Amanda is dating someone new- Todd. They hit it off on their first date with common interests, hobbies and great attraction and chemistry. Over the next few weeks, the more time they spent with each other, the more Amanda became anxious about where the relationship was going. Todd was very attentive at first, calling every day, seeing her twice a week, but then he seemed to pull away from her. He’d tell her he would talk to her later (which did not help her in feeling secure about what later meant). He would call her but now just once a week. Meanwhile, she panicked and became distracted in the form of thinking about what was happening, wondering if he was seeing someone else, or if she had done something wrong. She found herself reaching out more toward him with texts and pictures of herself, hoping it would rekindle the connection. Instead, he stopped referring to making future plans with her. The calls became more infrequent until finally they stopped. Amanda was heart-broken and confused.
Today, I am going to speak about attachment styles in relationships-the newest proven science on how we attach in our relationship and why.
Building on the pioneer work of John Bowlby’s, psychiatrist and psychologist, Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachael Heller, M.A. have written a book titled Attached. There are other books on the subject as well, or at least a few that I have found on Amazon. I just ordered more and will be referring to those authors, particulary Stan Tatkin, Psychologist.
The new science of attachment rose out of the study of child development and attachment with their parents, primarily mothers. In the age of independence and individuality, it is almost an embarrassement to say that you want or worse, need a relationship to help you feel secure. In our post-modern world (can I go a step further and say post-post-modern world since we are now in the 21st century and it feels doubly post modern?), we use individuality as a shield of maturity.
According to the new science of attachment building a relationship with another- an intimate relationship is based more on how we interact with the other person’s attachment style.
There are three approaches/styles:
Secure-this style is not swayed easily by the external actions of the other person. They are able to see what the other person needs and is able to either give the person more assurance or step back and give the person space. They do not personalize the actions (or inactions) of the other person as a reflection of their own inadequacies or need for security.
Anxious-Imagine the crying child left with a new sitter or dropped off at the church nusery while the parents are attending service. Most likely, this child has an anxious style, needing at a certain age of development assurance and close proximity to the parent. Once the parent gives the child this, they calm down immediately and are happy. An Anxious style approach is wired to need assurance in a consistent way that literally calms them and causes them to be very happy and relaxed in the relationship. The Anxious style has a hard time communicating what their true needs are due to fear of upsetting the other person. They are the ones who walk on egg shells in a relationship.
Avoidant- This style actually craves intimacy as much as the anxious style, but when the closeness comes, they panic internally by feelings of loss of individuality and freedom. They in turn will do the zig-zag dance of being close and then pulling away. This can be confusing for the other partner. Avoidants are not usually aware of how this affects the other person and does not communicate what they are really needing. They will simply leave without an explanation.
Amanda in our story is an anxious style while Todd is an avoidant style. Neither person is wrong in who they are, but if Todd was able to assure Amanda as well as make her aware of his own fear of intimacy, Amanda in turn would feel less threatened by his need for space, and hopefully they would both create a dance of intimacy that helped one another.
Ideally, Levine and Heller state that an Anxious and Avoidant style person does better with a Secure style, because the Secure style will modulate the needs of the other without sacrificing their own. Studies show that Secure styles will usually gravitate toward other Secures, while the Anxious and Avoidant are left seeking each other out.
I don’t know if I agree with them. It hardly seems fair that the two A’s are stuck with each other when this combination is so hard to create a real secure connection for both. But the key solution is also being able to communicate your own needs as well as be empathetic and supportive of the other person’s needs.
I have been in these relationships and brother, it makes all the difference in the world if that other person is actually communicating what they need and caring enough for me to listen to my needs. I am a good communicator. I clearly tell a man what I need. I don’t believe in having him try and second guess it.
I also am dogged (yes, sometimes bull-dogged) about trying to solve the problem I feel is amiss in the relationship. Because I usually team up with the Avoidant style (the online dating sites are full of them), I find myself butting my head against the wall of resistance. The more I try and communicate, the more they withdraw. Avoidants don’t like you holding them to the fire of accountability. They would rather run and hide or drop the relationship altogether than deal with the unpleasantries of it.
I am an anxious style but I believe that I am definitely becoming more of the Secure style (with a lot of inner work on my own and with Mary Hoffman, my therapist). I am the type of person where knowledge gives me understanding of myself. Having just left a relationship with an Avoidant style, I can see how we both triggered each other in this area of attachment. I desired and needed certain kinds of closeness which he gave me in the beginning, but the more I became close, the further he detached. It was hurtful and sometimes felt cruel, but I was able this time to not personlize it so much. I was able to step back and see how he needed space (which was hard for me to not personalize as his leaving me). What he saw as impatience on my part was really a need for consistency and inclusion. I in turn needed to find ways internally to calm my fears and trust he would return. Could there be hope for us?
Only if we both understood and supported each other in the process. Change is hard. But it is also transformative.
I know for me more than half the battle with an opposite attachment style is to stay centered in my own power and not give it so easily to the other. An Avoidant likes the challenge of a person who doesn’t need them. It causes them to crave the person because it feeds into their need for closeness in an inverse way from an Anxious style. The man I was in relationship was with a woman who was a severe Avoidant (he said she was narcissistic). He was engaged to her two years ago, broke it off for obvious good reasons, but returned to her a year ago because, I gather for him, it is tantalizing to try and solve the need for closeness with a person like this. Avoidants/Avoidants do not usually seek each other out, but when they do it is not successful due to…well, being Avoidant! In the movie, The Crown Affair Thomas Crown is told my his therapist that the woman he is currently attracted to is so like him-the Avoidant style. She compares them to two porcupines mating. You get the picture!
In choosing me, he temporarily broke the ongoing style he chooses. Our relationship was an entirely different dynamic. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see how my needs were not pulling on him as much as seeing that this is how I am wired and need assurance in a different way than him. In turn, when he refused to see me shortly after we had been together (we don’t live in the same town or state), I couldn’t see this as anything but him rejecting the potential of a future relationship. I then pulled away from him. I didn’t trust him to be there for me. He didn’t trust that I could give him the space he needed to make a decision (though I would think two states apart is plenty of space!). We were in a stand-off of sorts.
Whatever attachment style you are, you can make it work with another attachment style if you both care deeply about each other and the needs and desires you both have. It is an arrangement of compromises and giving which is what any really good relationship is built on. My favorite Bible verses stated by Christ-“Love covers a multitude of sins.” and “Love casts out fear.”
I believe that if both people in a relationship can love with knowledge and understanding of how the other’s attachment style is, they can cover a multitude of needs and yes, fears. It takes being aware, being present with that person, and being intentional, but it can all be great! I think about how rich my relationship would have been with the man who lived far from me. I don’t see our styles at odds as much as an opportunity to mine each other’s hearts and desires for true and rich intimacy.
From my work, my reading and my experiences, I have come to understand with compassion and love more about who I am and who he is. That is always a good platform for stepping onward.
What style are you? How can you create your own assurances in order to be more balanced in your approach style?
More on this in another blog.