Diana Kirschner Ph.D.

Finding True Love

Attachment

Overcoming Attachment Style Fears to Create Lasting Love

Three powerful ways to overcome attachment style fears in dating and love.

Posted Jul 24, 2020

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attachment style in relationships
Source: Ratz Attila/Dreamstime

Joanne, a lovely 56-year old accountant, lived in a lonely, sexless marriage for 10 years. It all ended when she found telltale texts on her husband's phone, which exposed first his emotional cheating and later infidelity. To her credit, Joanne threw herself into her career and spent a decade devoted to building her own accounting practice. 

Although successful, Joanne struggled with loneliness. So she signed up for two different dating sites. But Joanne was terribly disappointed because she could barely make it to even having a date. She had a problematic knee-jerk attachment style that led to her unconsciously sabotaging her love life. We'll check in with Joanne later.

The Four Adult Attachment Styles 

So what is attachment style? It is the way we approach or avoid intimate relationships. Understanding and transcending your own attachment style and being mindful of that of the people you are dating are two critical keys to creating a lasting love relationship. In this post, we'll look at four types of adult attachment styles and then recommend three ways to overcome them in love relationships.

Attachment styles in adulthood are based in large part onchildhood relationships with parents or primary caregivers[1]. Building on Ainsworth's work with children[2], Hazan & Shafer [3] extended the attachment model to adults and their romantic relationships. They identified four types of adult attachment: Anxious Preoccupied, Dismissive Avoidant, Fearful Avoidant, and Secure. While some dispute the relevance of attachment styles, the framework can be useful nonetheless. 

The Anxious Preoccupied Attachment or “I Must Have Intimacy With You!” Style

If your parenting included nurturance mingled intermittently with abandonment, this often leads to an Anxious Preoccupied attachment style. This means that you tend to want and need closeness, and when triggered, run after/move toward your partner, both literally and figuratively.

Anxious Preoccupied people need to be with their beloveds a lot of the time. They constantly need attention and reassurance. They fear rejection or abandonment. They tend to analyze every little thing their beloved says or does, with a fantasy that, if they could just figure him or her out, they could get the safety, bonding, and caring they deeply need. They’re needy, crave affection, and often look to their partner to rescue or complete them.

Although they’re seeking security by clinging to their relationships, Anxious Preoccupied types often push their partners away. This can take the form of anger about not getting enough time or caring. Or whining about a lack of attention or appreciation. Or demanding more time, closeness, and intimacy. Or becoming resentful, sullen, and depressed about feeling neglected. They often feel abandoned when their partner is acting independently or spending time in his or her individual pursuits.

The Dismissive Avoidant Attachment or “I Don’t Need You!” Style

If your parenting included consistent or prolonged abandonment or smothering (helicopter parenting), this can lead to a Dismissive Avoidant attachment style. This means you tend to avoid closeness or intimacy and, when triggered, run away from your partner, both literally and figuratively.

Dismissive Avoidants are distant, non-committal, and act like they don’t have any needs for intimacy or affection. They are super self-sufficient and have a tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. Dismissive Avoidants often come off as focused on themselves and their own needs—for completing their work or satisfying their own need for physical comforts, rather than being interested in their partners. They avoid having meaningful talks or interaction.

Joanne had this particular attachment style, as both her parents were workaholics. By following this inner unconscious template in her marriage, she tended to avoid both physical and emotional intimacy. 

The Anxious Preoccupied-Dismissive Avoidant Combo: Trigger Dance for Two!

Anxious Preoccupied people often date or marry Dismissive Avoidant partners, which can lead to constant triggering of each other.

The Anxious Preoccupied one, often the woman, constantly feels neglected or abandoned because her partner is distant and not sharing of himself or his feelings. She is busy thinking about and analyzing the relationship in order to “fix” it.

The Dismissive Avoidant, on the other hand, feels he is constantly deluged with demands for attention and believes that he can never make his partner happy. So, he retreats even further. And then his partner feels even more abandoned and terrified of loss. So she clings, badgers, and analyzes everything even more. And it escalates as they constantly trigger each other to the point of great unhappiness. Bear this possible outcome in mind when you choose a partner.

The Fearful Avoidant or Fearful Attachment or “I Must Have You, but I Don’t Really Want You!” Style

A third type is Fearful Avoidant Attachment or Fearful Attachment style. This often results from parenting that involved abuse, violence, and/or an out-of-control or chaotic family life. Traumatic childhood experiences create annihilation fears—a sense that there is danger in being attached.  And the resultant style is an oscillation between being anxiously needy and strongly avoidant. Fearful people have both types of fears.

A person with a fearful attachment tends to live in an ambivalent state — they find it hard to tolerate being close, but cannot stand being distant from their partners. They tend to be unpredictable and full of drama with many highs and lows. Fearful types feel they need to analyze, pursue, and cling to their beloveds to get their needs for met, but when they do achieve some period of intimacy, they often feel trapped and terrified and may then pull away. They have no internalized model or healthy strategy for lasting love. A person with fearful attachment may wind up in abusive relationships.  

The Secure Attachment Style

Good parenting with steady nurturance and ongoing support and encouragement in childhood leads to a Secure Attachment style. Securely attached adults tend to have healthier relationships. Children with a secure attachment see their parent as a safe nurturing base that supports them — that allows them to go out and be independent and explore new experiences. A secure adult has a similar relationship with his or her beloved.  Both feel secure and connected, while each of them can move freely and actualize their dreams.

Secure adults are available, and consistently reliable, as well as caring and encouraging in love relationships. They offer support, comfort, and inspiration when their partners face obstacles or are upset. They, themselves also go to their partners for comfort, support, and help when they have troubles. Their relationships tend to be honest, open, unambivalent, and healthy.

A secure adult who is partnered with someone with a more challenging attachment style can often help their partner to develop the ability to have a more secure and steady sense of attachment.  

Successful Dating: Mr. or Ms. Secure Is Who You Are Looking For!  

When dating, it is much easier to establish a healthy, secure relationship with a match who has a Secure Attachment Style.  Also, a secure match has healthy self-reflection and is willing to evolve and work on themselves in the service of a great relationship.  He or she will hang in there, have straight honest conversations, and work things out. In addition, a great match meets the basics, because there is intellectual, emotional, physical, and socioeconomic compatibility, as well as some chemistry.  

How Joanne Overcame Her Self-Sabotaging Attachment Style

Joanne finally admitted defeat and asked for help from one of my coaches. Initially, she learned that she unconsciously had developed a dismissive-avoidant style and that her choice of love interests had been influenced by that. She admitted that she really wasn't a cold person but rather a fearful one. Joanne expected to be rejected and abandoned.

Her coach pointed out that even her online dating photo and profile reflected her avoidant style. For example, Joanne did not dress to show off how attractive she truly was. Her photo, which is so key in drawing in matches, was a plain vanilla shot of her in an ill-fitting gray top, where she was not even looking into the camera. As a result, Joanne got very few nibbles from men. And when she did, Joanne was terse and brief in her responses and not forthcoming about her feelings, wants, and needs. Needless to say, she had gotten nowhere with online dating.

Over the course of a year, all of those externals changed but the internal work was even more effective in Joanne's transformation. She is now happily remarried.

References

[1] Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

[2]  Ainsworth, M. D. & Bell, S. M. (1970), Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41:49-67

[3] Hazan & Shafer, op. cit.