in that same old space which draws into itself new opportunities to fill the void left behind by the old opportunity.  Dead ends are often the beginning of a cleansing process, and the same can be said in relationships.

While many struggle in their ability to accept his theories, Charles Darwin, in his Theory of Evolution talks about the “survival of the fittest”.  In Darwin’s terms, he isn’t speaking about the fastest, or strongest of the species, he is instead referring to those who have the greatest ability to adapt to their environments.

Every adult, at some point in time in their life has experienced a relationship which has come to an untimely end – a dead end.  Some adults are strong, and some are fast, but not every adult has developed the skill set needed to adapt to a changing environment whereby we transition in a healthy way out of an old relationship and into a new one.

The first and foremost of human survival skills is found in our ability to connect – our ability to thrive inside of sustainable relationships, as imperfect as each and every relationship is.  We can be healthy without a romantic relationship in our life, in fact, the ability to live on one’s own is a key marker of an emotionally healthy person, but at the same time, there is nothing irrational about desiring to be in a loving relationship.  From a biological perspective, humans are all created to give and experience love.

Where many people flounder in their relationship skills is in the area of understanding adult attachment styles, and how those attachment styles help us find and maintain a healthy vibrant loving relationship.

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Our adult attachment styles are imprinted on us by the way in which we were related to by our parents as babies and as young children.

Personality Style Indicators vs. Adult Attachment Styles

In the late 1970’s and into the mid 1980’s the business world embraced the use of a new business tool known as a personality style indicator.  The belief was simple – if we could identify our own personality style and understand our natural communication patterns, then we could do the same with other people who cross our paths on a day to day basis, which in turn would empower us to understand how best to shift our communication style to match the other person’s optimal communication style for greater business success.

Personality styles are real, and each of us can be categorized into set categories of personality styles.

Adult attachment styles are also real, and come to us as the primary result of our upbringing.  The psychological community now understands that your current attachment style is determined by the way in which you were cared for as a baby.  If your parents were sensitive and loving, emotionally available and responsive then in your adult years you would develop a secure attachment style; if they were inconsistent in their raising of you then in your adult years it would leave one walking through life with an anxious attachment style; and if they were rigid in their discipline regimes or relationally, emotionally, or physically distant in your formative years then as an adult you will develop an avoidant attachment style.

Your adult attachment style, while founded in the way you were raised in your early years, is also buffered, and refined by your personal life experiences.

So if our attachment styles are shaped and moulded in our early years, why do we make so many mistakes which result in the anguish of events such as divorce or family break ups?

First of all…no one is perfect, and no family is perfect.  Divorce and break ups happen to good people just as often as they happen to bad people.  Relationships guarantee that more than one imperfect person is a part of the relationship, and each person’s imperfections will look different as well as act out differently than the other’s.

Attachment styles are different from dysfunctional ways of relating.  For example, a couple might marry and have a long life together in what many will consider to be a successful marriage, but dysfunctions such as co-dependence can exist in those marriages.

The Three Types Of  Adult Attachment Styles

Adult attachment styles boil down into 3 primary categories:

  1. Anxious – Those who walk through life with an anxious attachment style love to be close to their romantic partner all the time, but not necessarily in a clingy manner.  They have within themselves a tremendous capacity for relational intimacy.  Sensitive, and very focused on the relationships in their lives.  When confrontation or negative emotions occur within the relationship, the anxious attachment style will respond by getting upset easy, acting out in ways that often lead to feelings of regret and remorse.
  2. Secure – The person who walks through life with a secure attachment style is naturally warm and very loving in a relationship. These individuals love intimacy in their relationships without walking through life constantly worried that the relationship may falter.  Strong communicators of their needs and feelings inside their relationships, they are also good at reading their partner’s emotional needs and responding to those needs.
  3. Avoidant — Those who walk through life with avoidant attachment styles are the most difficult people to be in relationships with.  These are often the life long single adults who have never married, or the narcissistic people no one wants to marry.  People with avoidant attachment styles work hard on maintaining their independence and self-sufficiency.  They struggle in the area of relational intimacy preferring relational autonomy.  While these people may desire relational closeness, too much visible closeness in peripheral relationships often get’s reflected into the avoidant’s own romantic relationships by emotionally keeping their partner no closer than an arms-length away.  Avoidant attachment styles struggle in their ability to open up to their partners, and are often on high alert for signs of control, or signs of potential impingement on their ability to be autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, failing to realize that this “high alert” is really their own inner desire to be the controlling influence in their relationships.

Certain attachment styles do well together while others do not.  Often, those who walk through life with natural anxious attachment styles, seek out relationships with avoidant attachment styles, and almost always this ends badly.

Anxious attachment styles should seek out relationships with other anxious attachment styles or secure attachment styles.

Secure attachment styles should seek out relationships with anxious attachment styles, secure attachment styles, and while difficult to thrive in, relationships with avoidant attachment styles.

Avoidant attachment styles should seek out relationships with other avoidant attachment styles – those relationships may take on the appearance of a marriage to a partner who is never around, or being in a marriage which is more of a business arrangement than an emotional arrangement.  Avoidant attachment styles should also seek out relationships with secure attachment styles, but avoid the anxious attachment styles.

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Attachment Styles — The Conclusion

A healthy vibrant loving romantic relationship is one of the most rewarding of human experiences.  A recent survey discovered that 73 percent of adults would gladly sacrifice their life goals if it meant having a successful loving romantic relationship.  Even though we walk through life desiring intimate romantic relationships in our lives, we do very little to understand the ingredients which make up that prize winning relational recipe choosing instead to move forward guided by gossip, misconceptions, and myths.

Adult attachment styles are foundational to every successful relationship.

Author — James C. Tanner

 

References:

Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

Treboux, D., Crowell, J. A., & Waters, E. (2004). When ‘New’ Meets ‘Old’: Configurations of Adult Attachment Representations and Their Implications for Marital Functioning. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 295-314.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

 

 

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