Attachment

How Your Attachment Style Colors Your World

Early childhood experiences and the making of "mental models"

Posted Feb 13, 2020

Photograph by Sharon McCutcheon. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Sharon McCutcheon. Copyright free. Unsplash

Attachment theory provides us with a specific lens to see the effects of childhood treatment on our development, specifically on what are called our “mental models” of relationships, as well as our ability to manage emotions. For most of us laypeople, the words “mental model” may seem very abstract but the truth is that the way they function is more literal than not. These are unconscious assumptions about people and relationships which are first learned in childhood and which may never even be consciously articulated; they have the power, nonetheless, to inform our thinking, our behaviors, and our thoughts long into adulthood.

The secure attachment style

The child who is reliably supported, whose primary caretaker responds easily and consistently to his or her cues, who learns about comfort when stressed, and is taught to manage her or his emotions tend to develop a secure style of attachment. This child’s working models of relationship are positive, and the emerging vision of the world of relationship is one in which people can be trusted and depended on, and be seen as sources of joy and caring. This secure base allows the child to develop into an individual who seeks out emotional connection, has a strong sense of self, and is capable of dealing with negative emotions. This isn’t to say that the adult with a secure attachment won’t experience heartbreak or pain, of course, but it does mean that he or she has the coping mechanisms to deal.

The face of insecurity

And then there are those who grow up not having their emotional needs met, or met unreliably and inconsistently, each of which can yield a different style of insecure attachment in contrast to the secure attachment already described.

Anxious-preoccupied

The first is anxious-preoccupied, which is associated with inconsistent attention and attunement. People with this kind of attachment style may have mothers who sometimes show up and sometimes don’t, sometimes listen and sometimes ignore them. As adults, these individuals may be highly driven to get validation and support but, at the same time, be super-sensitive to slights and rejection. This makes them emotionally very volatile because when they sense rejection, they strike back. Their vision of the world is highly colored as a result, and they’re likely to misread cues and over-react under many different circumstances and in all manner of relationships.

What are the mental models that affect this style of attachment?

  • Assuming that you must always be watchful because relationships aren’t stable
  • Never completely trusting anyone’s motives or statements
  • Needing constant validation and reassurance from friends and romantic partners
  • Believing that you are never safe, no matter what

And then there are adults whose emotional needs weren’t met ever, or who were actively marginalized or ignored. They can develop an avoidant style of which there are two types, which are actually quite different.

Dismissive-avoidant

The first is the dismissive-avoidant; people with this style of attachment often have a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of others. They pride themselves on being more independent than other people and are more comfortable with superficial relationships than ones which involve real intimacy. This isn’t to say that they don’t like being in relationships; they do, but only on their terms and if they can call the shots. They don’t worry about their relationships too much, and they are quick to rebound when a relationship ends.

What are the mental models that affect this style of attachment?

  • Believing that emotional needs are a sign of weakness in yourself and others
  • Dealing with negative emotions by pushing off from them or exiting the situation
  • Disdain for others and reduced empathy or lack of it
  • Disconnection from those you are supposed to be close to
  • Disinclination to pay attention to other people’s cues or to plumb other’s motivations

Fearful-avoidant

Second up is the fearful-avoidant adult. While this person may have been deprived of love and attention and support in childhood, that did nothing to abate her or his need, unlike the dismissive-avoidant. If the dismissive-avoidant seems cool as a cucumber on the surface, while hiding shame and other feelings below, the fearful-avoidant is in a very different place. He or she often has a low opinion of self but a high opinion of others; this adult is always waiting for someone to finally pay attention. In some ways, this is the worst of all possible worlds because this adult really wants connection but he or she is always fearful of rejection, and holds back in situations that could yield real results.

What are the mental models that affect this style of attachment?

  • A desire for relationship along with a paralyzing fear that it will result in emotional pain
  • Extreme ambivalence in a relationship and a pattern of getting close and moving away
  • Behaviors that are triggered by emotional overload and appear impulsive

What research shows

There are many studies and papers, and I will just mention a few. One fascinating paper examined infidelity and its relationship to attachment style across eight separate studies. The researchers discovered that the propensity to cheat was marked among those with a dismissive-avoidant style, and they isolated a number of reasons. Most people are motivated by a desire for intimacy and closeness with a partner which tends to put the brakes on cheating and keeps many of us from acting on our impulses. But the dismissive-avoidant isn’t looking for proximity or commitment, and infidelity effectively kills two birds with one stone, providing the needed distance from the current partner and underscoring his or her free agency. Importantly, the researchers made a point of writing that “our findings do not suggest that avoidantly attached people are at risk for engaging in infidelity out a desire to harm their partner.” Of course, if you’re the person being cheated on, this distinction may be moot.

