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Attachment Styles and Disorders

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Adult attachment theory includes patterns of emotional attraction, as well as immature emotions or age regression, joining them into a systematic overview of several most common approaches to love relationships. The basic idea is that the way parents treat a small child greatly influences the way the child (and later the adult) perceives emotional intimacy, and what they learn to expect from close relationships.

The theory itself is not something new - I've already written a lot on the topic of immature parents and how they influence their children's adult relationships - but this kind of systemic approach brings another level of insight.

There are 4 basic attachment styles, and 3 of them can turn into attachment disorders if emotions are strong enough (especially if combined with low-quality life values):

Secure style

Most sources I found dedicated only a few sentences to the secure attachment style, probably presuming that it's self-explanatory (an interesting idea, said one of my clients). So here is my perspective of the secure style:

  • People with secure attachment style are relaxed about emotional intimacy and perceive it as promising and pleasant, rather than threatening. They naturally expect intimacy to be based on good intentions and mutuality, and to have nothing to do with manipulation and control.

  • They perceive themselves as worthy of love, so they are not likely to have intense fear of abandonment. They feel that, even if they were abandoned, their self-image is not dependent of somebody else's choices. That's why they are generally not needy or codependent.

  • They perceive their partners as unique human beings, rather than through various prejudice, projections and transference.

  • They are able to find balance between their own and their partner's needs, between giving and receiving.

  • They are willing to see both perspectives in a conflict, and to adjust their own if necessary.

  • They perceive the possibility of being hurt or disappointed in a relationship as an acceptable risk, because they are not afraid that a breakup would damage their relationship with themselves. In case of a breakup, they grieve, but they are able to support themselves emotionally through the process of grieving.

  • Emotional vulnerability within a relationship can be mildly uncomfortable, but not frightening.

  • They are able to distinguish between adult and immature emotions and behaviors, whether their own or other people's.

  • They have a certain amount of understanding and tolerance for their partners' small faults, unintentional lapses and mistakes, because they don't take them personally and they presume good intentions. However, they are able to set boundaries or end a relationship, if they decide it's not healthy or they don't share important life values with their partners.

In short, people with secure attachment style have a positive attitude toward emotional intimacy, they are relaxed in giving and receiving love, but they also retain their own identity. If they feel their boundaries are threatened, they try to find balance and discuss the problem respectfully. They don't feel a need to control their partners, but they seek cooperation.

Such people usually had fairly healthy relationships with parents, at least in the first few years of their lives - meaning, parents were able to recognize and respond to the baby's needs. Even if later in their childhoods the relationship with parents worsened, or parents used some unhealthy child-rearing strategies, the early experience of safe closeness stays imprinted in their subconscious minds.

Of course, these categories are never simple and "clean", there is no clear boundary between them, so people with primary secure attachment style can express aspects of other attachment styles, too, depending of specific influences in their early environments, and of the behavior of their current partners. For example, in a relationship with a person with an anxious attachment style, who infringes on their boundaries too much, they might start showing some behaviors more typical for the dismissive-avoidant style.

All other attachment styles include some (conscious or unconscious) unpleasant expectations of emotional intimacy, as well as more or less need for control over one's partner. Such people often develop certain compensatory roles and games (or learn them from their parents), which reduces their authenticity in communication. This often creates circumstances in which the negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can create a vicious circle of disappointment. In worse cases, such attitudes become attachment disorders, not just mildly problematic habits.

The core cause of insecure attachment styles, and especially attachment disorders, are inadequate responses of parents to a child's needs. This includes not only neglect and violence, but also intrusiveness and unhealthy bonding, such as emotional incest or too much control over a child. People with avoidant attachment styles in particular are not only not likely to have received adequate support and care, but they often had to support their own parents in some ways, sacrificing themselves in the process.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment style

If you hear of somebody referred to as a "doormat", they probably have the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. These people tend to value a love relationship over most other life values, sometimes even over their own identity, even when a relationship is toxic. To keep a relationship, they can often disregard their own boundaries doing what is expected of them - or what they think is expected of them. They need continuous reassurance that they are accepted and worthy of love.

People with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style are very sensitive to even small changes in a partner's mood and behavior. They can easily overreact to such signals, finding in them proofs that their partners don't love them enough or are not pleased with them. Trying to avoid insecurity and to assuage their fears of losing a relationship, they can make continuous, sometimes excessive requests that their partners reaffirm their love for them. This, combined with their need to please, might make their partners feel that their boundaries are under attack. Or, such people can allow their partners to control and manipulate them.

In a more extreme version, they can play a victim role, using manipulation, passive aggression and emotional blackmail. In an even worse extreme, they can become pathologically jealous.

