I’m sitting on a friend’s porch, listening to her talk about the demise of her most recent relationship. She’s young, in her early 20s, and lacking a lot of relationship experience.  She tells me how she was really into this guy, but he wanted to keep things casual. She went along with it because she didn’t want to scare him off, but he quickly got bored and moved on.

She is devastated, blaming herself. She’s afraid that she’s “codependent,” that she’s pushed him away. He’s said some awful things to her, but she keeps talking about how wonderful he is and offering excuses for his behavior. She’s really struggling; it’s difficult to listen to because I recognize it so clearly: the cycle that takes place during relationship conflict between an anxiously attached person and an avoidantly attached person.

She finally takes a breath, and I weigh in cautiously.

“It seems like you really wanted a lot of closeness, but your desire for closeness made him shut down and pull away, which made you try harder to get close, which made him pull away more. Does that seem right?”

Her eyes brighten a little, and she nods in recognition. I offer a couple of thoughts, resisting the urge to launch into a lecture about John Bowlby, Russian orphanages, The Strange Situation Test, and cloth monkeys. Instead, I recommend my favorite book about adult attachment theory and leave it at that.

*****

I first learned about attachment theory from a friend who works as a marriage and family therapist; ever since, I can’t help but view all relationship problems through its lens. Today, I want to explain the basic tenets of adult attachment theory and how you can use them to better understand and improve difficult areas in your intimate relationships.

In order to understand adult attachment theory, we have to backtrack for a moment to childhood attachment theory. Pioneered by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s, childhood attachment theory asserts that children form deep emotional bonds with their primary caregivers in infancy and subsequently develop an attachment style based on the quality of the responses of those primary caregivers. Consistently warm, attentive responses result in a secure attachment style, while overbearing or intrusive responses (think: helicopter parents) can result in an anxious attachment style. Finally, cold or dismissive responses (think: parents who utilize the Ferber method) often result in an avoidant attachment style.

While secure children feel comfortable exploring and seeking comfort from their attachment figures, anxious children are often clingy and fixated on keeping attachment figures close by. Avoidant children, on the other hand, suppress their desire for closeness and often reject comfort from an attachment figure.

So what happens when those secure, anxious, or avoidant children grow up and enter intimate relationships? Adult attachment theory suggests that childhood attachment styles carry forward into adulthood, affecting how we form and engage in partner relationships. A securely attached child will usually grow up to become a securely attached adult, comfortable with closeness and intimacy and successful in her partner relationships. An anxiously attached child becomes an adult who worries frequently about the state of her relationship and about being left by her partner. Finally, an avoidantly attached child turns into an adult who fears becoming too close or “merging” with her partner. When pressed by a partner for more intimacy, she becomes uncomfortable and shuts down emotionally.

Research shows that approximately 50% of adults possess secure attachment styles, while ~25% are avoidant and ~25% are anxious. (A fourth attachment style, sometimes called “Ambivalent” or “Disorganized” attachment, also exists in a very small percentage (<5%) of the population. People with this attachment style possess high levels of anxiety and avoidance: they crave closeness but feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed once they get it. Dating these people can be confusing, as you might imagine.) These patterns are often gendered, as well: insecurely attached men are more likely to test as avoidant, while insecurely attached women are more likely to test as anxious. To me, this seems to be a direct result of the way we parent children of different genders, working to “protect” girls while often neglecting boys in an effort to “toughen them up” or encourage them to be self-reliant.

When people meet and form intimate relationships, distinct patterns develop based on their respective attachment styles. For example, when secure people date other secure people, their relationships are often healthy, stable, and long lasting. Avoidant people who pair up, on the other hand, “never make it to therapy,” as my therapist friend put it. This makes sense: if both people are uncomfortable with closeness and bolt at the first sign of trouble, no “glue” exists to hold the relationship together. Two anxious people in a relationship check in with each other frequently and  often worry that something is wrong with the other member of the duo.

Finally, books have been written about anxious/avoidant couples. This type of pairing is very common; for some reason, it seems that these people tend to be drawn to one another. Unfortunately, their attachment styles are diametrically opposed: the more the anxious partner worries and seeks closeness, the more the avoidant partner feels uncomfortable and pulls away. The more extreme the attachment styles of the involved parties, the more volatile and difficult this kind of partnership can become. Many therapists and relationship experts claim that an anxious/avoidant relationship can “work” if both parties are committed to it; while I believe that could be true, I can’t say that I’ve seen it happen.

Because women are more likely to be anxious and men avoidant, anxious/avoidant couplings are often gendered, as it was in the situation with the friend I described above. In my experience, anxious women who are involved with avoidant men regularly perform a disproportionate amount of relationship “work” and emotional labor. Because their partners shut down or “check out” during relationship conflict, they’re forced to modulate their emotions and be the one to apologize after a conflict, which can create an ugly power dynamic that’s difficult to escape from.

Additionally, anxious partners often blame themselves for problems in the relationship,  internalizing criticism from their partner that they’re too “needy” or “codependent,” when in fact, it’s the critical partners inability to engage emotionally that is causing their distress in the first place.

How can you implement the principles of adult attachment theory to improve your relationship? If you’re interested in exploring attachment theory more deeply, read on for a few suggestions.

Step #1: Determine Your Attachment Style

While some people might be able to determine where they fall on the attachment spectrum simply from reading the descriptions above, a variety of online tests exist to help you determine your attachment style if you’re unsure. This one is my favorite, because it displays your results as a graph and also enables you to chart changes in your attachment style over time. (Yes, attachment styles can shift throughout the lifespan. Negative relationship events such as infidelity can cause secure people to become insecure, while working with a trusted therapist or getting involved in a healthy relationship with a secure person can enable insecure people to move toward security.) Once you’ve determined your own attachment style, request that your partner do the same.

Step 2: Recognize Attachment Struggles For What They Are

Learning to distinguish between fights about dirty dishes and struggles over deeper issues of attachment can save you a lot of suffering. Unfortunately, one often shows up disguised as the other. I once got into an embarrassing fight with a partner because I was really angry about some cinnamon rolls. I’ll spare you the details, but I realized later that we were actually fighting about much deeper issues related to our attachment needs.

In the words of  Sue Johnson, author of “Hold Me Tight” and founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, “Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all the distress, partners are desperate to know: Are you there for me?’”

Step 3: Seek Out an EFT Therapist

If you fear that attachment issues form the root cause of your relationship problems, (and especially if you find yourself in an anxious/avoidant partnership) seek out a certified EFT therapist for help. EFT, or Emotionally Focused Therapy, was designed based on the principles of adult attachment theory to get to the root of difficult relationship struggles. (Emotionally Focused Therapy is NOT the same as Emotional Freedom Technique, a dubious “therapeutic modality” that requires you to “tap” various “meridians” on your body and repeat mantras to yourself.)

Prior to the development of EFT, the majority of marriage counselors believed that “communication issues” were at the root of all relationship problems. Most couples counseling focused on teaching couples to communicate more effectively (using “I” statements, validating each other’s feelings, etc.) The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work: according to one study, only 35% of couples experienced significant improvement after this type of therapy, and only 18% retained the benefits of therapy after a year. EFT, on the other hand, boasts a success rate of 75%.

Step 4: Educate Yourself

If you’re interested in learning more about attachment theory, I highly recommend the following books:

  • A General Theory of Love is half poem, half scientific study describing the development of attachment theory over the last half century
  • Attached is a great book for people with anxious attachment styles
  • Hold Me Tight, written by the founder of EFT, is an excellent resource, especially for those in anxious/avoidant partnerships

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