Another study, this one conducted by Irish researchers, not surprisingly found that people with a secure attachment style were more satisfied in their relationships than their avoidant counterparts, with fearful-avoidants being the least satisfied. That said, they were surprised by how many dismissive-avoidants were actually involved in relationships; they suggested that perhaps they were drawn to partners who had the same attachment style or perhaps remained independent despite the apparent trappings of the relationship.

In broad terms, insecure attachment styles are associated with a host of mental issues and disorders.

Insecure attachment and narcissism

Yes, narcissism is the little black dress of pop psychology but there actually are connections to styles of attachment. Not surprisingly, securely attached people tend to land in the middle of the narcissistic spectrum with healthy self-regard along with emotional management skills. (For more on how there’s healthy narcissism and a spectrum, see Craig Malkin’s book Rethinking Narcissism.)

It won’t surprise you that the dismissive-avoidant style is the one usually associated with the grandiose kind of narcissism—yes, the person who projects all kinds of confidence, is good at snowing you, knows the moves to flash and wow. And who has a high opinion of her or himself and a low opinion of others, and all of the above. Not everyone who is dismissive-avoidant is high in narcissistic traits but the grandiose narcissists which form our stereotype often are. (There is, by the way, some disagreement. A paper by Joshua D. Miller and others took a different position, finding that insecure attachment wasn’t positively associated with grandiose narcissism at all.)

But being high in narcissistic traits doesn’t always present as the grandiose, flash-and-dance type; there’s also the introverted narcissist, the term Malkin prefers, which is also known as “covert,” “vulnerable,” or “hypersensitive” in the literature. As Malkin writes, introverted narcissists are “just as convinced that they are better than others as any other narcissist, but they fear criticism so viscerally that they shy away from, and even seem panicked by, people and attention.” This may seem initially confusing since those lacking in healthy self-regard—those labeled “echoists" by Malkin—also tend to duck under the radar, but the introverted narcissist is different. Which style of insecure attachment is likely to be displayed by the introverted narcissist? Different studies yield different results; one identifies the anxious-preoccupied style, another the fearful-avoidant.

Of course, not everyone who is insecurely attached will be high in narcissistic traits—in fact, as mentioned, some will lack enough healthy self-regard that they will exhibit echoism—but looking at attachment styles allows us to peer beneath the surface of both the grandiose and introverted types.

How you can become consciously aware of your attachment style

Part of recovery from a childhood in which your needs weren’t met is coming to terms with not just how your parent or parents behaved but, much more importantly, seeing how you may have been affected. We make a mistake in thinking that the way we act is just who we were born to be. What is learned can be unlearned, and that includes how you connect to others and the assumptions you make about people and the world of relationship.

If your behaviors and reactivity aren’t working for you, you can do something about them. Therapy with someone gifted is the best answer, but you can also help yourself.

This post is largely drawn from the interviews and research done for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Copyright© 2020 by Peg Streep.

References

De Wall, Nathan C, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Erica Slotter, et al. “So Far Away from One’s Partner, Yet So Close to Romantic Alternatives: Avoidant Attachment, Interest in Alternatives, and Infidelity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, vol.101(6), pp. 1302-1316.

Gleeson, Gwen and Amanda Fitzgerald,” Exploring the Association between Adult Attachment Style in Romantic Relationships, Perceptions of Parents from Childhood, and Relationship Satisfaction,” Health, 2014, 6, pp. 1643-1661.

Mikulincer, Mario and Philip Shaver, “ An Attachment Perspective on Psychopathology,” World Psychiatry, 2012, vol.11 (11), pp.11-15.

Miller, Joshua D., Brian J. Hoffman, ric T. Gaughan et.  al.,” Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism: A Nomological Network Analysis, “ Journal of Personality (2011),vol.79 (5), pp.1013-1042.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.