Have you ever found yourself repeating the same unhealthy patterns in all of your relationships, each time hoping for different results? If so, you’re not alone. As habit-driven beings, changing certain self-defeating behaviors can seem virtually impossible at times, no matter how hard we try. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, whether it’s dating the “wrong” person (again and again) or engaging in relationship-sabotaging behaviors, this phenomenon can be best understood when looked at through the lens of Attachment Theory.
Based on the work of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the theory posits that we each have certain attachment styles (the ways in which we relate to others), which develop in childhood and are carried with us into our adult relationships — especially our romantic relationships:
"The primary purpose of the attachment behavioral system is to increase the likelihood that vulnerable individuals survive the perils of childhood. The attachment system was crafted by natural selection to activate when an individual experiences… distress. From an evolutionary standpoint, the system is designed to promote survival by maintaining proximity between [caregivers and children]. From a psychological standpoint, proximity reduces fear, anxiety, and related forms of distress, allowing individuals to engage in other life tasks."
You can think of the attachment system like an autopilot for humans. When it works properly, we can relax and enjoy the ride, knowing we are in good hands should something go wrong. However, when the system fails and we are left to our own devices, the fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we become hypervigilant and anxious, for at any given moment the plane can come crashing down.
When infants are in distress, their natural instinct is to cry out with the hope of receiving comfort from their caregivers. The degree to which those needs are met will shape the style of attachment developed, which then becomes the template onto which we project our future interpersonal attachments. This template consists of two models:
1. A model of significant others: Our caregivers’ responsiveness to our needs in childhood establishes our expectations for significant others in adulthood, and shapes how we relate to the interpersonal world, especially in stressful or threatening situations.
2. A model of the self: As we develop, we keep a record of our success at obtaining sufficient comfort from attachment figures (parents, close friends, romantic partners), which shapes our belief system about the self in relation to others and, ultimately, our belief in our worth as a relationship partner.
Styles of attachment
The trust fall is a common icebreaker, often used in psychotherapy groups and training workshops to promote bonding among members. In this exercise, each of the participants is asked to stand with their eyes closed and allow themselves to fall backward, trusting that the other members will be there to catch them before they hit the ground. If all goes well, fear diminishes with each fall, and eventually, confidence in the other group members will grow.
Knowing that someone has your back — literally, in the preceding example — establishes an assuredness, both in others and within the self. When this sense of security is established in infancy and maintained throughout the developmental stages, it is carried into future relationships, establishing what Bowlby referred to as a secure attachment style.
But what if each time you fell, there was no one there to catch you? In the case of a newborn, with each cry of distress gone unanswered, the internalized message becomes: ‘‘When I am feeling sad, anxious, or fearful, and I cry out, nobody will be there to soothe me; therefore, I must rely solely on myself.” Or, in keeping with the trust-fall analogy, “If I know that nobody will be there to catch me, I must either learn to brace myself as best I can in preparation for the inevitable fall, or simply stop falling altogether.” This style of relating describes avoidant attachment styles. Avoidant-dismissing individuals are uncomfortable with intimacy, so they distance themselves from people and from situations that may threaten their autonomy. Avoidant-fearful individuals desire social contact, but are inhibited by a fear of rejection.
These attachment styles can manifest as fear of commitment and intimacy, as well as avoidance of dependency. Having learned to rely solely on themselves, these individuals are able to disengage emotionally by suppressing negative thoughts and emotions, which allows them to reestablish independence and personal control. This process works for them in the short run, as it permits some contact with their partners, but at a safe distance and on their terms. The problem is that this behavior often shuts their partners down, which they then interpret as rejection, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Children of inconsistent, unresponsive, or rejecting caretakers develop anxious attachment styles and are often flooded with the fear of being abandoned. In times of distress, they become hypervigilant to any sign — real or imagined — that their romantic partner may be pulling away. Desperate to feel more secure, they try to get closer to their partner through constant reassurance-seeking and other insecure behaviors that end up driving their partners away, thus confirming their worst fears and further diminishing their already shaky sense of self-worth.
Anxious-preoccupied individuals are characterized by high anxiety and low avoidance. They usually have low self-worth and a strong need to be accepted. Anxious-avoidant individuals, on the other hand, are just as desperate for closeness yet at the same time, they fear it, so rather than appear clingy, they behave in ways that can be mistaken for rejection.
Are we doomed to repeat old patterns?
Fortunately, attachment styles are not black or white; rather, they fall on a continuum and are circumstance-dependent. Highly avoidant people aren’t always distant or withdrawn in their romantic relationships, and highly anxious people aren’t always clingy or demanding in theirs. Rather, these stereotypical behaviors or vulnerabilities emerge primarily when significant stressors arise.
So, rest assured that we are not doomed to keep repeating the same negative relational patterns we may have learned in infancy. This is especially true when new experiences strongly contradict them; for example, when we are in committed relationships. According to studies, when commitment is established, anxious individuals are less likely to react in insecure ways, as commitment among partners appears to buffer highly anxious and highly avoidant people from acting out negative patterns.
Another way to break unhealthy relational patterns is by being paired with a securely attached romantic partner. Such partners are able to buffer or emotionally regulate attachment-related concerns. This helps insecure partners experience less distress, which in turn enables them to behave more constructively.
Regardless of relationship status or the type of partner you are involved with, it’s still possible for those with insecure attachment styles to make positive changes. Working with a therapist who is well versed in attachment theory can help you identify the ways in which your attachment style may be negatively affecting your relationships. Doing this type of work is an effective way to begin the journey toward change. It could be the key to more secure and loving relationships — both with significant others and with yourself.
To learn more about your attachment style or your partner’s, click here.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28(5):759-775
Kidd T., Hamer M., & Steptoe A. (2011). Examining the association between adult attachment style and cortisol responses to acute stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology , Volume 36 , Issue 6 , 771 - 779