Attachment Styles in Intimate Relationships
Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. offers counseling and therapy in Reston, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Bethesda, Maryland.
The capacity to make meaningful intimate bonds is a key feature of healthy personality functioning. The processes of attachment and intimacy are fundamental to the development of close relationships. Attachment refers to the inborn need and tendency of human beings to make strong affectionate bonds with significant others, resulting in closeness, security and safety. Attachment behavior refers to behaviors that result in gaining proximity, closeness and contact to preferred caregivers. For infants, it includes crying and sucking to elicit care, followed by clinging and smiling. In early childhood, it involves separating from the secure, responsive caregiver so that individuation and interdependence can develop. In adulthood, attachment behaviors continue. For example, when you are distressed or in need of closeness, attachment behaviors (asking for support, showing vulnerability and so on) act as releasers of instinctual caring and loving responses from significant others, such as a friend or partner.
Attachment experiences are determined by the emotional availability of a caregiver (or caregivers), as well as responsiveness to the child’s needs. Despite punishment from any attachment figures, these experiences are characterized by their enduring quality over a large part of the life cycle and by their emotional intensity, by their survival value, and by how they influence future expectations of support. Attachment experiences shape the formation of internal models of what constitutes a close or intimate relationship. These involve beliefs, attitudes, and emotions about the self as worthy or unworthy of love, as well as expectations of support, availability, affection and warmth from a partner. They also contribute to help-seeking behavior and strategies for coping with conflicts in subsequent relationships.
Dependence differs from attachment in that dependence is not related to the maintenance of proximity and does not imply an enduring bond associated with strong feelings. One can be dependent on someone to fulfill a need at a given moment without developing attachment. Developing attachment depends on the quality of interaction.
Patterns of attachment that develop in childhood and adolescence follow us into adulthood. They are part of the concept of self that can lead to healthy relationships, or to maladaptive relationship patterns. Children growing up in warm, responsive and nurturing care giving environments develop secure styles of attachment. In adult relationships, the goal of attachment behavior is to foster connection. These behaviors are essential for the development of intimacy and the alleviation of stress. Bonding, an attachment behavior (the ability to be physically close and emotionally open), not only facilitates attachments but can lead to the enhancement of marital satisfaction, love and commitment.
Attachment behaviors serve to regulate emotion and motivate behaviors that reduce anxiety and pain in the face of separation by seeking closeness, intimacy and support. Individuals with a secure style of attachment have positive memories of attachment experiences, positive attitudes about themselves and others, and have developed functional attitudes and coping strategies in relationships. Their caregivers responded sensitively to distress and supported their autonomy drives. They are confident of the availability of significant others in times of need and distress, and can turn to others for support and comfort. They are comfortable with closeness, self-disclosure and interdependence, and feel deserving of love and attention. A secure base of attachment is essential as well for the development of autonomy and the formation of healthy boundaries in relationships.
Persons with insecure attachment styles (anxious, ambivalent, and avoidant) are uncomfortable with closeness. Their coping strategies have been shaped by unpredictable or rejecting attachment experiences. Their caregivers were not sensitive to displays of distress, were overly involved, primarily concerned with their own needs, or rejected requests for closeness. Anxious, ambivalent individuals have had negative attachment experiences associated with inconsistency, unpredictability or unresponsiveness in care giving or with interference in the process of separation and autonomy. These people are not sure whether they can count on attachment figures to be available and responsive. Although sharing a strong desire for intimacy and support, they feel insecure about the responses of others and are highly fearful of rejection and are excessively dependent on others. Perceiving others as undependable, they are reluctant to get as close as they desire. Feeling misunderstood and unappreciated, they desire to disclose self-information. Yet their hypervigilant behavior in relationships, which results from fear of reactivating negative attachment experiences, makes them susceptible to focusing on the negative aspects of attachment experiences and inhibits the development of their autonomy. Their relationship coping strategies direct attention towards potential disappointments or disasters. Intimate others can feel suffocated by their clinging, and may want distance. Their attachment style results in roller coaster highs and lows with intimacy, fusion and loneliness.
In intimate relationships, when a partner experiences anxiety, he/she may try to reduce the anxiety by seeking closeness and support with a partner. If the partner accepts the request for closeness, the anxiety is reduced by reaffirming a sense of security. This reinforces secure attachment. If the partner often rejects the request for closeness, the lack of responsiveness triggers anxiety and insecurity.
The avoidant attachment style develops out of a rejecting, cold or hostile nurturing environment. Individuals with this past environment feel insecure about the responses of others; they do not feel they can depend on the availability and responsiveness of others; and they cope by detaching, by increasing distance and self-reliance, and by denying or minimizing negative emotions. In relationships, they perceive intimate others as unreliable or non-supportive, and are distrustful of closeness. Their partners often want them to be more intimate than they feel comfortable with. These individuals restrict their acknowledgement of distresses and avoid attempting to seek support and comfort during times of stress. An avoidant-dismissive style avoids or rejects close relationships; there is pride in independence and invulnerability. A person with an avoidant-fearful attachment style, on the other hand, has often experienced trauma, losses, or abuse in childhood. These individuals want closeness but find it very difficult to trust or depend on others. They have conflicted moods and often find themselves in rocky relationships of highs and lows. They may cling to a partner when rejected, but feel trapped when they feel close.
Despite your attachment history, the good news is that it is possible to create a more secure attachment style. It is important to recognize your attachment style and the defenses you use to maintain it. Psychotherapy, counseling, or couples therapy can be effective in helping you transform maladaptive patterns, strengthen your sense of security and confidence within yourself, and nurture relationship behaviors that promote attachment and intimacy in your relationships.