Understanding attachment styles is the secret sauce of a great relationship.
John Bowlby is the “father” of attachment theory, who did some interesting experiments, mostly with babies and mothers. Attachment theory has been studied since the late 1960’s, and recently psychologists are more and more interested in the role that attachment style has on adult relationships.
Here are some of what psychologists have studied so far. Up to 90% of our interactions with our partner have a basis in our attachment style. Isn’t that amazing? What does that mean?
Well, about 50% of us have a primary style that is Secure. That means that most of our needs were met when we were small for things such as safety, feeling protected, knowing that someone was there for us to meet our needs, presence (that an adult could be present with us), and attunement – that someone really got where we were coming from and could help us “co-regulate” our emotions and nervous system.
However, even those of us who have a primary Secure attachment style still have pieces of the INSECURE attachment styles, that can come out under stress or situationally. In other words, no matter how great our parents did, they weren’t perfect and no baby has their needs met 100% of the time. We are all going to have pieces of the insecure attachment style that may need to be worked with and healed. The good news is that we all have an innate blueprint for secure attachment and can get back to that secure base with the help of our loved one. This is an integral part of Transformative Loving.
The 3 insecure styles are Avoidant, Anxious (or Ambivalent) and Disorganized. Different psychologists use slightly different names. Today I am going to focus on Avoidant attachment style.
Avoidant. If you have some Avoidant attachment style, you will notice it because you are likely the one in the relationship who needs or wants less emotional intimacy than your partner. You may notice some anxiety when your partner wants to get close to you, or that you have a limit to how much intimacy you can handle. You may have the experience of being “engulfed” if someone gets too close, and you may like a lot of alone time to do your own thing. You may believe that people aren’t really there for you and you have to be self-reliant.
As you can imagine, Avoidant Attachment style develops because little ones didn’t get their needs met. They learned that their caregivers weren’t reliable in some way, perhaps they didn’t get held enough, or they were left to “cry it out.” Maybe a parent also had an avoidant style. Or, the child was mostly tended to around tasks and didn’t get their emotional needs met. This is not to blame our parents, they were doing the best they could! Unfortunately, attachments styles can be passed down from one generation to the next.
As adults, it can be more challenging for Avoidants to want to be close or TRUST that closeness. It can be very vulnerable for someone with this style to open up and feel their desire for greater intimacy, because they assume their needs won’t be met. Understanding this vulnerability can give those of us in relationship with Avoidants more compassion for them.
Here are some questions to think about to identify if you have some Avoidant attachment. These are adapted from Diane Poole Heller, who is a fabulous local attachment style specialist that I have been studying with.
Do you feel some anxiety when your partner wants to connect?
Do you minimize the importance of close relationships as if they don’t matter?
Do you have a hard time asking for support?
Do you wish other people were more self-sufficient?
Do you feel superior to others because you are more self-suficient?
Do you prefer to do tasks or hobbies alone?
Do you have an easier time connecting with animals or things than people?
Do you have a challenge maintaining eye contact, especially intimate eye contact?
Is it easier to analyze problems than to express your emotions?
If you answered yes to several of these, you probably have some Avoidant attachment style.
What now? Here are 3 tips in working with your own or your partner’s Avoidant attachment style.
1. Allow your partner some space. Don’t take it personally if they need their alone time, and don’t chase after them.
Self soothe if you feel anxious being alone, or find a good friend or family member to hang out with.
2. Create space for transitions. Avoidants will need time to emerge from the depths of their reflection and alone time. Create agreements about times to be together, and make sure there is 15 minutes or so of transition to get ready for together or social time.
3. Practice creating more intimacy. Do this incrementally. The Avoidant has to learn to trust connection again. Gentle eye gazing is a great exercise. The Avoidant should be the one to set the boundaries in this exercise. The partner should begin with a loving eye gaze. Avoidant, receive the gaze until you start to feel uncomfortable. Then look away, or take some space. The next time you try this, see if you can stay for 30 seconds longer. Build up your tolerance and your trust in the connection. You partner is there for you and it’s OK for you to have needs.