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How To Leverage Attachment Theory In Your Relationship

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How To Leverage Attachment Theory In Your Relationship

Attachment theory has come to be seen in “kids nowadays”’ TikTok circles as almost a sort of astrology, but that’s not what it was intended for, and there’s really nothing esoteric about it.

What it can be, is a (fairly simple, but) powerful tool to understand about our relationships with each other.

To demystify it, let’s start with a little history…

Attachment theory was conceived by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, and popularized as a theory bypsychiatrist John Bowlby. The two would later become research partners.

  • Dr. Ainsworth’s initial work focused on children having different attachment styles when it came to their caregivers: secure, avoidant, or anxious.
  • Later, she would add a fourth attachment style: disorganized, and then subdivisions, such as anxious-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant.
  • Much later, the theory would be extended to attachments in (and between) adults.

What does it all mean?

To understand this, we must first talk about “The Strange Situation”.

“The Strange Situation” was an experiment conducted by Dr. Ainsworth, in which a child would be observed playing, while caregivers and strangers would periodically arrive and leave, recreating a natural environment of most children’s lives. Each child’s different reactions were recorded, especially noting:

  • The child’s reaction (if any) to their caregiver’s departure
  • The child’s reaction (if any) to the stranger’s presence
  • The child’s reaction (if any) to their caregiver’s return
  • The child’s behavior on play, specifically, how much or little the child explored and played with new toys

She observed different attachment styles, including:

  1. Secure: a securely attached child would play freely, using the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore. Will engage with the stranger when the caregiver is also present. May become upset when the caregiver leaves, and happy when they return.
  2. Avoidant: an avoidantly attached child will not explore much regardless of who is there; will not care much when the caregiver departs or returns.
  3. Anxious: an anxiously attached child may be clingy before separation, helplessly passive when the caregiver is absent, and difficult to comfort upon the caregiver’s return.
  4. Disorganized: a disorganizedly attached child may flit between the above types

These attachment styles were generally reflective of the parenting styles of the respective caregivers:

  1. If a caregiver was reliably present (physically and emotionally), the child would learn to expect that and feel secure about it.
  2. If a caregiver was absent a lot (physically and/or emotionally), the child would learn to give up on expecting a caregiver to give care.
  3. If a caregiver was unpredictable a lot in presence (physical and/or emotional), the child would become anxious and/or confused about whether the caregiver would give care.

What does this mean for us as adults?

As we learn when we are children, tends to go for us in life. We can change, but we usually don’t. And while we (usually) no longer rely on caregivers per se as adults, we do rely (or not!) on our partners, friends, and so forth. Let’s look at it in terms of partners:

  1. A securely attached adult will trust that their partner loves them and will be there for them if necessary. They may miss their partner when absent, but won’t be anxious about it and will look forward to their return.
  2. An avoidantly attached adult will not assume their partner’s love, and will feel their partner might let them down at any time. To protect themself, they may try to manage their own expectations, and strive always to keep their independence, to make sure that if the worst happens, they’ll still be ok by themself.
  3. An anxiously attached adult will tend towards clinginess, and try to keep their partner’s attention and commitment by any means necessary.

Which means…

  • When both partners have secure attachment styles, most things go swimmingly, and indeed, securely attached partners most often end up with each other.
  • A very common pairing, however, is one anxious partner dating one avoidant partner. This happens because the avoidant partner looks like a tower of strength, which the anxious partner needs. The anxious partner’s clinginess can also help the avoidant partner feel better about themself (bearing in mind, the avoidant partner almost certainly grew up feeling deeply unwanted).
  • Anxious-anxious pairings happen less because anxiously attached people don’t tend to be attracted to people who are in the same boat.
  • Avoidant-avoidant pairings happen least of all, because avoidantly attached people having nothing to bind them together. Iff they even get together in the first place, then later when trouble hits, one will propose breaking up, and the other will say “ok, bye”.

This is fascinating, but is there a practical use for this knowledge?

Yes! Understanding our own attachment styles, and those around us, helps us understand why we/they act a certain way, and realize what relational need is or isn’t being met, and react accordingly.

That sometimes, an anxiously attached person just needs some reassurance:

  • “I love you”
  • “I miss you”
  • “I look forward to seeing you later”

That sometimes, an avoidantly attached person needs exactly the right amount of space:

  • Give them too little space, and they will feel their independence slipping, and yearn to break free
  • Give them too much space, and oops, they’re gone now

Maybe you’re reading that and thinking “won’t that make their anxious partner anxious?” and yes, yes it will. That’s why the avoidant partner needs to skip back up and remember to do the reassurance.

It helps also when either partner is going to be away (physically or emotionally! This counts the same for if a partner will just be preoccupied for a while), that they parameter that, for example:

  • Not: “Don’t worry, I just need some space for now, that’s all” (à la “I am just going outside and may be some time“)
  • But: “I need to be undisturbed for a bit, but let’s schedule some me-and-you-time for [specific scheduled time]”.

Want to learn more about addressing attachment issues?

Psychology Today: Ten Ways to Heal Your Attachment Issues

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