This is the third blog post, in a series of five posts explaining attachment stress. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to read Part 1 and Part 2 before you read this post.
Now that you have seen the importance of attachment and what a gift it is to have secure attachment to your caregivers as a child, let’s talk about what happens if you don’t get that secure base. Or you lose that base. We’ll also talk about what secure attachment looks like.
There are four main styles of attachment.
1. Preoccupied or Anxious Attachment Style: People with anxious attachment styles received inconsistent attention to needs and support from their caregivers. This is a common experience for people whose parents were struggling with substance abuse and recovery. When their parent is sober, they can be consistently available, caring, and attuned to their child. During episodes of relapse, the parent might emotionally disappear to the child. Since they were unable to reliably count on their caregiver as a stable base, these children start to develop coping strategies for that distress that experience causes.
What does that look like? It looks like worrying that their needs will never be met, difficulty tolerating being alone, and challenges with accepting reassurance in loving and caring ways. Often their partners describe them as demanding, tearful, critical, blaming, and emotionally jabbing at people they are close to. Those behaviors seem harsh and counter-intuitive on the surface– but in the context of their attachment anxiety, it starts to make sense. It’s so scary, unpredictable, and uncomfortable to be close to people, that they started pushing pushing back on people to cope. In an earlier video blog, I described these people as “Pursuers”. They are using the “fight” stress response to manage their discomfort in relationships.
In short: pursuers want to be close to their partners, but that closeness feels scary. They make the unconscious decision to push them away, to get rid of the anxiety– which sabotages their attempt to connect.
2. Dismissive or Avoidant Attachment Style : Adults with avoidant attachment styles usually had parents or caregivers that were not emotionally present in childhood– and the child’s emotional needs were definitely not attended to. When no one is available to help you with emotions, it’s better not to have them. Right?
To cope with the stress of not being able to attune to an adult, these children learn to turn away and detach from their emotional experience. This is the flight stress response– they literally flee to emotional safety. In our earlier video blog, I described these adults as “Withdrawers”. You’ll find them devotedly spending time in non-relational activities: solo projects, watching TV, playing independent sports, or playing on their computers. Their partners often say they are devoid of emotion, cold, checked out, abandoning, or push-overs. Sometimes they are so detached from their emotional experience that they aren’t even aware of having an emotion, frustrating their pursuing partner who doesn’t know that they are trying to cope with a stress response. Withdrawers often describe themselves as being uncomfortable being close, find it difficult to trust, and placate everyone else. Underneath these strategies, I often uncover a fear of getting it wrong or making it worse.
The Cliff’s Notes Version: Withdrawers are experiencing so much anxiety and stress in relationship conflict that they subconsciously turn off their ability to feel emotion. They try to hide from the world, because doing nothing was the safest strategy they learned for managing tough emotional situations.
3. Disorganized or Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style: Can you imagine growing up in a house where you were afraid of your caregivers? When children grow up with scary caregivers and have no safe place, they develop a disorganized attachment style. This is especially true of people who suffered trauma at the hands of their caregivers. When the very person who is supposed to be caring and supporting you is also harming you, you have to use multiple strategies to manage the situation and survive.
This stressful situation often generates mixed behaviors in adults– pushing their partners away at the same time they are asking them to come closer (push + pull), showing panic and then rage in a short amount of time, unable to trust their partners, and unable to tolerate ambiguity. Their system is often in a stress-response and they are uncertain which response will give them the safety they need– so they use both pursuing behaviors and withdrawing behaviors at the same time. Sometimes we call this emotional “hit and run.”
The take away: People with avoidant attachment strategies often have so much internal conflict during relationship stress that they aren’t sure if they should pursue or withdraw– so they do both.
4. Secure Attachment: When your parents are very emotionally attuned and responsive to your needs, you develop this attachment style. You’ll find it easy to get close and are comfortable depending on others. You aren’t preoccupied with being abandoned or in becoming codependent. Most importantly, you can turn to your partner, express your hurts, needs, joys, pains, and wants– and you trust that they will be with you in that experience.
There you have it– the four places that we end-up based on our childhood experiences, the stress response, and the strategies that we developed to cope with relational stress.
One important final note for today– no matter where you started, we are all capable of achieving secure attachment. Through change-experiences we can develop earned-security with our partners. We can heal those old wounds and define new ways of being with the people we love. Emotionally Focused Therapy is the model I use to facilitate that process. I’d love to help you experience that- call to schedule your appointment today! 770.451.0404