We are wired for attachment – that’s why babies cry when separated from their mothers. We develop a style of attaching that affects our behaviour in close relationships, depending especially on our mother’s behaviour and our father’s behaviour as well as later experiences.
We seek or avoid intimacy along a continuum, though usually one of the following three styles is predominant in our relating. Bear in mind we all have an element of each style and the majority of your ‘work’ will be with your predominantstyle, so that is your focus.
- Secure attachment: “Being close is easy!” The ideal, where people remain together without consistently creating separation and have a supportive, well-functioning relationship
- Anxious attachment (shadow: love addict): “I want to be emotionally intimate and close, but I always have this feeling of not being enough and not getting enough.” Can be needy, fearful or clingy, and depend heavily on their partner. Forces connection.
- Avoidant attachment (shadow: love avoider): “I’d rather not depend on others or have others depend on me.” Tend to keep distance from their partner and from others in his or her life. Forces disconnection.
If you’re a securely attached adult, warmth and love come naturally and you’re able to be intimate, accepting your partner’s minor shortcomings and treating them with love and respect. You are direct and able to openly and confidently share your successes and disappointments, needs and feelings. You’re responsive to the genuine needs of your partner and try to meet them. You don’t take things too personally and are not overly reactive to criticism, because you know how to love yourself and be there for yourself. You de-escalate conflict by holding space, listening, forgiving and apologising for any hurt that your loved one has felt. You say “yes” when you feel a genuine need of your partner’s that you can accommodate and you say “no” when you feel that your partner needs something which is going to be detrimental to your physical, spiritual or emotional wellbeing.
Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships.If you experienced secure attachment as a child, you saw your parents as a secure base from which you could venture out independently. You felt accepted by them for who you are and looked up to them as healthy role models. As a secure adult, you have a similar relationship with your romantic partner, feeling secure and connected, accepted and inspired, while allowing yourself and your partner to move freely. You offer support when your partner feels distressed and go to your partner for support when you feel troubled. Your relationship is honest, open, equal and interdependent (both people feel independent, yet loving and accommodating towards each other). There is passionate, authentic friendship as well as lots of chemistry and great sex!
You may feel clingy and needy, demanding and possessive, easily rejected or abandoned, and become very angry and frustrated when those you love fail to live up to your perceived expectations or are unsure of your partner’s feelings. You are on guard, easily falling into an internal kind of panic when things are not going as you would like or need. You may recognise an absence of perceived selfhood when not in the presence of another. As a result of this, in the absence of constant reassurance you have a tendency to catastrophize situations.
Despite longing for relationship, you may find that when real intimacy is offered, it is confronting. You may tell yourself your partner is boring, or distract yourself from intimacy and sabotage it because it brings awareness to the parts of yourself that you do not know how to meet. You find it difficult to identify your needs and give them to yourself or ask for your needs to be met by others, but will often give others what they need, and sometimes even give up your needs to accommodate theirs. This catches up with you as resentment and dissatisfaction when your needs aren’t met.
The most important thing for you is to not lose love so you will do whatever you can to please your partner and maintain positive connection. You’re preoccupied with the relationship and highly attuned to your partner, worrying about them becoming the best they can be (really for your own sake so that you feel safe). You often take things personally because your sense of self depends on being approved of and validated by your partner. To alleviate your anxiety, you may play games or manipulate your partner to get attention and reassurance by withdrawing, acting out emotionally, provoking jealousy or threatening to leave. You may also become jealous of your partner’s attention to others and call or text frequently, or interpret independent actions of your partner as affirmation of him not loving you. You often feel an insatiable emotional hunger for your partner, frequently looking to them to rescue you, complete you or be a certain way so that you feel comfortable.
Although you’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to your partner, your actions actually push them away. This is often the result of growing up with one or more parents emotionally or physically absent.
You avoid closeness, and your independence and self-sufficiency are more important to your than intimacy. You can enjoy closeness to a limit. In relationships, you act self-sufficient and self-reliant and are not very comfortable sharing your feelings. You protect your freedom and delay commitment. Once committed, you create mental distance with ongoing dissatisfaction within your relationships by focusing on your partner’s minor flaws or reminiscing about your single days or another idealized relationship.
