Have you ever walked through your home when it's pitch black and stumbled over something? Most likely, you would have stepped over that shoe or walked around that box if the lights were on. But they weren't. The same thing happens for us psychologically; we trip over the things we cannot see. And, what's worse, we often don't know how to turn on the light, so we keep tripping.
One of the invisible obstacles that we don't see is our style of relating to others. It can create conflict, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and a host of other kinds of distress. We begin learning right from birth how to relate to people. As infants, we respond to the expressions we see in our parents' eyes. Particularly through the early years of childhood, we form our understanding of who we are and how others will respond to us. Our style of attachment to our parents (particularly our mothers) becomes how we connect to others through our lives.
One way to think about attachment styles is based on the work of Kim Bartholomew and involves people's levels of avoidance and anxiety. People can range from low to high on each of these. This lays out four basic styles of attachment:
Secure attachment (low avoidance, low anxiety): If you relate positively to others and yourself, you probably have a secure attachment style. Securely attached people are generally happy in their relationships, feeling that they and others are sensitive and responsive to each other. They sense that connection can provide comfort and relief in times of need. They also feel that they are good, loved, accepted, and competent people.
Preoccupied attachment (low avoidance, high anxiety): If you are always worried about what others think of you and don't really factor in your thoughts and feelings, this style of attachment most likely fits you. People with a preoccupied attachment style feel a powerful need to be close to others, and they show this by clinging. They need a lot of validation and approval. They are concerned that others don't value them, and they also doubt their own worth in relationships. So, they often worry a lot about their relationships.
Dismissing-avoidant style (high avoidance, low anxiety): Although the need for connection is biologically wired in people, those with this style of attachment deny it. They like to see themselves as independent and self-sufficient; and they minimize the importance of relationships. To keep their relationships unimportant, they suppress or hide their feelings. They also often think of other people less positively than they think of themselves. When faced with rejection, they cope with it by distancing themselves.
Fearful-avoidant style (high avoidance, high anxiety): People with this style of attachment tend to think of themselves as flawed, dependent, and helpless. And, they think they aren't worthy of loving or caring responses from their partners. As a result, they don't trust that others see them positively, and they expect to get hurt. So, although they want to be close to others, they also fear it. Understandably, they often avoid intimacy and suppress their feelings.
In thinking about personal connections in this way, you can naturally see how people often get in their own way of developing healthy relationships. Their established ways of viewing themselves and others are like invisible obstacles that trip them up. Although they know that their relationships are less than fulfilling, they fail to see that their attachment style is the problem—that it prevents them from moving freely toward the close connection they need.
Recognizing your style or pattern of relating, switches on the light, allowing you to see how you help or hinder your relationships. You can also decide to be different—or at least decide to work on changing your approach and step around that no-longer-invisible obstacle.
I am a clinical psychologist in private practice and on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. I also write a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and am the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community; to be notified about my new posts, click here.