Attachment theory is a discipline in psychology which studies how people form intimate bonds with one another. The research has identified three primary attachment styles – secure, avoidant, and anxious. If you have difficulties in your intimate relationships, understanding you and your partner’s style may provide valuable insight into the root of the problem.
For people with secure attachment styles – about fifty percent of the population — being warm and loving in a relationship comes fairly natural. Secure types enjoy intimacy without being overly worried about their relationships. They effectively communicate their needs and feelings and accurately read and respond to a partner’s emotional cues.
About twenty-five percent of the population are avoidant types. They experience connections with others as entanglements, usually because they’re afraid of losing their personal autonomy in relationships. This category is sometimes further subdivided into fearful and dismissive types, depending on whether they’re merely cautious in relationships or avoid them altogether. Avoidant types need closeness as much as everyone else, but are also threatened by it, and often keep their partners at arm’s length. They find it difficult to trust others, are uneasy when other people depend on them, and are highly sensitive to signs of control.
The greatest fear for people with anxious attachment styles, who comprise about twenty percent of the population, is that they’ll be abandoned. They love to be very close to romantic partners, but often fear that their partners don’t want as much closeness as they do. Relationships consume a large part of their emotional energy. They’re sensitive to fluctuations in their partner’s moods, and tend to take their behaviors too personally. Often they’re easily upset and say things they later regret. If they find partners who provide a lot of security and reassurance, however, they may be able to shed much of their insecurity and feel contented.
While our basic attachment styles form in early childhood, the good news is that close and trusting relationships later in life (including relationships with therapists) can do much to heal the fears of avoidant and anxious types and make their relationships closer and more rewarding. But relationships can only heal when both partners experience their bond as a “secure base” that isn’t constantly troubled by conflict or drama. That sense of safety seems to be hardest to achieve in anxious/avoidant combinations, because in these relationships, both partners so often find themselves in a constant struggle, in which the avoidant partner feels trapped, smothered, controlled, and overwhelmed by too much “neediness,” while the anxious partner feels constantly hurt by perceived abandonment, rejection, coldness, and emotional distance.
Secure adult relationships can do much to heal dysfunctional patterns, but just understanding how your particular style works, including the kinds of distortions and biases that it creates in your perceptions of relationships, can help you correct those distortions. That’s why the new insights of attachment theory are very much worth studying.