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Attachment Theory and Relationship Dynamics: What You Need to Know!

If you find yourself stuck in disconnection and unhealthy patterns of interaction in your intimate relationship, understanding attachment theory can shed light on these issues. Getting to know your attachment style can offer valuable insights into how you relate to others.

Attachment theory, initially developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, is often referred to as the science of human bonding. It posits that from birth, we form emotional bonds with our caregivers that are essential for our survival. For example, when an infant cries for their basic needs to be met, a responsive caregiver helps the infant feel safe and secure.

This early 'call and respond' system that develops in infancy doesn't disappear as we grow up. We continue to seek out safe connections in our adult relationships, as we are biologically wired for connection, which is essential for our well-being. So, let's explore how the emotional bonds formed in our childhoods impact our adult relationships.

Attachment theory, attachment styles, secure attachment, relationship counselling, healthy relationships, relationship dynamics

If you grew up in an environment where your needs were consistently met by a caregiver who was accessible, responsive, and emotionally engaged with you, you most likely felt safe and secure in both your inner emotional world and the external world. This is what we call a secure attachment style. Individuals with a secure attachment typically felt unconditionally loved by their caregivers and developed a healthy sense of self.

People with a secure attachment style are generally emotionally available and responsive to their spouse or partner. Importantly, they also learned to establish healthy boundaries in relationships, likely because healthy boundaries were modelled to them in childhood by their caregivers. As a result, they can confidently assert themselves when needed and set boundaries that are neither too rigid nor too loose.

We can say that securely attached individuals have permeable boundaries. They can trust and be open in close relationships without losing themselves or sacrificing their own needs.

Contrary to this ideal and healthy style of attachment there are three insecure styles: anxious or ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised attachments.

Anxious Attachment:

If you identify with any of the patterns below, it is likely that you have an anxious attachment style.

  • you feel anxious when your partner spends too much time away from you.

  • you react to your partner's silence or disengagement.

  • you worry that your partner will leave you.

  • you feel like your partner prioritises other people, or his work and hobbies over you.

  • you feel worthless or not good enough in close relationships.

  • you are afraid that your partner or people you are close to will abandon you.

  • you worry about being alone.

  • you turn the emotional heat up in close relationships to feel connected.

You may have developed this attachment style due to negative experiences in early bonding. Perhaps you had a caregiver who was occasionally available and responsive to your needs but not consistently so.

This inconsistency in the caregiving system often makes one anxious or ambivalent about the dependability of their attachment figure. It may also be possible that you experienced some form of abandonment or rejection, that primes you to become sensitive when someone you are in a close relationship with distances from you. Some of the internalised messages that anxiously attached individuals may have are; "I am not important", "I am not good enough", or "I am too sensitive." If your partner reacts to your anxious responses with their own learned coping strategies, it may further cement these beliefs and lock you in a negative cycle with each other.

Avoidant Attachment:

These are some of the typical patterns you'd notice if you had a dismissive avoidant attachment style:

  • You find it difficult to depend on others and prefer your independence.

  • You might distract yourself by turning to hobbies, work, devices and other activities rather than relying on your partner for comfort.

  • You may feel uncomfortable during conflict and prefer to take space when things get heated

  • You prefer not to show your partner how you feel deep down

  • You get uncomfortable when your partner becomes emotionally dependent on you

  • You prefer to deal with emotions alone and don't feel comfortable turning to others for your needs.

  • You may find your partner too sensitive or too needy and tend to withdraw when they try to get too close.

  • You may worry about not measuring up or feeling criticised by your partner.

These patterns are often developed in those who experienced rejection in their childhood by a caregiver and learned that they cannot rely on others for their emotional needs. You may have experienced a caregiving system, where no one was emotionally available for you, and grew up in an environment where acceptance and validation of emotions were not adequately modelled.

As a result, you may lean towards being highly logical or rational when faced with strong emotions, which can create a sense of disconnection with your partner.

Disorganised Attachment:

Those who have developed a disorganised attachment style, often long for a deeply connected relationship, yet fear getting hurt. Some of the typical patterns in relationships include:

  • You may fear commitment and end a relationship when it starts getting serious.

  • You may get highly reactive sometimes or put your walls up and shut down at other times in close relationships.

  • You have an extreme fear of rejection and difficulty trusting others.

  • Deep down, you feel unworthy and unloveable.

  • You can have extreme reactions when you experience your partner as unavailable.

  • Although you react to your partner's absence, you often tend to push them away by becoming closed off emotionally.

  • People with disorganised attachment styles have a high incidence of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

  • You experience high levels of shame and do not allow anyone close to your vulnerability.

If you identify with this attachment style, it is likely that you experienced childhood trauma, such as neglect and abuse. Due to the extreme deprivation of affection in your childhood, you may have never experienced unconditional love, and internalised messages that "you are unworthy of love" and that "others are unreliable or untrustworthy."

Your partners may experience you as highly chaotic and unpredictable and may respond to your ways of coping in ways that further cement your fear of rejection.

How to overcome insecure attachment patterns & develop secure relationships?

The good news is that these negative attachment styles are not permanent disabilities that you have to live with for the rest of your lives. Recognising your negative patterns in your close relationships and becoming aware of why you cope with relational distress in these ways is the first step to changing these patterns.

"Being the best you can be is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people." - Sue Johnson.

As humans, we are wired for connection, and it is in our nature to seek proximity to a safe other at times of distress, for our survival. Research shows that emotional isolation is highly traumatising. We all deserve at least one person in our lives whom we can turn to and depend on in times of distress. In intimate relationships, we can be this safe haven for each other, and the secure base, from which each partner can explore their world.

If you are struggling with any of the above insecure patterns in relationships and want to heal your attachment injuries, counselling or psychotherapy can help. I use the Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) approach, based on attachment theory, to help individuals, couples and families address their attachment fears and develop safe and secure relationships.

To find out more about how I can assist with your attachment needs, schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation by clicking on the link below.

Shobana Suresh (Registered Clinical Counsellor)

Shobana has received training in EFT at the Australian Centre for EFT (ACEFT), and currently working towards certification as an EFT therapist, by the International Centre for Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT).

Individual & couple therapy appointments are available in Blacktown, Sydney and online. 


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