Understanding your attachment style can be critical to having and maintaining fulfilling relationships. Whilst it might feel like a death sentence to find out your attachment style is not secure, especially if you can see how your attachment style has played out negatively in past relationships, it’s important to know that these attachment styles are malleable, changeable and nothing to be ashamed of.
We have very little say in the attachment style we grow up with, as it is largely a product of our parent’s parenting style and attachment system (although some recent research suggests that a genetic component could influence the development of inner attachment systems-Fonagy, 2001). However, with time, a commitment to doing the inner work and the right personal development strategies, you can move your way along the spectrum towards ‘earned secure’ attachment to have more fulfilling relationships.
If you’re unsure of what attachment style you have, it might be helpful first to check out our article ‘How Your Attachment Style May Be Affecting Your Relationships’, or take an attachment style quiz: https://dianepooleheller.com/attachment-test/
The roots of insecure attachment: fears of intimacy and abandonment
Whilst there are vast differences in the difficulties those with insecure attachment styles (including anxious, avoidant and fearful-avoidant) can face in relationships, attachment issues largely stem from the same core fears of intimacy and abandonment. However, these fears will manifest differently depending on your attachment style, which is why the behaviours of the different types of insecure attachment can present so differently.
If you have an avoidant attachment style:
You most likely have a conscious fear of intimacy, and an unconscious fear of abandonment.
This can lead dismissive avoidants to reject partners when they become ‘too close’, which allows them to avoid their fears of a partner potentially abandoning them. Essentially, avoidants coping strategy is often to abandon (either literally, by exiting relationships, or emotionally, by putting walls up and shutting others out) before they can be abandoned.
For avoidants, their fear of abandonment can show up as:
- Rejecting others before they can be rejected (eg, ghosting, stonewalling)
- Not truly opening up to others or allowing others to get close to them in case they are rejected for who they are
- Will sometimes make mean comments designed to create emotional distance, so they feel less threatened by the emotional proximity of their partner
- Engaging in numbing activities such as alcohol, drugs, gaming, endless scrolling through social media to create distance and emotionally regulate (especially when stressed)
- Avoidants often feel numb and disassociate when experiencing relational stress, but will not (and sometimes, cannot) communicate what is wrong over fears of rejection.
Oftentimes, avoidant’s distancing behaviours manage to confirm their own internal narratives and fears concerning relationships. Holding back on emotional intimacy because it feels unsafe can create conflict that results in a relationship ending prematurely, which confirms their internal belief that it is not safe to be vulnerable in a relationship, as they will inevitably be abandoned and rejected by their partner anyway. This self-fulfilling prophecy enables the dismissive avoidant to indulge in intimacy dodging behaviours and an a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude towards relationships.
If you have an anxious attachment style:
You most likely have a conscious fear of abandonment, and an unconscious fear of intimacy.
This can lead those with an anxious attachment style to feel extremely unsafe if they sense their partner might be thinking of leaving them (even if they are not). This can result in someone with an anxious attachment prioritising their partner’s needs and desires over their own in hopes of convincing them to stay. However, those with an anxious attachment often subconsciously avoid intimacy by becoming overly preoccupied with their partner’s needs, so that they don’t have to speak up and share their own needs with their partner in case they are rejected. By denying parts of themselves, the anxious attacher avoids the true intimacy they think they crave by not letting their partner get to know the real them.
Rikki Cloos, author of ‘The Anxious Hearts Guide’ (2001) writes that for those with anxious attachment, their fear of intimacy can show up as:
- hinting about their needs rather than stating them outright
- denying when they are upset to keep the peace
- hiding their desires and playing small out of fear of rejection
- hyper-focus on partner’s needs to avoid navigating their own internal emotional struggles
- being defensive
- being unwilling to honour their partner’s need for space
Often these behaviours can be irritating to a partner, causing them to pull away. This only reaffirms the anxious attacher’s anxiety and results in continued attempts to re-establish contact, often through engaging in protest behaviours (eg, incessant calling and texting, storming off in an argument to see if their partner will follow, threatening to leave the relationship) or activation strategies (such as excessive daydreaming and fixating on their partner in an unhealthy way).
