About a year ago, my main text rant buddy introduced me to the notion of attachment theory by recommending an audio book with the title “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. I was sceptical at first, but as my friend insisted that it literally changed her life in the way that it made her understand that there’s a reason for her behaviour when it comes to interpersonal relationships, I decided to give it a go.
As I was listening to the audio book, I was surprised by how accurately my own behaviour was described on numerous occasions − the authors provide real-life examples that are easy to grasp, especially if you’ve already experienced them.
So apparently, people fall into one of the following categories when it comes to attachment*:
- Secure attachment style
- Anxious attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Anxious-avoidant attachment style (= jackpot 💯)
Having a secure attachment style is kind of like winning the lottery − when you’re secure, you’re not prone to freak-outs when you’re in a relationship, you know how to love and be loved. Fun fact: I like to call securely attached people unicorns because to me, they’re quite magical in a “is this real life?!” kind of way. Secure people make up about half of the population.
The other half of the population is screwed.
Just kidding. We’re not! There’s still a little bit of hope for us non-secure people.
There’s one thing that both the anxious and the avoidant** have in common: fear. They’ve learned early on in life that attachment is somehow dangerous, so they’re either afraid of getting too close or of not being close enough.
The former mostly applies to the avoidant: getting close to someone and opening up to them requires vulnerability. It means letting down your guard and letting them see you for what you really are which consequently makes you vulnerable. You could get hurt. People might leave you and break your heart. Being avoidant therefore is a way of coping with this fear rather than being coldhearted, as which the avoidant are often perceived. The avoidant are often indecisive and have difficulties committing to things, even minor ones. They’re afraid of being confronted with negative emotions and therefore stay away from or leave situations that may cause those emotions, often hurting the ones who care about them in the process.
The anxiously attached are also afraid, but mostly of being left. They can be perceived as “needy”, always wanting to be close and potentially freaking out whenever they’re away from their loved one. They tend to read too much into things that have nothing to do with them in the first place and easily jump to the conclusion that their partner is going to leave them / doesn’t love them anymore / is getting tired of them. This behaviour is well-known among the anxious folk and is often referred to as “catastrophising“.
Personally, I’ve experienced that my attachment style has changed over the years, depending on what kind of attachment style I’m confronted with. According to the test provided by the above-mentioned book, I’m predominantly anxious. This result came as a surprise to me because I’m pretty sure I’ve spent most of my adult life being avoidant. However, I’ve found that I’m indeed anxious whenever I’m paired with an avoidant person and vice versa. I must admit that this has been very confusing, so much so that I’ve ended up surprising myself a couple of times.
Huh, I don’t feel the need to run away. That’s oddly refreshing. Mostly odd though.
I already miss him and he hasn’t even left yet?! Wow. I’m definitely anxious this time around.
He wants to see me tomorrow as well?! But we’re already hanging out later today! I’ll just dodge his text messages for a little while, maybe he’ll get the hint. Ughhhh darn you avoidance, what are you making me do??
These are just raw and unpolished thought samples, not testimonies of how I actually end up responding after one or the other attachment style has been triggered. When meeting someone new, it’s actually quite interesting to see which way I (and they) will turn out to be in terms of attachment. Given that I’m a bit of a chameleon in the attachment style department, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m possibly one of the “lucky few” who have an anxious-avoidant attachment style, especially since my behaviour can’t consistently be categorised as either anxious or avoidant even within a relationship. To be fair, I’ve only once had the chance of being in a relationship with a secure partner, which definitely is the kind of attachment style the anxious / avoidant / anxious-avoidant should seek out, as this will give them the security they need to get a grip on their fear-induced behaviour.
Apart from fear, another thing the anxious and the avoidant share is the tendency to play games instead of communicating. Whenever their attachment style is triggered, they (mostly unconsciously) react by dodging texts, withholding love or by “punishing” their partner in some other way instead of verbally expressing how they’re feeling, often because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions (or because they’re unaware that a certain attachment style has been triggered).
As you may have guessed, pairing an anxious person with an avoidant one is the worst of the worst. Both of their fearful behaviours will be amplified tenfold because neither one of them can give the other the safety they so desperately need and it will most likely be one of those “high drama” relationships which certainly aren’t boring, but they’re basically emotional earthquakes to the involved.
The one thing that really grinds my gears is that you can’t work on your attachment-related behaviour without attachment − you don’t struggle with the underlying patterns as long as you’re on your own so there’s no way of preparing for what’s to come because you have no idea who you’re going to end up with and how they’re going to make you feel.
The only thing you can do is know your attachment style, learn how to decipher attachment styles in others and try to aim for a secure partner.
* These categories can be subdivided into more specific sub-categories, but I chose to keep it simple as I’m not a professional.
** All adjectives (→ anxious, avoidant, secure) refer to attachment styles in interpersonal relationships here and not to any other aspects of life (even though attachment styles [can] have an impact on other life departments).