Attachment

You Can Change Your Attachment Style

You can enjoy a secure attachment style, even if you were anxious or avoidant

Posted May 08, 2015

Arjun Mujay/Naturepictures
Source: Arjun Mujay/Naturepictures

If you have a secure attachment style, you expect to be loved. You trust that your partner will care about your needs. If this sounds like an impossible dream, you may be in the approximately 50% of the population who has either an anxious or an avoidant attachment style. But there’s hope aplenty, according to the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. It shows how you can feel secure by acting secure. The steps it suggests are so intuitive that I dearly wish I had read this book in my youth. 

The anxious attachment style leaves a person constantly worried that a partner will not return their love. The avoidant attachment style leaves a person convinced they are better off distancing from a partner except for the idealized person they imagine in their past or future. Approximately one quarter of the population fits each of these patterns.

Gloglover101/Glogster
Source: Gloglover101/Glogster

Adult attachment builds on early experience with social bonds. Data connecting infant attachment to adult behavior are weak, say researchers. But videos of mother-infant interactions suggest the powerful force of early experience. It’s easy to see how a young brain builds expectations about social interactions. One brain learns to expect others to meet its needs, while another brain wires itself to expect frustration.

The good news is that secure people create good relationships, even with anxious or avoidant partners. Secure people express their needs directly instead of playing games. They establish a dynamic that helps others feel safe expressing needs and negotiating mutually satisfying solutions. If you have the good fortune to be in a relationship with a secure person right now, it behooves you to value and learn from them. If you are not in a relationship with a secure person, you can build a sense of security on these principles:

author's photo
Source: author's photo

1. Accept that your attachment needs are legitimate - don’t feel bad about your natural urge for interdependence. It’s the stable foundation that enables us to venture out and take risks in the world.

2. Focus on people who make you feel good. If someone doesn’t make you feel good, move on instead of overanalyzing. If someone makes you feel good, accept them instead of overanalyzing.

3. Practice effective communication. Instead of being defensive, speak your truth with the expectation of a positive reaction. In return you must respect your partner’s truth instead of criticizing it, even if it means stopping to calm yourself first.

If it’s so easy, why is it so hard?
If secure attachment is so accessible, why are unhappy relationships so common? A convincing explanation is offered in Attached. People with the avoidant attachment style are over-represented in the dating pool. Avoidant people do not bond with other avoidants because neither provides the glue, and secure people tend to pair off and drop out of the dating pool. The result, alas, is anxious-style partners desperately trying to bond with avoidants. The avoidant gives mixed messages that a secure person would see as red flags, but the anxious type keeps trying to make it work.

Pasieka, Fineartamerica
Source: Pasieka, Fineartamerica

The result is the pursuit-withdrawal dynamic: The anxious person keeps looking for confirmation that their partner will be there, and the avoidant person keeps feeling cornered and withdrawing. This leads to more pursuit, more withdrawal...you know the story. 

Love gets coupled with suffering.

Getting back on track
It’s easy to get sucked in to suffering. It’s heartbreaking to see videos of toddlers whose mothers are hostile, indifferent, or intrusive. It’s hard to find hope when even reputable scholars seem to be saying “all the good ones are taken.”

But you needn't go down that path. Just stay focused to the three simple steps above: 1. My desire for attachment is legitimate. 2. I will invest my energy in people who make me feel good. 3. I will express my needs directly, and respect the needs of others.

Want to know how your brain wires in its social expectations? My book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin makes it clear and simple. We are born fragile and helpless more than any other creature in nature. We depend on others to survive. The first experience in every brain is that sense of having urgent needs that you cannot meet for yourself. Each time your needs are met by others, your brain builds neural pathways that get activated the next time you feel a need. These expectations are not conscious or verbal; they’re real physical connections between neurons. Each time you felt good or bad in your youth, your brain released happy chemicals or unhappy chemicals that helped pave your neural pathways. When you feel a need today, the electricity in your brain zips along the pathways you have. You can build new pathways with focus and perseverance. More at InnerMammalInstitute.org.