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style:
The fearful-avoidant will have traits of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles, fearing both intimacy and abandonment. This manifests itself as both desperately wanting intimacy and connection with a partner whilst being incredibly fearful of relationships. Unfortunately, due to the fearful-avoidant attachment style being incredibly rare (in ‘Attached’ (2012), Levine and Heller suggest that only about 7% of people have a fearful-avoidant attachment style), there is less research available about this attachment style.
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you might exhibit the following behaviours:
- might encourage emotional intimacy early on in a relationship, then distance themselves later
- engage in heightened sexual behaviour to satisfy the need for closeness whilst being able to easily withdraw and avoid intimacy
- poor view of themselves: low self-esteem, feelings of being unlovable
- can perceive emotional support in relationships in a negative way, similarly to a dismissive-avoidants
- associated with showing increased likelihood for violence in relationships
- highly volatile relationships
- you might be called confusing by those you’re in relationships with, blowing hot and cold regularly
Please be aware that whilst some people do have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, attachment styles work on a spectrum. This means that even though you might mostly display behaviours indicative of one attachment style, you might also exhibit a few behaviours of another attachment style, but this does not necessarily mean you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style. Rather, you might just be a dismissive avoidant with a few anxious tendencies, or vice versa. If you’re unsure, it can be helpful to get in touch with a professional who is experienced in attachment styles to help you get a better understanding of your attachment style.
Working with a Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style:
If you have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style and are looking to move towards secure attachment, consider the following:
- Become aware of your childhood. Reflecting on how you were raised and your childhood might help you better understand why you have avoidant tendencies. This will help you identify the deeper meaning behind emotional triggers when they come up and can also help you to process underlying feelings of shame that is often experienced by those with insecure attachment. Begin extending compassion to yourself and know you are not alone in experiencing insecure attachment.
- when you feel unsafe and desire to seek space, try to lean into the discomfort created by connecting with your partner. Start off small! You could send a text when you feel like isolating, try to breathe through fears of engulfment when they arise or try to be more present when you’re with your partner.
- investigate your emotions. If you have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style, it will likely feel natural to numb, suppress, and avoid emotions, as disassociation is a common coping strategy for avoidant attachers. Rather than relying solely on numbing behaviours to regulate, to become more securely attached means becoming more comfortable with experiencing emotion in the body. It can be helpful to journal what feelings come up when you feel the urge to numb out. This can be quite matter of fact at first if you feel more comfortable. Try to name your feeling(s), write where you feel it in your body, how it feels (light, heavy, sinking etc), or even if it has a colour. Over time, doing regular emotional check ins will help make feeling intense emotions less scary. This can also be achieved through mindfulness practises, such as meditation, EFT and yoga.
- Work on tolerating other’s emotions. Because those with dismissive-avoidant attachment are so autonomy driven, it can feel unsafe to discuss someone else’s intimate feelings. But leaning into this discomfort slowly can help you learn that you don’t always have to emotionally regulate by yourself, and in fact, sometimes co-regulating with a partner can be incredibly helpful. If you don’t have space for your partner’s emotions one time, kindly and respectfully tell them, and perhaps agree to discuss what is on their mind another time.
- Communicate. If you feel the need for some alone time, that is completely natural, normal and important for you to feel emotionally regulated! Even if it feels unnatural to ask for your needs to be met, it will help your partner better understand how you’re wired and reduce the risk of them perceiving your need for alone time as an indication you don’t care. This is especially true if you are dating a partner with an anxious attachment style, as predictability and clear communication helps them feel less anxious (and means they are less likely to interrupt your alone time in attempts to self-regulate).
Working with an Anxious Attachment Style:
If you have an anxious attachment style, and are looking to move towards secure attachment, consider the following:
- Become aware of your upbringing. How did your childhood contribute to your attachment style? By asking yourself this question, you can begin to identify your emotional triggers in everyday life and release the power they hold over you by realising they are just reflecting a wound within you that needs healing. Know that you are not alone in experiencing anxious attachment and begin offering yourself some self-compassion.