You can easily guess such a person has probably been neglected by their parents, or - perhaps even worse - their parents were unpredictable and inconsistent. Such a child feels that no matter how hard they try, it's never enough. To protect themselves from the feeling they cannot rely on their parents, they take the blame upon themselves (unconsciously, of course) and their self-image becomes very negative. Their innate temperament is usually quite empathetic and cooperative.

In a relationship, they have a strong unconscious need to reaffirm their worth, resolve suppressed painful emotions, and gain (earn?) the approval they didn't receive from their parents. Usually, it's one of the avoidant types that provides such a challenge and "helps" them reenact the atmosphere from their childhoods. This can end up in toxic and painful codependency. Even if they are abused, their emotional needs from childhood might keep them in a relationship for a long time.

Anxious-avoidant attachment style

Anxious-avoidant attachment style is defined by an ongoing internal conflict: similar emotional needs, fears and low self-esteem as the anxious-preoccupied style on one hand, and fear of vulnerability and intimacy (often disguised as anger) on the other hand. In short, this is quite a tumultuous hybrid between the anxious-preoccupied style above and the dismissive-avoidant style below. A relationship with such a person can be particularly turbulent (and some people are attracted to such turbulence).

Just like with other types of chronic internal conflict, as soon as one side of the conflict is assuaged, the other builds up. In this case, as soon as the need for closeness is somewhat fulfilled, the need to sabotage the relationship to avoid intimacy takes over, and the other way around. Such people often "make mountains out of molehills", create unpleasant scenarios in their heads and then act as if they were true. Their fears of disappointment or being abused prevent them from calming down and seeing other possibilities. They might oscillate between blaming and demeaning themselves, then their partners, and so on in cycles.

Their early family relationships were usually full of various types of neglect and/or abuse. The child probably experienced ongoing disappointment, hurt and abandonment (physical or emotional). Similarly like with the previous type, unstable and unpredictable parents can be particularly detrimental, making children feel that they can never relax and feel safe. Again, this type of person has a great need for external approval and proofs of love, but few if any such proofs have a lasting effect because of the deeply ingrained negative self-image.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment style

Early family environment was also unhealthy, but in such a way that a child created an unconscious perception of intimacy as dangerous, suffocating and a threat to one's own identity and freedom. Such people have as children unconsciously chosen the other extreme compared to the anxious-preoccupied style: they decided they don't need close relationships, they are emotionally independent, and intimacy should be avoided. The innate temperament of these type of people often leans more toward the instinct for power, especially compared to the anxious-preoccupied attachment style (although this is hardly the most important factor), and often they follow a family role model of similar behavior.

As a support (or the cause) of the decision to avoid intimacy, this type of people usually develop a scornful, critical attitude toward people who they perceive as a threat to their emotional detachment and autonomy, i.e. their (potential) partners. They mistrust others and expect bad intentions from others. They feel a need to protect themselves from pain and disappointment by avoiding and dismissing emotions in general, so they can become very logical at the expense of their emotional intelligence and maturity. They keep their guard up, guided by the idea, "I'll abandon you before you abandon me".

This doesn't necessarily mean the dismissive-avoidant type avoids romance, especially if their libido is high, but they will find ways to keep their partners at a distance, not only externally, but also within their own minds. In milder cases, there can be a more or less subtle need to (mentally) criticize the partner, avoiding clarifying emotions, unreliability, discomfort with giving and receiving emotional (or other) support; they might be workoholic or use various other activities that decrease the chance for spending intimate time together. In more difficult cases, this can manifest as "blowing hot and cold", promiscuity or verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse.

This type of people like to have power and control over their partners (and sometimes other people, too), because otherwise they are afraid of being controlled by others. That's why they often choose partners with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. To control their partners, they can use various forms of manipulations, including trying to decrease their partners' self-esteem.

In a milder version, people with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style can be fairly warm and emotional inside, even shy and quiet, but they might encounter unexpected and unwanted emotional blocks when faced with a chance for emotional intimacy with someone. Such blocks can manifest in subtle ways, such as overly high criteria when choosing partners, suspiciousness and questioning the future of a promising relationship, overreacting to a partner's faults, unrealistic fears, falling in love with unavailable people and/or fantasizing about an ideal "soulmate" partner (sometimes that includes idealizing a love interest from their past).

To avoid unwanted contact with unpleasant family members, these people often quite early develop a cold, "closed" facial expression and body language. When they grow up, they might not even be aware of this, and might be confused why other people avoid close contact with them, while their partners complain about their emotional unavailability.

Just like other attachment styles/disorders, it's important to understand that all these defenses were developed as survival strategies, and do not represent true identity and true emotional needs of these people. A person with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style might suffer just as much as anybody else after losing a relationship - sometimes more, as they might don't have a network of friends for emotional support - but they will often suppress and deny their suffering, and dismiss their own emotional needs.

Part 2: attachment disorders in parenthood & how to change an attachment style

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung

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