Relationship Attachment Styles (Part 1)
by Richard Yates MS, LPC, NCC, NBCFCH
A number of factors contribute to the ways we connect and bond to relationship partners. Genes that are passed down from our parents can impact who we desire and how we attach to them. For example, the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) gene cluster can be unconsciously detected by a woman, particularly during ovulation. Through her heightened sense of smell she can tell if a man's immune system will complement her own to ensure healthy children (see Rachel Hertz, Ph.D, "Scent of Desire"). The thoughts, behaviors and emotions of our parents also weigh heavy in our romantic bonds. Michael Meaney, PhD at McGill University's Department of Neurology discovered that when he switched rat pups from a calm rat mother to a nervous rat mother, the pups expressed the genes of the mother they were with and also became anxious. Conditions in our childhood environments and the children we played with helped form our personal relationship behaviors. A child who is abandoned by her parents at age 3 may be more likely to fear abandonment by a relationship partner as an adult than a child from a perfect home environment. Biological factors can also influence how we function in relationships. Low IQ, brain injuries or abnormalities as well as disease often limit the ability to form a relationship bond. As in the case of autism, a person may not value a relationship partner above a computer. So, how we attach to relationship partners is affected by many factors.
The work of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver led to the formulation of three basic styles of adult romantic attachment: secure, anxious and avoidant. Amir Levine, in his book, Attached, elaborated on these attachment styles. I have used the foundation of this research, commonly called "attachment theory", to express my own ideas of how adult relationship attachment styles can be categorized. I have added two poles: satisfied vs. dissatisfied and dependent vs. independent. I also added a completely new category, "autonomous". It is my own opinion, based on skeptical observation, that no one fits perfectly into a single category and that some people are a complex mix of all categories of attachment. The following are the attachment categories I believe to be most relevant:
SECURE= Trusting, Confident (55%)
ANXIOUS= Obsessive, Insecure or Withdrawn, Defeated (25%)
AVOIDANT= Unable or Unwilling to Bond (20%)
AUTONOMOUS= Self-sustaining Happiness, Content Alone or Attached (Statistically Insignificant)
Aside from the genes we inherit and their influence, our families and other environmental factors shape our view of relationships. Secure relationship partners are usually from stable and nurturing families that teach trust in others. Because their needs are met at home, secure types are more likely to engage in family activities instead of going to night spots with single friends. Secure types also tend to stay in relationships more often than other types. This makes secure types more difficult to find in the single world. In fact, it's more common to meet these singles at work, church or a family-oriented gathering. Also, secure types rarely get desperate for companionship and may be more difficult to attract and pull out of their comfortable routines.
The advantages of the secure partners are also the disadvantages. They are usually trustworthy companions who are easily satisfied by one partner. Their interests often revolve around home and family, making them reliable in relationships. Secures generally trust their companions, even in difficult circumstances. This reliability is also a disadvantage. They are boring to other dating types who need more stimulation and spontaneity to keep their interest. We could imagine that reliability is often a trade for passion and sexual adventure. This is why avoidant attachment types have no interest in secure types. It requires too much work for too little benefit. Anxious dates can pair with secure types, but they too can become bored in a relationship with a secure partner. Secure types are best fitted for other secure types.
Anxious partners sometimes come from perfectly normal family backgrounds. Still, it is more likely that insecurity and fear of abandonment are learned through early-life experiences. This can result from observing unstable family conditions during childhood, abandonment by a parent or the death of a parent. Regardless of the source, anxious partners fear loss in relationships. They typically worry that their companions will stop caring for them and or become unfaithful. Jealousy, obsessiveness, hypersensitivity and volatility are common for this attachment style.
There are several pros and cons for the anxious partner. Good features could include excitement. They are usually not boring. Also, anxious partners are often passionate and care deeply for their companions. They tend to demonstrate their affection, and their sexual intensity can be an advantage. The price for this stimulation is often high. Anxious partners often see threats to a relationship everywhere. They are easily disturbed by normal periods of their partner's lack of attention and they may seek constant reassurance. They can be high-maintenance and create conflict in their relationships and in other social networks. They do not trust and are prone to investigate their partners, accusing them of dishonesty or cheating. Anxious partners can pair with secure and avoidant attachment partners. They often gravitate to secure types but their preference is usually avoidant partners. Secure partners are sometimes not stimulating or affectionate enough to make anxious partners feel loved. Anxious partners often go into periods of remission until a triggering event reactivates their insecurities.
There is a lot of speculation as to how avoidant attachment styles form. Biological abnormalities, such as those mildly associated with autism, are a possible contributing factor. It can also be another outcome of early childhood parental abandonment, where the ability to bond was never formed. Sometimes, the pain of being mistreated by a past relationship partner results in a philosophy of emotional distance in relationships. The avoidant attachment type is characterized by an inability or unwillingness to bond with an intimate partner.
There are good and bad aspects to avoidant attachment styles. Not everyone wants a reliable or passionate relationship. For those who do not want a committed relationship, avoidant dates are a good selection. Avoidants may also have a place in the romantic lives of those who are seeking nontraditional relationships, such as people with open relationships, those who swing or couples with "agreements" that allow for extra-relationship activities. As a rule, avoidant types should be avoided by those who are looking for a relationship. They often feel pressured by any signs of commitment or relationship responsibility. Some avoidant types can only tolerate brief encounters with intimacy before disappearing without notice. Avoidants occupy about twenty percent of the general population but are disproportionately represented in the available dating pool. Avoidant types prefer anxious partners. This may be due to the speed, intensity and impulsivity with which anxious types attach. Avoidants have no interest in secure types but may occasionally cross romantic paths with other avoidants.
"Auto" is Greek for self, "nomos" means law. This category is the rarest of all of the attachment types and is characterized by the absence of need for a relationship partner. This lack of need is not due to a bad experience, biological defect or the decision to avoid relationship pain. The autonomous type may function in any relationship capacity at any time and has the ability to be content in all situations. We might say that the person who has achieved this status has overcome animal nature with rational discipline. Historic figures who may have been autonomous types could include; Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, St. Paul, Marcus Aurelius and others who were capable of assessing and choosing between values based on their superior ability to reason. Since advanced reasoning has allowed these few to override their desires, their backgrounds and experiences are not as relevant.
Autonomous types can function in or out of a relationship and adapt to any situation they encounter. Epicurus said, "If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires." So autonomous people are as self-sustained as possible. We could all stand to be a bit more autonomous. This attachment type is characterized by an extraordinary ability to adapt to all relationship or non-relationship situations.
Richard Yates is a Licensed Counselor (LPC), National Certified Counselor and National Certified Fellow in Clinical Hypnotherapy. He has worked as a psychotherapist since 1996 and his experience spans outpatient work in community mental healthcare with the severely mentally ill, inpatient and partial patient care at a psychiatric hospital and practice at a large psychiatric outpatient practice since 1998. He has developed highly successful and innovative couples counseling techniques and strategies and has successfully integrated Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, along with other traditional approaches, with hypnotherapy.
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