From childhood, we cling to comfort, shared experience, laughter, and signs that we matter to the people around us. We go through life searching, yearning, hoping, or even praying to find love.
Someone to connect with, to be accepted by, someone who sees through us to the core of who we are; who will accept us unabashedly whether through family, friendship, camaraderie at work, or romantically.
How do you respond when faced with a conflict with a loved one? Do you find yourself guarded, defensively waiting for something overwhelming to happen, preparing to respond quickly, or shut down? Are you the type that will ignore the potential risks or struggles of what may happen the moment so you can get through the responsibility or task while waiting for it to be “handled” before giving yourself permission to process the fears surrounding the event?
Or are you the type of person who will at times become paralyzed with doubt while all the potential pitfalls flip through your mind like a page in a book when faced with a difficult choice/responsibility/ task? Do you find yourself overly anxious about the other person’s thoughts, judgment, or possibility to reject you?
Are you a little bit of both? These examples fall on the spectrum of what we in the mental health field call Attachment Styles.
Our style of attachment is established in early childhood with the relationships that were formed and continues as a road map on how we establish for romantic, friend, and work relationships in adulthood. Understanding our attachment styles is important in recognizing our strengths and vulnerabilities in how we connect with and maintain relationships.
Attachment theory is a concept in developmental psychology that reflects on the importance of attachment in regard to personal development. Specifically, it makes the claim that the ability of an individual to form an emotional and physical attachment to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to grow and develop as a personality. Psychologist John Bowlby established the precedent that childhood development depended heavily upon a child’s ability to form a strong relationship with “at least one primary caregiver”, whether that be the parents, grandparents, or other caregivers that are consistent.
Attachment is a very important part of the human experience. The earliest attachment that humans experience is between infant and the caregiver- named the “Object” in this theory. One hypothesis is that the quality of this early attachment can have profound effects on a person and can particularly affect one’s capacity to form loving attachments to others as an adult.
Secure Attachment –Children form a secure attachment when they are able to see their parent as a constant figure who will be present in times of need as well as to return to once they’ve ventured out independently to explore the world. A secure adult has a similar relationship with their romantic partner, feeling secure and connected while allowing themselves and their partner to grow independently. People in this category of attachment feel comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. One major benefit of a securely attached relationship is that couples deal with conflicts constructively as they tend to see conflict as an opportunity to communicate and share their feelings. This sort of attachment is very healthy in a relationship and usually brings the couple closer together.
Anxious Attachment – Children form an anxious attachment when they have not had the confidence in their abilities to be independently reinforced as they explored the world. They tend to replay all the negative outcomes that they fear will validate their worthlessness or failure. They often feel emotional hunger and are frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding, or possessive toward their partner.
Due to their fears of loss and abandonment, discussing relationship problems can be difficult for them. They feel underappreciated and see others as undependable because they excessively worry that they are not loved or will be left. Conflict usually brings about doubts and negativity about the relationship or the partner as the results highlight their own perceived failures.
Avoidant Attachment –Children with avoidant attachment style believes the person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. Individuals in the avoidant category are fearful of emotional dependency which can limit their ability to develop intimate relationships. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may feel trapped when they are close as they do not believe these times will last. When triggered, they will push people away and reinforce the belief that the only person they can ever truly rely on, is themselves- everyone will at some point let them down. In times of conflict, they may shut down emotionally and come across distant, cold, and calculated. Individuals with avoidant attachment rarely look for help or support from their partner, as it leaves the person too vulnerable and exposed, perceiving a hesitation or the inability to help as an affirmation of abandonment or rejection.
So, how does conflict play into these attachment behaviors?
Often times, on our journey of self-discovery, the most daunting realization is that we have not been the one forging our stories, but rather living out a narrative that has been written for us long ago. The attachment type we developed as a child as a result of our early relationships with our caregivers does not have to continue defining our existence. With this knowledge and understanding of our past experiences, we can acknowledge how it has shaped the person we became and then actively choose who we wish to become. By becoming aware of our maladaptive defenses, we can then challenge them in how we respond in relationships and work towards creating healthy secure attachments. The question is, are you ready to make the shift within yourself and if necessary, sever the ties with those who also hold unhealthy attachment styles?