What your attachment style says about you - and how it's impacting your relationship

What your attachment style says about you - and how it's impacting your relationship.
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When it comes to romantic relationships it's easy to feel mystified by your partner's behaviour.

Why am I always the one to initiate connection? Why don't I feel emotionally supported? Why do I feel suffocated?

These questions are delved into in the latest episode of Are You Mental?, a podcast that explores mental health issues, what might cause them and what they're like to live with.

It's hosted by counsellor Mick Andrews and in the latest episode he spoke to radio producer and master of psychology student Grace McArthur about one of her main areas of interest - attachment styles.

Together they discussed what attachment styles say about people and what they reveal about how we relate to our partners.

Which attachment style am I?

There are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant.

It's not always clear straight away which one you lean towards, so McArthur recommends taking a free online quiz if the below descriptions don't help you work it out.

  • Secure attachment

This is characterised by low anxiety and low avoidance. McArthur said this is basically the goal.

These people view themselves as worthy of love and belonging, and view others as generally accepting and responsive to their needs - so they're not worried about being rejected that much.

They're confident in themselves, they don't count themselves out; they are open to being vulnerable and honest and expressing their needs to their partner.

They're capable of being relied on and able to say: "I don't have the capacity for that right now" or "I can't help you with that, but I want to help you".

  • Anxious attachment

This is characterised by having a low view of oneself and a high view of others, McArthur said.

These people over-emphasise the need for safety and intimacy. Their default assumption is that they will be rejected, so they need a lot of reassurance and are often seeking affirmation. 

They can get quite wrapped up in worries about the relationship, so they're often hyper-focused on maintaining a close connection with their partner, or trying to understand what the partner is feeling.

Basically, they're always wanting to make sure they are safe.

  • Avoidant attachment

This is characterised by a desire to maintain autonomy and be emotionally independent of one's partner.

These people aren't particularly comfortable with closeness and intimacy, McArthur said - and because they're trying to maintain control, they're more likely to suppress negative emotions.

They want to turn to their partner for support, but they're afraid to need them and afraid that their needs may be rejected, so they resist being vulnerable.

They may also worry that intimacy with their partner may leave them feeling trapped and encroach too much on their careers, recreation and friendships.

What shapes your attachment style?

Attachment styles aren't fixed - they can change throughout your life, said McArthur. All sorts of life events can shape your attachment style.

It could be that you had a really secure upbringing and an amazing attachment to your primary caregiver, and then something happened to change that - perhaps your parents divorced, or there was abuse in a significant relationship. Suddenly, the loss of security may push you into an anxious or avoidant style.

Conversely, someone who is an anxious attacher, perhaps because they had to fight for approval from a parent as a child, can become secure later in life if they're able to establish high levels of trust and communication in their relationship.

The nightmare combinations

While two secure attachers coming together can put a relationship in great stead, other combinations aren't quite as beneficial and you may be able to recognise some of these dynamics in your own relationships.

The most common nightmare combination is an anxious attacher and an avoidant attacher, McArthur said, because it creates a 'pursue and withdraw' dynamic that can quickly spiral out of control and be damaging for both parties.

The anxious attacher's pursuit of intimacy and closeness causes their avoidant partner to feel smothered and withdraw, which can serve to heighten the anxious attacher's worries about the relationship and cause them to pursue even harder.

But other combinations - like two anxious or two avoidant attachers coming together - can be just as damaging.

Even an anxious person with a secure person brings its own set of complications. If the anxious attacher is constantly wanting reassurance and emotional support, the secure person is probably going to get pretty exhausted bearing a lot of that emotional work, said McArthur.

As a result, they may shift towards avoidance to protect themselves. Likewise, a secure person may become frustrated with an avoidant attacher if their reasonable requests for support and connection are rebuffed, and it may cause them to tend towards more anxious behaviour.

The path to secure attachment

Noticing some of these negative dynamics play out in your relationship isn't necessarily a sign you should run for the hills.

McArthur said as soon as you recognise how you and your partner trigger each other, there are tools you can use to heal and move towards security.

For anxious attachers:

  • Take a deep breath
    Your first instinct when feelings of anxiety kick in may be to allow your mind to race and to rush into action. Just slow down.
  • Depersonalise
    If your partner takes two hours to respond to a text, or isn't in the mood for a serious conversation, this may trigger insecurity. Sometimes it can be beneficial to remember it's not about you - your partner may just have other things going on or need a little space.
  • Self-soothe
    Learning tools to calm yourself down  can not only be empowering, but can also take the responsibility of your emotional regulation off your partner's shoulders.
  • Create space
    Instead of always being the person to initiate connection and  time together, let things breathe. By creating space, you are allowing your partner the chance to fill it.  
  • Believe what your partner tells you
    Are you often needing reassurance that your relationship is OK and your partner loves you? Trust that your partner is true to their word - unless they prove otherwise.

For avoidant attachers:

  • Self-awareness is key
    Learn about your attachment style - it can be a great start in finding the language to talk about how you feel with your partner, which can foster understanding in the relationship.
  • Move towards your partner
    When your partner needs emotional support or connection, draw close rather than withdrawing. This can stop them from becoming anxious and prevent that downward spiral of negative reinforcement from getting out of control.
  • Convey a strong, intimate bond
    Show your love for your partner with physical touch, expressing care, communicating your affection, and displays of commitment. If your partner is feeling anxious, one brief remark can make all the difference.
  • Validate your partner
    Express understanding, and be quick to offer them reassurance.

Where does attachment theory come from?

Attachment theory has had a fairly long history, McArthur explained.

It started in the 1940s with a psychologist called John Bowlby, who initially looked at the attachment between infants and mothers. He explored things like separation anxiety and what happens when a mother leaves the room or a stranger enters the room.

Years of groundbreaking research established a framework for explaining how infants interacted with their caregivers - and at some point, psychologists started to wonder whether the theory could apply to adults too.

The Adult Attachment Interview was subsequently developed, looking at how adults may experience attachment-related issues in their relationships - and the results were fascinating.

As it turns out, attachment style isn't just something influencing the behaviour of children - it very much influences how adults relate to one another too. In fact, the way we attach to people in romantic relationships can be very similar to the attachment infants share with their primary caregiver.

More about attachment styles as well as other mental health issues like trauma, panic attacks, depression and burnout is explored in the Are You Mental? podcast, which can be streamed via all of the major platforms.