Have you ever wondered what makes you attracted to a specific type of person? Or why you think and act a certain way in your relationships?
Scientific research has repeatedly shown how both genes and environmental factors , such as life experiences, make us who we are. Naturally, the question that comes next is which of these two has the largest impact on our personality? And the answer to that is...It depends. It depends on the personality trait we are looking at or on the quality and quantity of the environmental inputs we experienced throughout our childhood development (perhaps not the answer you were hoping for).
BUT, one thing we do know for certain is that it is during our first 2 years of life that we begin to create key core beliefs about ourselves and others and that we develop our unique ways of thinking and behaving. In specific, the relationship we experience with our mother (or primary caregiver) during that time is what most influences the development of those beliefs.
A mother is usually the first person a child creates a connection with, and so it’s through this very first experience that individuals learn how to interact and behave with others. Depending on the mother’s behavior towards their child and therefore on the nature of their interactions, individuals develop different attachment styles.
WHAT ATTACHMENT STYLE AM I?
There are 3 main different attachment styles one can develop: a secure attachment, an anxious attachment, and an avoidant attachment. Let’s dive deeper...
The Secure Attachment Style
“ I am worthy of love just like everyone else. I generally trust people and enjoy creating meaningful connections with them. When in a romantic relationship I tend to trust my partner and respect their space. I don’t put up with rude or disrespectful behaviors because I know I deserve much better’’.
A secure attachment is developed when a mother is able to portray consistent feelings of safeness, love and caring to their child. As the mother is loving, understanding and giving the child a consistent amount of care and attention, this one internalizes 2 core beliefs:
I am worthy of love.
The world is a safe place to explore - it’s ok to get close to people.
When perceiving their mother to be consistently caring and affectionate, a child is able to form a positive view of themselves and can therefore develop a healthy self-esteem. This positive view of themselves coupled with their optimistic attitude towards others ( as the mother is perceived as trustworthy) allows them to connect with others in a meaningful way and to build fulfilling relationships. As their needs are met during childhood these individuals tend to engage in relationships with people who can see and fulfill these needs.
THE ANXIOS TYPE
‘Sometimes I feel worthy of love, others I don’t. I long for deep connections and frequently engage in romantic relationships where I am often overwhelmed by feelings of jealousy and insecurity. I enjoy sharing everything with my partner and I find it hard to ‘separate’ from them. I am usually attracted to people who are incapable of fulfilling my needs and even after realizing this, I stay with them. I guess because part of me thinks I don’t really deserve more’’.
An ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT is developed when a mother’s behaviors towards their child is ambivalent and inconsistent shifting between warmly caring and coldly dismissive. As a consequence of such inconsistency the child goes from feeling safe and worthy of love to feel abandoned and confused. Unaware of the reasons behind their mother’s shift in behaviors, the child’s only way to make sense of this is to ‘blame’ themselves - They therefore begin to think that when their mother is not loving is because they did something bad or there is something fundamentally wrong with them. As a consequence of this belief these individuals tend to have a rather confused view of the self and, as such, constantly need other’s approval to feel good about themselves - their self-esteem tend to be low and unstable.
What effect does this have on their relationships?
If the only way to feel worthy is through other’s approval then our self-esteem becomes dependent on those we are in a relationship with, particularly on our romantic partner. People with this attachment style long for love, affection and approval more than anyone else - since they couldn’t get all their needs met from their mother, they are constantly in the search for someone who will fulfill those needs, and when this doesn’t happen they become overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. As an attempt to get rid of these negative feelings they desperately look for more reassurance through erratic and clingy behaviors leading their partner to feel oppressed hence pushing them away. This leads the anxious attached individual to engage in a negative cycle where they shift between feeling unworthy of love and angry with their partner for not giving them what they need. The main issue here is that, even when their romantic other is apparently able to fulfill these needs, that anxiety of being left and sense of unworthiness comes back at the slightest change in the partner’s behavior making it very hard for people with this attachment type to create happy and functional relationships.
