Attachment Theory: The Science of Love

There's a reason why your relationships end the way they do.

13 minute read
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Have you ever questioned if love is real? Or do your relationships grow increasingly one-sided… until love vanishes?

If a bad breakup’s made you question why your relationships end in misery, Attachment Theory is a map to changing this cycle.

Over the last 70 years, hundreds of research studies support the science of Attachment across the fields of social work, criminology, and psychology.  It’s a tried and tested set of ideas that applies to every relationship whether you grew up in New York, Tokyo, or Ghana.

And it reliably predicts most measures of mental health and happiness, how well we can handle traumatic events, and how we react to being in love.

If you understand the way you attach, you will learn:

  • Who you tend to be attracted to,
  • Why you have similar fights & problems in every relationship,
  • How your relationships will end,
  • What to change to have healthy relationships.

What is Attachment Theory?

Love is a force that binds us, increasing our ability to survive together. But when we grow up without our needs being met, love takes on a different meaning. Instead of working to stabilize us, it becomes a source of pain and heartbreak.

We build our meaning of love from our earliest years, when our lives depend on our parents to recognize our needs and respond to them in time. Our greatest fear is that our parents will stop responding to us, since for a defenseless child abandonment means death.

Our contribution to our survival is to send signals of our needs: crying, touching, talking. If our parents pay attention and respond regularly, we become secure in our safety. Knowing our loved ones will be there to catch us if we fall, we can take risks and explore the unknown.

But if our parents don’t respond to us (or worse, tell us our needs don’t matter) life is unsafe and dangerous. Because children are egocentric (they believe they cause everything that happens to them), they become insecure in their safety.

The traumas young children believe are their fault includes being:

  • ignored when crying or hungry,

  • shamed for their actions,

  • neglected or ignored,

  • yelled at or hit,

  • used to meet a parent’s emotional or physical needs,

  • abandoned by one or both parents leaving the family.

This pattern of self-blame creates toxic shame: the child believes that something about them is unlovable.

To stop more bad things from happening to them, their survival strategy becomes to hide the parts of them unworthy of love.

This belief that they must earn love through being a certain way is called an insecure attachment. 

The Four Attachment Styles

The beliefs that we carry about love and connection are called attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Secure Attachment

  • View of Self: High. View of Others: High.

  • Able to be vulnerable and set boundaries

People with a secure attachment style expect the best of others. They are comfortable both giving affection and being on their own. They believe in loyalty and communication in relationships, but they also value themselves enough to move on from rejection and pain.

In a secure childhood, parents notice when their children’s distress and reassure them. This teaches that it’s okay to have feelings and to express them.

They set consistent boundaries for their children, being clear about what was okay and what wasn’t. This teaches children how to communicate personal values, leading to setting healthy boundaries in their own lives.

To a securely attached person, love is a mutual bond that makes you both stronger.

Anxious & Avoidant Attachments (Organized Insecure Types)

Many parents do not respond well to their child’s needs. When this happens from a young age, children believe their needs are unmet because something is wrong with them. They learn to hide their “bad” sides to reduce the chance of being found out and abandoned.

Depending on how they try to handle this shame, it develops into one of two insecure attachments: the belief that people will abandon or harm you if you get too close. 

Anxious Attachment

(aka Anxious-Preoccupied, Ambivalent)

  • View of Self: Low. View of Others: High.

  • Unable to set boundaries.

  • Feels “too much”.

  • Fight response to conflict.

People with an anxious attachment are afraid of being alone. Their focus is on finding an ideal relationship who will satisfy their needs, and spend a lot of energy chasing approval, closeness and affection.

When they find a relationship, they obsess over it. Sensitive to the slightest hint that something might be wrong, they push their partner for reassurances of love and affection. They can’t trust that a partner will stick around with them, and test or accuse them to “prove” that their fears of abandonment are their partner’s fault.

When triggered, this attachment style explodes in anger to cover their hurt, pushing their partners away to see if they will come back to them.

In the typical anxious childhood, they could never tell how their parents were going to react. Sometimes they were taken care of, other times their needs didn’t seem to matter. Their solution was to become more unpredictable than their environment, provoking their parents into meeting their needs.

To the anxious, love is someone who won’t leave you no matter what you do.

Avoidant Attachment

(aka Dismissive-Avoidant)

  • View of Self: High. View of Others: Low.

  • Puts up emotional walls instead of boundaries.

  • Feels “too little”.

  • Flight response to conflict.

People with an avoidant attachment are afraid of needing others. Their focus is on becoming independent enough to meet their own needs, so they never have to expose themselves to rejection.

They have difficulties forming close relationships, as they believe other people won’t respect their needs. Since they don’t know how to express these needs, they emotionally (and eventually physically) vanish. To feel safe, they often pick unavailable partners: long-distance, frequent travellers, or married.

