College is a time when people get a great handle on who they are and what they want. At this stage, people stumble across life-changing revelations. In that spirit, I figured I should write about something that helped me understand my patterns and needs, life-changing stuff.
Like love languages, attachment styles are one of the multiple bits of information that can help us gain a better understanding of ourselves in relationships. As the name suggests, attachment styles describe how people attach themselves to others in a romantic context — crushes, dates or relationships.
Attachment styles emerged from attachment theory that British psychologist John Bowlby popularized. He described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Research concluded that our relationship with primary caregivers determines how we attach as adults.
There are four attachment styles: avoidant, anxious, fearful-avoidant and secure.
While estimates vary, about 25% of people are said to be avoidant. Avoidant people tend to not express their emotions or feelings. They developed this tendency in response to how their caregivers treated them. They fear that emotional vulnerability will hurt them. Avoidant people tend to operate independently. They feel the other person’s absence less than normal and are quick to call someone clingy.
The anxious attachment style is the opposite of the avoidant. Various estimates put the anxious attachment population at about 20%. This style originates from the intrusive or inconsistent involvement of a caregiver in a child’s life. Anxious people tend to have low self-esteem. This can result in clingy behavior, as they think they are not worthy of the other's love. Anxious people crave validation and attention to feel at ease, akin to an addiction in some ways. At worst, they can feel lost when the other is not around (withdrawal). They tend to be perceptive of minute changes in behavior because of the perennial fear of loss. This can result in protest behaviors based on simple factors like how or when someone texts back. Such behavior can be problematic, as things are seldom as bad as they seem.
Since anxious and avoidant styles are opposites, relationships between them can be devastating. Known as the “anxious-avoidant trap,” such relationships can be difficult to leave. The extremes of either person are the biggest nightmares for the other, but when one person eases off, the other eases off as well and the relationship feels great. Such a relationship requires a lot of effort and intervention to sustain, often not lasting the distance.
The fearful-avoidant (disorganized) style is the rarest of all. Only about 5% of people are fearful. People develop this style when primary caregivers are a source of fear. They are a mix of anxious and avoidant styles, craving attachment and struggling with low self-esteem like an anxious person, but withdrawing from attachment like an avoidant person.
If you cannot relate to any of the above things — at least not most of the time — congratulations!!! You are part of the remaining near 50% of people who have a secure attachment style. A secure attachment style is the ideal. Secure people can attach to others seamlessly. Most advice for people with insecure attachment styles is geared towards progressing towards security.
While attachment styles may form from childhood experiences, they can alter throughout life. Traumatic experiences later in life can shift secure people towards insecure attachment styles. Similarly, different measures can be taken to make progress from an insecure to a secure attachment style.
This malleability of attachment styles may seem scary but is great news. It means you can always work towards security. You are not consigned to a life of lonely doom and gloom.
Approaches vary between different types of insecure attachment, but clear communication is something that helps across the board. In my experience coping with anxious attachment, rationalization and distraction helps. The world does not revolve around me. If the object of attachment chooses to leave, it is their loss. If anything, making boneheaded decisions and making someone feel uncomfortable is far worse. That way, the person leaves, and you feel guilt.
Evaluating the other person’s efforts is important. Whether in romance or a friendship, if the other person has blatant disregard for expressed needs, it is worth reconsidering things. At least you could start a dialogue. Make sure to appreciate those who do pay attention.
Avoidant and fearful-avoidant people can benefit from setting boundaries and taking space when needed. Avoidant people in particular could practice being more vulnerable. Rationalizing can help as well.
Lastly, therapy is a great option for those who can access it. I put together this collection of information and approaches because it helped me. This does not make me an expert and this article is not medical advice.
Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it. People with insecure attachment styles should recognize it and work towards greater security.
Hopefully, this article helps you understand why people in your lives behave the way they do. Maybe it can reveal things you didn’t know about yourself. This way, we can strive to build a world that is more loving, helping everyone get as close to secure as possible.