THE AVOIDANT TYPE
‘I am worthy of love (although unconsciously I often feel the opposite way). I am fully independent, I can take care of everything myself and I never really ask for or need people’s help. I am not too comfortable getting close to people and it takes me a long time to trust someone...if I can ever really trust them! In my romantic relationship I often feel the need to distance myself and I need a lot of space. Everyone should be able to take care of themselves anyways, that’s life! I do tend to be attracted to people who are warm, caring, and that don’t mind putting my needs before theirs.’
The Avoidant Attachment is developed when a mother is dismissive and neglecting of her child, leaving even some of their primary needs unmet. Here the child never fully experiences what it means to be loved and cared for and they develop the following beliefs:
I am unworthy of love
People are not trustworthy so I can only rely on myself
Similarly to the anxious type, the avoidant one grows to believe they are unlovable, but whereas the former experiences, although inconsistently, love and care, the avoidant type never had the chance to understand what it feels to be loved unconditionally. As they learn to rely solely on themselves, they tend to disregard other’s opinions and base their self-worth on their own judgment - that’s how they are able to develop a relatively high self-esteem. They surely had no other choice to survive, it would be too painful to accept their mother’s apparent view on them. Unconditional love is an unknown feeling, therefore how can they understand it and be able to give it? Plus, people are not to be trusted, remember?
What effect does this have on relationships?
These individuals find it particularly hard to both trust and commit to someone, and as such, they tend to avoid emotional attachments altogether. Mother has indirectly ‘thought’ them that, firstly, people are fundamentally selfish and incapable of love (so why look for it?), secondly, that the only way to survive is to be fully independent both emotionally and from a practical point of view. But...is it possible to be in a long-term romantic relationship without being at least slightly emotionally dependent on our partner? The answer is no. Relationships, by default, involve 2 people who care for each other and, when you care for someone, whatever happens to or with this person has an impact on ourselves. Relationship equals vulnerability, and the avoidant type’s biggest fear is to feel and being seen as vulnerable, hence they avoid emotional pain at any cost, either by avoiding relationships or by getting involved in relationships that don’t require them to invest much emotionally or by distancing themselves every time they feel their partner is getting too close.
What the anxious and the avoidant type have in common...
Since they share a mistrust in others, and as such a deep seated fear of being hurt, neither the anxious nor the avoidant type really knows how to do ‘healthy relationships’.
While the first one needs constant reassurance and gets anxious at the slightest perceived sign of ‘abandonment’, the avoidant type avoids emotional attachment altogether and/or immediately distances themselves when feeling ‘too close’ to someone.
2. Deep down both types feel unworthy of love and are scared of being hurt.
3. They both engage in dysfunctional self-defense mechanisms.
In their attempt of gaining external reassurance, the anxious type goes from acting needy to distancing themselves to then acting needy again engaging in a never ending cycle of anxiety and self-doubt. The avoidant type, on the other hand, by avoiding any kind of deeper connections and emotional attachment can never develop real loving and fulfilling relationships - this creates an emotional void which is never really filled.
Can I Change My Attachment Style?
Please don’t panic! Although most research shows how, attachment styles tend to stay the same throughout our life, it has also been shown that, with the right professional support and coaching/therapy techniques we CAN change this style and acquire the ability to create healthy constructive relationships.
What Can I do?
What really needs to happen here is a change of core beliefs about oneself, and most importantly, within oneself. However, this can only happen when the person becomes aware of their attachment dynamics and when and if they are willing to:
Accept this awareness as in accepting who they are and what is causing them to suffer
Re-evaluate their core beliefs and develop new constructive thinking and behavioral patterns.
Things To Keep In Mind
What ultimately determines our attachment style is the thinking and behavioral patterns we most frequently engage in. Depending on the context, we can all act in ways that resemble diverse styles.
Attachment is measured on a scale from 0 to 10, the higher the score the stronger the ‘influence’ of the attachment style on our behaviors (ex: someone with a low avoidant attachment is more likely to get close to others emotionally than someone with a high avoidant attachment).
It’s important to remember that our parents did the best they could with the tools they had. This is not about blaming others or building resentment, it’s about understanding why we act as we do so we can leverage that knowledge to create positive changes in our life.