Understanding Attachment Styles

When the Beatles first released their record-breaking song “Love Is All You Need,” their keen vocals and majestical melody were the main contributing factors to the song’s success. It’s safe to say, however, that those five words conveyed an imperative message that we can all relate to, that is, the power of loving others and being loved. Our need for love has been so consistent that researchers have taken a deep dive into why we so desperately long for this universal experience of love. Why does love have the power to make us drop everything?

What we’ve learned is that love is much more than the sensation of butterflies and warm connection but rather is embedded into each of us as a primal instinct. The way we attach to others is derived from our first primitive years of life, driven by the goal of survival. As little ones, we understand quickly that in order to get food, shelter, and water, we need to rely heavily on our caregivers. We’re distinct from other mammals in that we have a much longer span where we are reliant on our caregivers to obtain our basic needs. It is clear to a baby that they cannot feed themselves, but if they have a proper attachment to a caregiver, they can be fed. This pattern sends the signal that attachment equals safety…so much so, that when an attachment feels threatened, our bodies initiate the same response as it would if it were in danger or starving: a primal panic. By the time we’re three, 75% of our brain is wired in relation to what constitutes an “effective attachment.” Thus as we grow older and gain independence, these instincts and responses stay strongly embedded within us. This is why we so often feel that we attract the same person over and over again or find ourselves in the same relational experiences: We often strive to re-enact the roles we took in our earliest attachments.

Researchers have identified four main attachment styles that are common across the globe. The promising news is that with awareness, processing, and intentional work, the brain can be rewired to view attachment differently. So if your current role in relationships often is uncomfortable, there is still room to mend your relational wounds. Attachment work challenges us to reframe away from “Why am I this way?” and instead toward the fact that we’re a human being who established these methods as a form of survival. When we look through a lens of understanding, we can build room to become curious, which in turn is where the true work of healing can begin.

Secure Attachment
You guessed it: Secure attachment means just what it says…that you experience feelings of security within most relationships. People who have a secure attachment style feel like they will be loved and taken care of in relationships. They can then feel open to taking risks, trusting others, and feeling present and grounded in their feelings of love. They are able to build long-lasting, stable relationships. About 50% of the population has a secure attachment style.

Anxious Attachment
If you have an anxious attachment style, discomfort in relationships likely feels all too familiar. This attachment style is rooted in abandonment fears and inconsistencies from caregivers growing up. People who identify with an anxious attachment are often hyperaware of cues that something feels “off.” They may wonder, Was my tone of voice different? Does this text mean they’re leaving? They fear being left or abandoned, despite words of affirmation and quality experiences. This abandonment fear commonly leads to a loss of self and codependent tendencies so that the person can stay attached and thus feel safe.

Avoidant Attachment
People with an avoidant attachment style do quite the opposite: Their core mantra is “I will leave before I get left.” What feels safe to them is feeling in control of a relationship, which leads them to detach or not get too involved as a means of protection. Emotions may seem uncomfortable or too vulnerable because they were often not modeled properly early on. Oftentimes caregivers of individuals who are avoidantly attached were emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to their needs. When people with avoidant and anxious attachment styles begin a relationship (which they often do, for we are often attracted to our opposites!), the person with an anxious attachment style often feels abandoned or uncared for, when in reality both types are striving for safety.

Anxious-Avoidant Attachment (otherwise known as Disorganized)
Individuals with anxious-avoidant attachment may initially step into relationships with a desire to get close and connect but notice themselves pulling away as the relationship presents more intimacy or vulnerability. They often struggle with feelings of mistrust and may find themselves ping-ponging from withdrawing to pursuing tendencies within the relationships. About 5% of the US population carries this attachment style, which can stem from trauma, unresolved loss, or consistent marital issues.

Now that you’ve learned about the various types of attachment styles, which one resonates most with you? If you would like more guidance on processing through attachment styles and relational experiences, therapy can be a great tool to help.

Well, Beatles, you’ve done it again. Not only have you provided us with a melodious tune, but you’ve also provided us with a perfect segue into further inner discovery!

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