When triggered, this attachment style feels overwhelmed and withdraws from the relationship. This creates more emotional distress and anxiety in their partners.

The typical avoidant childhood was overly strict, and showing negative emotions was unacceptable. Often they had to take care of themselves from a young age. Their solution to keeping their parent available was to suppress their needs, which over time became an inability to feel all emotion.

To the avoidant, love is something that people use to make you sacrifice yourself.

Disorganized Attachment

(aka Fearful-Avoidant, Anxious-Avoidant)

  • View of Self: Low. View of Others: Low.

  • Constantly conflicting emotions.

  • Freeze response to conflict.

The disorganized attachment is when someone is both scared of being alone, but scared of getting close. Their reactions to emotional closeness are often contradictory: in vulnerable situations, their words, vocal tone, facial expressions, and actions don’t match. 

They’ll spend a lot of energy chasing closeness—and once it’s achieved, start pulling away in the other direction. 

For some children, parents are the source of their distress. Without anyone who can make them feel safe, they are faced with an impossible solution. Unable to fight or flee, the child freezes. Underneath a blank expression, they hide a storm of turmoil and fear.

Though disorganization gets labelled as the result of physical or sexual abuse, this is only in the extreme cases. As the most complex attachment style, it has its own section here.

To the disorganized, love is pain.

Finding Your Attachment Style

Even if you identified with multiple types, it doesn’t mean you’re disorganized. Being with an anxious partner can bring out a need for independence in all of us, and being with someone who avoids emotional closeness can make the most secure person on earth anxious. 

Attachment styles are all about patterns that repeat over time, especially within the relationships that felt the most electric. If you are attracted to damaged people over and over again, then it’s pretty likely that you’re carrying your own traumas.

To figure out your attachment style, take this free test at yourpersonality.net.

Try to answer it in terms of how most of your meaningful relationships have actually turned out, not how you think they should have gone.

If you’re still not sure after taking it or want a quick answer:

  • If you think that everyone you’ve dated has been too needy, or you prefer hookups to dating, then you’re probably avoidant.

  • If you believe your exes didn’t give you enough attention, or that they valued other people more than they valued you, then you’re probably anxious.

  • If you spent a lot of time chasing commitment, but then lost attraction the very second things got safe, then you’re probably disorganized.

How Attachment Theory Affects Our Relationships

When we feel stressed or uncertain in our lives and need more from the people close to us, we react in the ways we learned to react as children.

With an insecure attachment, this includes:

  • unpredictable emotional outbursts

  • threatening to leave/holding the relationship hostage

  • emotional door-slamming/withdrawal

  • seeking casual, less threatening intimacy with other people

Of course, trust can’t survive very long when people act like this. Letting an insecure attachment continue unhealed is a recipe for a lifetime of pain and loneliness. 

When you know two people’s attachment styles, it’s pretty easy to predict what kinds of conflicts come up in their relationships, and how they’re handled.

Ideal

Secure x Secure

These are stable, healthy relationships, because both people value connection and communication. They experience difficulties, joy, pain, mistakes, and immaturity like everyone else. Since they aren’t afraid of vulnerability and owning who they are, they usually see difficulties in the relationship as areas to grow instead of as threats to their safety.

Care Required

Anxious x Secure

Anxious partners often eventually find their way to a secure partner after repeated heartbreak. A partner who is predictable, responsive, and caring can finally provide the security they longed for—if they let it in. .

However, if the anxious person relies on their partner to make the relationship stable, they will eventually feel “bored” and leave to seek excitement from a drama-filled insecure relationships again. 

Avoidant x Secure

You’ve seen this pairing in older movies: the gruff man who can’t communicate his feelings but occasionally shows his caring through actions, and the nurturing wife who smiles to herself because she understands what he’s trying to say. This works more often in cultures with traditional gender roles, where people can fall back on tradition to interpret communication.

If the avoidant partner doesn’t work on expressing themselves during the relationship, the secure partner will find themselves very alone during major life crises.

Disorganized x Secure

In this pairing, Fearful-Avoidants will have both avoidant and anxious behavior triggered periodically. This inconsistency can traumatize the secure partner over time as they find themselves with a partner who reacts inconsistently & unpredictably to stress.

Unless the disorganized partner is getting help for their traumas, it is highly unlikely that this pairing lasts more than a few months.

To the disorganized partner, a high level of stress in relationships is normal. Ironically, a relationship without fear will be frightening.

They will often try to warn the secure partner with phrases like “I’m not good enough for you”, “You should stay away from me.” If the secure partner persists, the disorganized partner may try to ‘do the right thing’ and abandon their partner.

However, having a secure relationship is often the starting point a disorganized person needs to heal.

Dangerous

Anxious x Avoidant

When you hear “toxic relationship”, this is usually what people are talking about.

