Connection and its mysterious ways have long plagued humanity – anthropologists, advertisers, parents, linguists, psychologists, mail carriers, romantic partners…
Everyone is just as curious and confused as everyone else. We’ve all got that in common with each other.
In an attempt to demystify what some consider the unknowable, a group of groovy psychologists in the ‘60s set out to classify the way we relate to each other. They landed on four different theories that today, we call “attachment theory”.
Originally, they studied the implications of babies crying when they get separated from their parents.
But the more we learn about the human psyche, the more we are forced to consider that we’re all just children in our hearts, that there is no threshold of adulthood wherein we no longer want hugs for support or to cry when we’re frustrated, that the same things we yearn for as infants we yearn for in boardrooms and PTA meetings later in life…
In babies, specifically, in order to prevent separation or attract the attention of their caregivers, researchers found that they would use “attachment behaviors.” Crying, screaming, reaching out, clinging – we know babies act like that, right?
As it happens, adults retain “attachment behaviors,” “protesting behaviors,” and all kinds of other signals from our pre-verbal and primitive childhood brains.
And often, those behaviors from your childhood evolve into adult versions.
There are four distinct “attachment styles” developed by these psychologists. They seek to codify the way we express love, form bonds, react to jealousy, and process our relationships.
Let’s see what they look like…
Fearful or Avoidant Attachment
Sometimes referred to as “disorganized”, this attachment style results from being so afraid to ask for what you want you’re not even sure what it is anymore.
If you’ve adopted this modality in your adult relationships, you probably had a childhood peppered with tension and mixed messages. Inconsistent punishments and rewards, affection that is not guaranteed, childhood trauma, alcoholic parents, and other elements of chaos can turn out an adult with a fearful or avoidant attachment.
At the heart of this attachment style is ambivalence.
Those who present this way want intimacy, but are afraid of it once they experience it. Ebbing and flowing, being confused about what you want, feeling regularly dissatisfied or afraid to express your feelings – all symptoms of fearful or avoidant attachment.
This attachment style is the healthiest, but the most difficult to attain.
Stable, patterned, and reliable parenting tends to produce more adults with this kind of attachment. If as a child, you felt supported, loved, trusted, and cared for, it’s likelier that you’ll look inward for your self-esteem and exhibit more independence than otherwise.
It’s about security. Learning from experience that love can be constant and assured helps you to feel comfortable in separation, equanimity and confidence in solitude, and at ease with partners and friends.
Expressing open and honest affection isn’t a struggle for those who identify with the secure attachment style, and other people’s shortcomings don’t have to reflect on you or how they feel about you.
The most combative form of attachment style, you might not even realize it is an attachment style – outwardly, it appears that the goal is to not get attached at all.
(That’s the dismissive-avoidant part.)
These people experienced hostility, detachment, rejection, abandonment, neglect, or abuse in their childhoods. As adults, they choose not to participate in intimacy and decide against forming close, intimate bonds in which they’ll be expected to rely on others or have others rely on them.
The important thing to remember is that those presenting with the characteristics of a dismissive-avoidant attacher don’t not want intimacy – they’re conditioned to believe that connection isn’t worth the trouble it causes.
Getting close feels uncomfortable and undesirable… but there’s more under the surface than there seems to be.
This attachment style loves closeness – so much so that they’re willing to do what it takes to catch security in their widely-cast shape-shifting butterfly net.
They’re eager to express affection, even when it isn’t earned or appropriate, and actively worried about being abandoned or left behind.
More than that, anxious-preoccupied attachers need regular reassurance, approval, validation, and attention from their partners and loved ones. They’re the most forthright about their emotional hunger, and the most likely to act out when their needs aren’t being met.
Overbearing or panicked parenting often produces adults with anxious attachment needs.
And the thing about these attachment styles is that they aren’t permanent, can certainly evolve over time, and can even change depending on who you’re dealing with.
You may feel a secure attachment in your friendships, but an anxious-preoccupied attachment with your romantic partners.
Once we can identify the ways we approach love and connection, the more we can streamline those approaches to get us closer to our real needs.