Understanding Your Attachment Style

Why am I repeating the same patterns over and over in my relationships?
I wish I knew why I get so anxious and jump to conclusions when there’s conflict with my girlfriend.
Why do I keep falling for emotionally unavailable partners?

Being in a romantic relationship can in general be so confusing…even more so when you don’t know why you respond or react to your partner the way that you do.

Fortunately, learning about something called attachment theory can really help you get answers about your patterns in romantic relationships. Attachment theory tells us we have an innate need for a close emotional bond with our primary caretaker (in childhood) or partner (in adulthood). In my opinion, attachment theory isn’t so much of a theory but a fact. We can’t live without support and care from people who love us.

Harry Harlow’s “wire mother experiment” showed us just that. He gave monkeys a choice between two (fake) “mothers.” One mother had soft cloth and no food, and the other mother was made of wire but provided the monkeys with nourishment. While it saddens me to think about what Harlow was doing to these monkeys, he did discover something critical: that food comes second to connection. The monkeys chose the mothers who provided comfort but no food, showing us that connection and closeness are the essence of our survival.

Why is this important for your dating life now? Your attachment to your caregivers as a young child made a lasting impact on who you are today. You have something called an attachment style. It’s how you think, feel, and act in your close relationships. Most likely, your attachment style mirrors the dynamic you had with your caretaker as a child.

Here are the four attachment styles and how they may impact you and your relationships:

Secure Attachment
Having a secure attachment with someone means there’s a sense of confidence in the relationship, with ample warmth and love. You’re not too worried about your relationship and are great at expressing your feelings, needs, and desires. You’re there for your partner and are in tune with their feelings, needs, and desires as well.

An excellent portrayal of a securely attached couple is Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother. If you’ve watched this show, you know that they have a clear foundation of trust, affection, and open and honest communication, especially during challenging life events.

Anxious (sometimes called preoccupied) attachment
When you’re anxiously attached, you may find yourself seeking connection more intensely than your partner. You fear your partner doesn’t want to be as close as you’d like, and you seek reassurance to calm your worries that your partner might leave. You most likely spend quite a bit of time analyzing your relationship and are sensitive to subtle changes your partner makes.

Let’s take a look at Ted Mosby, the main character from How I Met Your Mother. The entire series is basically about his long journey to finding his wife. Before he does, however, he’s in a constant state of anxiousness and sometimes even desperation trying to find “The One.” He frequently hears from women he dates that he is clingy or “too much” and ends up pushing people away – the opposite of what he wants. His relationships consume a large amount of his emotional energy. As the viewer, you feel a sense of unease watching Ted question himself and having great difficulty expressing his true feelings and needs.

Avoidant (sometimes called dismissive) attachment
If you’re avoidantly attached, you crave independence over intimate relationships. You don’t spend time worrying about your interactions and instead keep people at a distance for fear that getting too close will be stifling. You may have been called aloof or distant or get complaints from partners that you don’t open up enough.

Even if you don’t watch the show, most everyone knows Neil Patrick Harris’s character Barney in How I Met Your Mother. He is notoriously known for having one-night stands and being emotionally distant, going to great lengths to avoid women after their romantic encounters. Barney grew up without a father, was bullied in school, and was painfully rejected by his first love. Remember, your attachment to your caregivers or even significant relational events in your life have a direct impact on how you are in your relationships today.

Disorganized (sometimes called fearful-avoidant) attachment
This attachment style is a combination of both anxious and avoidant. A person with a disorganized attachment style wants emotional closeness while also pushing it away. If this sounds confusing, it is! A person with a disorganized attachment (and their partner) feels this confusion, too. Most commonly, they grew up in a chaotic environment or endured traumatic experiences that have led to conflicting messages they have about themselves and others. Therefore, the messages they send to their partners in romantic relationships are oftentimes inconsistent.

I’ll end my How I Met Your Mother comparison by discussing Robin and her suspected disorganized attachment. It’s clear from Robin’s dating history that she has a pattern of dating unavailable partners and brushes off men that will clearly offer her love and stability. She greatly fears commitment, but also wants love and affection from others. When she does get vulnerable, she gives the viewer a glance into her childhood that consists of anguish due to yearning for her father’s attention, to no avail.

If you’re reading this and wondering which attachment style best fits you, or are relating to a certain one and want to learn more, check out the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller. In the book you’ll be able to take a questionnaire to find your attachment style (and even your partner’s!).

Having clarity as to why you are the way you are in your relationships can have a profound impact on you. Increasing your self-awareness is the first step to improving your relationship with your partner, but most importantly with yourself. Counseling can also be an important step in understanding your patterns in your relationships and learning more about your attachment style and its origin.

Practicing Mindfulness
Managing Your Anxiety by Becoming AWARE