By her own appraisal, Stephanie tends to finds herself surrounded by others people who seem to enjoy close relationships with one another — closer than the friendships she has. She knows some of this could be “the grass is always greener” thinking and that it’s difficult to compare friendships, but still — she feels a real distance between herself and others, even those to whom she is inarguably supposed to be the closest. Yet, she has no clue what to do about it, and it seems the more effort she puts forth, the more distance she creates. So, she ends up vacillating between between being (apparently) clingy and totally aloof. Stephanie often wonders if everyone feels this way, but her hunch is that relationships come easier for other people.
Rachel and Eve are raising their 10-year old son, Matthew. As the youngest of four, Rachel grew up with tons of kids around — her siblings and others. On top of that, her family always seemed to have new people joining them for dinner — one of her mom’s business partners, a friend from school, a neighbor. Her home was loving and warm, and even as an adult, she felt close to her mother and father and knew that she could talk to them about anything that was going on in her life. On the other hand, Eve had a more difficult childhood. Her mother died when she was just four, and thereafter, her father did the best that he could. She knows that he carried a lot of stress with him due to the demands of single parenthood, and even when he was around he was never fully present emotionally. He was just too overwhelmed. She isn’t angry at him, but she’s reasonably sure they never really bonded. As their son approaches 11, Rachel has noticed that Eve is having difficulty bonding with him. Eve wants to be there for him but their interactions are awkward and sometimes cold. When Eve senses Matthew isn’t receptive, she just kind of shuts down, which frustrates everyone, including herself. Rachel wishes she could help.
Berto is winsome and well-liked business man. He always has been, to one degree or another. It’s precisely this charming personality that prevents people from being able to see how wounded he is. As a kid, his dad was angry a lot and was a harsh disciplinarian, with efforts to “correct” him that often were abusive. Berto and his mother were close once upon a time, but she seemed to sort of “evaporate” every time dad came home from work as Mr. Hyde, instead of the mild mannered Dr. Jekyll. For the longest time, Berto told himself that his mother couldn’t have prevented it, but the older he’s gotten, the more he realizes how false that really is. He’d probably have been content to let all of this go, but he keeps dating women who seem to abandon him. When talking with about this reality in therapy last week, his therapist pointed out that Berto used the word “evaporate” to describe his girlfriends leaving him when times got tough, just like he did with when describing mother’s absence during his abuse, and that it could hardly be coincidence. Without fully understanding why, that insight hit Berto like a ton of bricks, and he started crying.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the way that we form our first bonds with our primary caregivers and profoundly influences the way that we make connections in subsequent relationships. These first relationships instill in us a sense of how relationships are supposed to function and feel. Our understanding of attachment has been greatly enhanced in recent years with the advancement of something called “attachment theory,” a psychological model that describes the kind of attachment styles we each have. Some attachment styles set us up for healthy relationships and other styles of attachment make forming meaningful connections with others challenging. The good news is that despite the attachment style you developed as a child, you can learn how to develop healthy strategies that can promote long-lasting and satisfying relationships.
What are different attachment styles?
Many people looking for attachment counseling about counseling for relationships in St. Louis are curious at the outset about what exactly comprises each attachment style. Here’s a brief primer:
A secure attachment style is one that helps foster the deepest sense of satisfaction in relationships. People who have secure attachment styles can both be independent themselves, and allow their partner freedom and independence. Correspondingly, someone with a secure attachment style can both seek comfort from their partner and provide it. A parent with secure attachment can also provide this sense of relational stability to their child. The relationship isn’t fearful of losing connection when there is psychological space, but it isn’t suspicious or anxious about connecting intimately either. It is secure.
An avoidant attachment style manifests in adults as the tendency to be psychologically aloof, or emotionally distant or unavailable. Persons with avoidant attachment style are out of tune with the emotional needs of their partner, and often and have great difficulty providing emotional support to others. As parents, they tend to be unresponsive to their children most often, causing a ripple effect where children believe they can’t count on others to meet their emotional needs, often leading to their own attachment issues. In fact, most persons with an avoidant attachment style are the children of avoidant parents. Perhaps most tragic about all of this is that some research indicates that an avoidant attachment style is actually a fairly sophisticated mask for a high level of distress — masked because the person is so entirely certain that they’re needs won’t be met that it seems more logical not to engage at all.
Adults who have ambivalent/anxious attachment style are never sure what to expect in relationships. They sometimes can be nurturing and at others times insensitive. Children with an ambivalent/anxious parent are often confused and unsure of how to count on or anticipate the kind of support they will receive from their parent. This sort of upbringing naturally leads to the same tendencies in adulthood, perhaps most tragically tending to include in situations and relationships where it is unwarranted — even when all evidence points to safety, persons with an ambivalent/anxious attachment style still often feel unsafe. In other cases, the “ambivalent” side of this attachment is more dominant, such as when persons are characteristically aloof and unable or unwilling to commit (again, even to otherwise safe relationships/groups/persons).
A disorganized attachment style is the result of experiencing an abusive caregiver or significant other. This can include emotional, physical, verbal, mental, and/or sexual abuse, and is particularly likely if the person experienced multiple forms of abuse. As a result, persons with disorganized attachment styles may dissociate (become detached) even from otherwise healthy relationships. Persons with disorganized attachment do genuinely desire and crave safety, but experience has taught them the unfortunate lesson that persons charged with their safety are in fact dangerous. In this sense, it is actually an adaptive function that they’ve learned not to connect (often times for their very survival and/or sanity).
Some ways to develop secure attachment
- Identify your attachment style so that you can distinguish healthy and unhealthy approaches or behaviors that you have in relationships. Here is a free test to help you do just that!
- Once you have identified your relationship patterns, consider beginning mindfulness practice to help you become more aware of your triggers toward unhealthy attachment styles, and to set an intention to develop healthier behaviors that can lead to secure attachments.
- Look for relationships with people who have secure attachment styles who can help teach you how to form secure attachments. If your own attachment style is not secure, this may be difficult. Try to simply review your friends and acquaintances to see who seems free, independent, and generally happy with their own relationships as a starting point!
- Be patient with yourself! You won’t be able to change your attachment style overnight. Remember that change occurs on a continuum, and finding one secure and safe friend to practice with is a good start. It will take practice and time to form new habits and patterns that will help you find more secure attachments.
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