- Own what you need. More than any attachment style, those with anxious attachment often feel deep shame about their emotional needs and fear being ‘too much’. But it is important to realise that everyone deserves to be loved unconditionally and have their emotional needs met-including people with an anxious attachment style.
- Develop a stronger sense of independence and self through finding hobbies and fulfilling friendships outside of your romantic relationship. This means you will be less likely to outsource your happiness to your partner and will be in the habit of taking care of yourself, so you don’t feel the need to demand this from your partner.
- Stop accepting breadcrumbs of intimacy. If anxious attachers continue to date a partner who won’t work on their emotional availability and refuses to meet their needs after communicating them, it can be very damaging for them emotionally to stay in that relationship. If you’re being offered emotional breadcrumbs, even if it’s hard, it might be time to walk away. An emotionally available partner will not make you repeatedly question whether or not you are loved.
- Try to accept when your partner asks for (reasonable) amounts of space. Leaning into the discomfort of isolation when your partner needs alone time and resisting the urge to engage in protest behaviours will be beneficial for both yourself and your partner. If this feels difficult, it can be helpful for anxious attachers to do develop self-soothing behaviours to help them emotionally regulate independently. Engaging with their bodies rather than their minds, which have the tendency to ruminate when distressed, can be incredibly helpful. Going for a swim, a run, painting or drawing can all be great ways to alleviate your discomfort.
- Ask your partner to communicate how long they need to take space for, if this is something they need to do often. This does not mean your partner should be asking for your permission to take space if they need it, but, explaining your anxieties to them and having a rough indicator of when they will be ready to connect with you again can ease the stresses of an anxiously attached person when their partner isn’t around.
Working with a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style:
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, and are looking to move towards secure attachment, consider the following:
- Become aware of your childhood. Reflecting on how you were raised might help you better understand why you have fearful-avoidant tendencies. This can be confusing for any type of insecure attachment, but for fearful-avoidants the combination of anxious and dismissive avoidant tendencies can make this especially difficult to navigate. It may be helpful to consult with a professional who understands attachment trauma and can help you make sense of the conflicting needs you experience in a productive and efficient way.
- Begin a mindfulness practise to help regulate emotional volatility-yoga, EFT, meditation and journaling can all be helpful tools to regulate your nervous system and help you to remember that feelings aren’t facts.
- Communicate with your partner. Even if you find it difficult to articulate the multi-faceted nature of fearful-avoidant attachment, your partner will undoubtedly appreciate the effort and vulnerability it takes to try. It can be really helpful for those with fearful-avoidant attachment to view their partner as a teammate who they can work with to improve their attachment style, and that begins with communicating with them.
- Work on releasing any shame you have surrounding your attachment style and relationship needs. People with fearful-avoidant attachment style often have low-self esteem and a lot of relational anxiety, but this does not mean they are any less deserving of love than anyone else. It might take a more inner work than those with secure attachment, but it is still perfectly possible to experience fulfilling, loving and lasting relationships if you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style. Try to offer yourself some patience and love while you’re working through it-you deserve it.
Trying to move towards an emotionally healthier version of yourself is an incredibly brave and worthwhile thing to do. But if you experience insecure attachment, it’s important to remind yourself during this process that shame is an incredibly poor motivator. If you can withhold any judgement of yourself and practise extending compassion to who you are today, the rewards you will reap will inevitably be more fulfilling, longer lasting and will create deeper healing.
Additional resources that may be helpful:
- ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find–and Keep—Love’ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller (2001)
- ‘The Anxious Hearts Guide: Rising Above Anxious Attachment’ by Rikki Cloos (2022)
- How To Do The Work’ by Dr. Nicole LePera (2021)
Fonagy, P. (2001). The human genome and the representational world: The role of early mother–infant interaction in creating an interpersonal interpretive mechanism. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 65, 427-448.
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