You are hyper vigilant about your partner’s attempts to control you or limit your autonomy and freedom in some way. You engage in distancing behaviours, such as prioritising things outside of the relationship, making unilateral decisions, ignoring your partner or dismissing his feelings and needs. Your partner often appears needy to you, and other people/situations/experiences make you feel strong, powerful and self-sufficient by comparison. You don’t worry about your relationship ending and if the relationship is threatened there is a pretence that you don’t have attachment as you bury your feelings of distress. It’s not that the needs don’t exist, it’s that they’re repressed.
You often come off as focused on yourself and may be overly attending to your own safety and comfort. You tend to lead a more inward life, both denying the importance of loved ones and disconnecting easily from them. You are often very defensive and have the ability to shut down emotionally, even in heated or emotional situations. This can lead to difficulty practicing compassion.
Your partner may complain that you disconnect, you don’t meet their needs and that you’re not open enough because you keep secrets or don’t share your feelings. This is a common attachment style for those who grew up abused, emotionally neglected or with unhealthily overbearing/enmeshedparents as it was a way of distancing yourself from relationships where your real needs were not being met. This allows you to create a powerful life of independence, but the price is high. The avoidant approach brings along feelings of isolation and alienation, even when highly involved in work and family. It can be depriving of love and connection as a part of the mind and heart are always focused elsewhere (work, the next drink or drug, new people, a creative project, etc). Avoidant people often neglect their own needs and don’t know how to take care of themselves properly because of their history of neglect. It is common for avoidant people to become addicts because not only do they feel safe avoiding others but also feel safe avoiding themselves.
Love addicts and love avoiders commonly attract each other in relationships. These relationships become co-dependent, as each person is unconscious of their real need which is to return to the love and freedom that they are searching for. The opposite attachment style invites them to embrace certain behaviours, and if recognised and experienced with awareness, provides the medicine they need to come back into loving balance.
Love addicts need more space and alone time in order to experience secure attachment. The space provided by the love avoider invites the love addict to step back and attune to themselves; learn to love themselves. Love addicts are usually disinterested in someone available with a secure attachment style, and rather attract someone who is avoidant as it validates their feeling of abandonment and their fears of not being enough, not being loveable or not being securely loved. It also teaches them at a soul level to face that fear of being alone and mature into secure attachment. If we can be aware of what we need without our relationship harshly forcing us into it, the process is a lot gentler!
Co-dependent relationships cycle through the same tragic, heart wrenching, dramatic, miserable story. Either the love addict starts being clingy or needy, resulting in the love avoider pulling away OR the love avoider starts to pull away, resulting in the love addict becoming clingy or needy. It’s a vicious cycle – one person in the relationship falls into their shadow (unconscious, repressed and usually judged part of themselves), then the second person responds by going into their shadow, and it almost always get worse with time. This kind of behaviour has the potential to ruin relationships as the love addict feels as though their needs for intimacy is not being met and the avoider feels smothered with neediness and as though their need for freedom is not being met.
Even people who feel independent when on their own are often surprised that they become dependent once they’re romantically involved, because intimate relationships unconsciously stimulate the attachment style. It’s normal to become dependent on your partner to a healthy degree, where your needs are met, without the other person sacrificing who they are. Compromise is key to a healthy, balanced relationship.
In a nutshell, love addicts need to become more responsible for themselves; more comfortable with being alone, more discerning, more able to tune into their own needs and more able to assess whether a partner can or wants to meet their needs. Love avoiders need to stop searching for the ideal partner and step out of their false sense of self-sufficiency by moving towards love instead of away from love. They also need to realise that they are responsible for their own freedom and safety rather than searching for that freedom and safety through their relationship.
The first step towards secure attachment is becoming aware of your attachment styles so that you and your partner can become aware of your own patterns and each other’s. The second step is to take conscious action towards healing the unconscious pattern associated with your style.
In next week’s blog, I will go into how you can overcome love addiction and/or love avoidance and how you can best support one another towards secure attachment in relationship.