The beginning is electric. Each partner sees in the other someone who completes them.

The anxious sees someone who is strong and independent and will never let them down. The avoidant sees someone who is emotionally expressive, dynamic, and makes life colorful for them.

After the honeymoon period (around 3-6 months), though, things change. The brain is no longer flooded with hormones that make everything okay, and attachment insecurities reassert themselves. Called the anxious-avoidant dance, the result is a toxic cycle of chasing and pulling away.

The avoidant partner becomes emotionally unavailable after milestone of closeness, including:

  • making eye contact during sex

  • asking “so what are we, anyway?”

  • making the relationship official

  • moving in together

  • being asked about when they’re getting married/having kids

  • actually getting married/having kids

For an anxious partner, this withdrawal is terrifying, and they try to close the emotional distance. This adds to the avoidant’s feeling pressure, and they keep pulling away more and more. Finally, the anxious partner gives up and pulls away… and the avoidant realizes they dont’ want that much distance. They chase the anxious partner, make up, and return to normal…

And then the cycle starts again.

This dance happens like clockwork within 2-3 days of any moment of peak happiness/connection.

Eventually, the cycle becomes too exhausting for the relationship to survive. Both partners are walking on eggshells around the other, and life becomes more exhausting than passionate.

The anxious partner will often jump into a new anxious-avoidant relationship as soon as they can, while the avoidant will avoid emotional intimacy for months to years.

Disorganized x Insecure (Avoidant/Anxious/Disorganized)

This is like the Anxious x Avoidant relationship, but on steroids. Each partner gets polarized into playing one insecure role, but the disorganization adds contradictory behavior that can make things terrifyingly unpredictable for their partner. 

In a Disorganized x Disorganized relationship, there is a complete lack of trust—both in each other and in themselves.

Disorganization also tends towards more hostile/directive behavior, which can eventually escalate to substance abuse and/or physical violence.

Changing Your Attachment Style

Not everyone with an insecure attachment wants to change. If you’re very avoidant, your response might be that you’re perfectly fine, and that it’s everyone else who needs to suck it up and change.

For everyone else, the good news is that your attachment style can change. Studies have proven that even severe traumas have a 70% success rate of becoming earned-secure within 2 years of attachment-based therapy.

That’s only 2 years of your life to change a lifetime (and often, generations) of unhappy relationships.

And when you compare that to the emotional and financial costs of a divorce, there truly aren’t many better investments you can possibly make in your life!

And the benefits of secure attachment are huge. Our stress hormones are lower, our blood pressure normalizes, and we live overall longer, happier lives. When others care about your well-being, you don’t need to focus on your survival all the time.

But it’s important to do this with the right people, as the right person.

If you try to learn about vulnerability with an insecure partner who doesn’t want to, you’ll be hurt in the same way you were as a child.

If you rely on finding a secure partner but you’re not really ready to work on yourself, the insecurities will always be there under the surface like an iceberg.

Things may be fine for a while, but eventually, major life stresses with health, money, or work will inevitably arise. And when stress gets too high for them to handle alone, people with unresolved traumas often rely on lying, cheating, or abandoning their partner.

And that partner with a secure attachment, who believed in love and communication? Since they don’t expect the people in their lives to abandon them, they are much more traumatized when it happens in their romantic relationships.

Working By Yourself

Just like physical wounds, emotional wounds kept in the darkness fester and grow toxic. The more we hide our pain, the bigger the reaction when it gets touched. Instead of hiding better, the healthiest thing to do is to expose our wounds to the light and air. 

Whether you’re lucky enough to have a supportive partner or are doing this by yourself, coming soon I’ll have a list of the best attachment books to help you change your life.

Finding an Attachment Therapist

Regardless of the style of therapy, I recommend choosing a therapist based on how open they are about their journey… and how compatible their attachment style is with yours.

Therapists specialize in types of therapy that work with their own tendencies. A lot of cognitive therapists are avoidant, because believing in the power of mind over emotion is natural for them. As for therapists who specialize in anxiety and calming techniques… you can probably guess their attachment style.

While getting an avoidant therapist to help you with your anxious attachment might somehow be super cathartic, you’d be picking a hard road for yourself. 

What should you do if you don’t know your therapist’s attachment style? Ask!

Any therapist who’s unable (or unwilling) to answer that is someone who isn’t comfortable with their attachment.

If they haven’t gone to earned-secure themselves, they haven’t found an answer. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad therapist, but it means your attachment issues probably won’t get better.

I’ve written a longer article on choosing a therapist here.

Have you had good things happen in your life by working on your attachment style? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

About Dace

Dace is a Canadian psychotherapist specializing in sex & relationship therapy. He is currently travelling the world, studying different ways of bringing people to passion, strength, and love.
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