Understanding Insecure Attachment in Romantic Relationships

Attachment Theory provides a useful framework to understand common dynamics in romantic relationships.

Attachment theory was first developed in the 1950s by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby. In the 1970s researcher Mary Ainsworth further contributed to this theory. Early attachment theory work centered on the different attachment styles babies and young children exhibited towards their caregivers. Later work has shown that attachment theory is relevant in adult romantic relationships. Basically, as adults, our romantic partners become primary attachment figures to us. It is controversial whether an individual’s attachment style fully develops in childhood due to the relationship they have with their primary caregivers or is influenced through life experiences. Perhaps it is a mix of both. Regardless, it can be helpful to have an understanding of your current attachment style, your partner’s attachment style, and the dynamics between you. This can lead to greater understanding towards your partner and ultimately self growth as you challenge habitual ways of being in and thinking about your relationship and partner. Although I don’t think one’s attachment style is permanently fixed, it may be that an individual has a tendency towards a specific attachment style. It is common to refer to specific styles (described below). However, attachment styles do exist on a spectrum and in reality people may be a mix, or vary depending on other factors and dynamics. Also important to consider regarding a seemingly avoidantly-attached person, is that perhaps this individual is genuinely not interested. So, while attachment theory can provide a generally useful framework for deepening understanding of self and other in romantic relationships, it should be integrated into a given relationship’s unique context.

There are basically two types of attachment: secure and insecure. Within the ‘insecure’ category, there is largely avoidant attachment and anxious attachment (with lots of variations between the two! Remember, attachment style generally exists along a spectrum). I think a lot of miscommunication and discord in relationships (especially early stages of dating) stem from different attachment styles and a lack of understanding about them.

Secure Attachment: This is generally a good place to be with your partner and with yourself. Basically, a securely attached person is able to regulate their emotions and feelings in their relationship; are able to trust their partner; comfortable spending time apart from their partner; have a strong sense of self worth; manage relationship conflict in healthy ways. It is possible to develop a more securely attached style if it is not your default. Additionally, if one partner is securely attached and the other partner is insecurely attached, the securely attached partner may be able to shift the other’s attachment to being more secure. Regardless, there is some inner work to be done to get to a more securely attached place. For example, developing a greater sense of self worth and resiliency; having interests and hobbies outside of your relationship; developing a greater tolerance for uncertainty; learning how to effectively communicate wants and needs to your partner; developing greater emotional awareness and regulation.

Avoidant Attachment: As noted above, careful not to label someone’s genuine lack of interest as “avoidant attachment”. That said, an avoidantly-attached person tends to be very independent, self-directed, and uncomfortable with intimacy and emotional expression. When others try to get close, they tend to feel pressured and pull away. They might have a lot of walls and boundaries, and need a lot of space. It’s important to be aware that although these behaviors can be painful to their partner, it’s not always that the avoidant partner does not care for the other person. Rather, their attachment system has been triggered. Common triggers for the avoidant attachment system include: a partner pushing for closeness; feeling the relationship is taking too much of their time; perceiving their partner as demanding their attention; feeling vulnerable; feeling they are losing their independence.

Anxious Attachment: Generally, an anxiously-attached person feels uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity in a relationship and has an intense fear of being abandoned. They often need a lot of reassurance from their partner and tend to prioritize their partner’s needs. An avoidant typically feels a lack of worthiness. Given the description of the avoidant style above, this anxious-avoidant dynamic can be problematic if both partners are unaware of their attachment style and do not actively work towards a more secure style. Particularly in an anxious-avoidant dynamic, the anxious partner is often the one reaching out and attempting to ‘drive’/control the relationship which activates the avoidant attachment system in their partner, typically leading the avoidant partner to pull away.

If you or your partner tend towards an insecure attachment style, recognizing patterns is a good first step to changing them! Developing a greater awareness of your attachment style and underlying beliefs (about yourself, your partner, and relationships) that fuel it is a great place to start. If you tend towards anxious attachment and your partner is avoidant (a common dynamic) giving them lots of space can be hugely beneficial for your relationship. This allows you to works towards a secure attachment style, perhaps exploring what comes up for you when you enter that liminal place. If you tend towards avoidance and need space, communicate that to your partner. It is totally ok and valid to need space (emotional, physical) at times! Be mindful of how you communicate this need, particularly if your partner tends towards anxious attachment. Working towards improved openness and communication can be beneficial for both insecure attachment styles.

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