Is your ex emotionally closed off, or too darn clingy? Or did they not seem to understand your love language and what you needed from them? Attachment styles might be to blame.
The American Psychological Society defines attachment style as ”the characteristic way people relate to others in the context of intimate relationships, which is heavily influenced by self-worth and interpersonal trust.” According to theories on attachment, adults form their innate attachment style in childhood, depending on how they bond with others—specifically their parents.
Your attachment style can affect your relationships similarly to your communication style. When you have incompatible styles or issues getting your wants and needs across effectively, interpersonal relations can suffer. Whereas communication style determines how you express your wants and needs, attachment style determines how you feel about others fulfilling these wants and needs.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby determined four main attachment styles in the 1950s. They are: secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganized. Let’s take a closer look at each type. Knowing your style and recognizing others’ attachment styles can help you improve your communication and strengthen your relationships. It can also help explain why you have so much trouble bonding with certain people.
Secure attachment style
This is the style we all strive for—it allows for healthy, long-lasting adult relationships. Children who grow up feeling safe, accepted, validated, respected and reassured by their caregivers should have a secure attachment style as adults.
Traits of secure attachment:
- Stable moods and reactions
- Trusting and trustworthy
- Clear communication
- Content both in spending time alone and with others
- Able to see from other’s perspectives and show both sympathy and empathy
- Comfortable to be around
- Healthy self-esteem
- Emotionally available
Avoidant attachment style
Adults with avoidant attachment styles likely grew up feeling dismissed, neglected or misunderstood by others. While it might not have been clear avoidant behavior, they somehow got the impression that they should not openly share their thoughts and feelings. Or, they believed that doing so would lead to negative consequences. So, they avoid sharing personal information and are reluctant to be in close relationships.
Traits of avoidant attachment:
- Avoid being close with others, physically and/or emotionally
- Fiercely independent
- Reluctant to ask for help
- Untrusting or paranoid
- Emotionally distant/unavailable
- Dismissive of difficult emotions, feelings and situations
- Quick to give up
- May give the silent treatment or avoid people/situations
Tips for communicating with someone with an avoidant attachment style:
- Be mindful of how, when and where you address conflicts with them. Try to pick a time and place when they seem relaxed and ready for open conversation.
- Allow them to have solo time, which is critical for them to recharge and feel at ease.
- Find a method to keep the lines of communication open, even if that’s via a less confrontational means than talking face to face. A mediator or other third party can be a valuable asset here.
Anxious attachment style
While adults with an anxious attachment style long for close, open relationships, they struggle to feel stable within them. They commonly have lots of relationships that were intense but short-lived.
Traits of anxious attachment:
- Fearful in relationships
- Uncomfortable being alone
- May come across as clingy or needy
- Codependent behaviors
- Highly sensitive
- Low self-esteem
Tips for communicating with someone with an anxious attachment style:
- Set healthy boundaries. Insist on having some time to yourself when you need it.
- Plan ahead and share these plans with them so that they know what to expect.
- Provide reassurance and show them that you care about their feelings.
Disorganized attachment style
Some people grew up with a lot of mixed messages and unpredictable behavior from their caregivers. These individuals likely end up with disorganized attachment styles. Their relationships can vary quite a bit, with a mix of both stable, long-term bonds and also many short-term ones.
Traits of disorganized attachment:
- Afraid of rejection
- Unpredictable behavior
- High and low moods
- Reactive, especially in stressful situations
- Also have a lot of the traits of avoidant and anxious attachment styles
Tips for communicating with someone with a disorganized attachment style:
- See the tips for communicating with avoidant and anxious types, above.
- Prioritize safety for yourself, them and of others who might be at risk around this person when they are struggling—namely your children and pets.
- Accept what you cannot control and that you will need to prepare for multiple scenarios depending on their personal factors during different times, places and circumstances.
- Ask for help. Whether it’s emotional support from family, friends or a therapist, or legal assistance and financial advice, seek support when you need it.
While you can’t erase your past or change someone who doesn’t want to be changed, you can use knowledge about attachment styles to relate more effectively to others. Consider it the next time you have an issue to resolve and adjust your approach to appeal to their interests. You can also try to recognize when you might want to work on feeling more secure. Remember, if you own your insecurities, others can use them against you. You are in charge of your next step, so don’t be afraid to take a new direction, take a break to reevaluate, or pick a whole new destination along the way. You’ve got this.