Exploring attachment styles and intimate relationships

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Whether you’re clingy or fiercely independent, and whether you pull away, shut down or explode in the face of conflict, has its roots in your first year of life.

The attachment style we form then – secure or insecure – develops into a working model of relationships that guides us in our relationships with friends and significant others for the rest of our lives. This attachment working model consists of two components. One component is how we perceive others – whether they can be trusted to give us the support we need. The other is self – a gauge of how likely it is that you will get your needs met and how worthy you are of receiving that. When two adults who are securely attached begin an intimate relationship, their working models guide them intuitively. But when attachment styles differ, problems are almost inevitable.

We know from research that attachment styles and behaviours aren’t an ‘all purpose guide’ for intimate relationships. However, they are ways of coping with stress within relationships. When we are happy and content in relationships – in a state of limerence with new love – a partner’s insecure attachment style may not be seen. It will become apparent when a stressful event occurs – think being late for a date, forgetting to call or not responding to a text. Within the insecure group are two dimensions: avoidance and anxiety. People with high avoidance have a fear of being vulnerable; they seek strength from within themselves and exhibit self-reliance and stoic independence. When they are in situations of high stress or emotionally flooded, they withdraw and seek solitude. Anxious types fear being abandoned or unappreciated by their partner. They invest heavily in the relationship but need constant reassurance of their partner’s commitment and often feel unworthy. This neediness and clinging often drives their partners away, which exacerbates their insecurities.

These so-called ‘styles’ are considered dimensions rather than defined categories and you may be one or the other to a greater or lesser degree. What’s more, attachment styles aren’t set in stone. They can slowly change as individuals have new relationship experiences. For instance, an avoidant or anxious individual whose partner is securely attached can, over time, learn to tone down their insecurities. However, it does take a lot of insight and effort on the part of the securely attached spouse to effect this change. Likewise, it takes awareness and compassion to refrain from encroaching on an avoidant partner when they need time and space.

We know from research that attachment styles and behaviours aren’t an ‘all purpose guide’ for intimate relationships.Alinda Small - Muse Sex & Relationships Expert

Learning to adjust, adapt and accept a partner’s attachment style is called partner buffering – learning how to respond to your partner in a style that suits their attachment behaviour. That may mean that you respond quickly to texts, call when you say you will or check in if you are running late. Appeasing them decreases their fear, and they will likely be more responsive to your needs.

Likewise if a partner recoils into their own world, allow them space but let them know you are there and that you care. If they feel it’s acceptable to retreat at times, they’re more likely to feel safe enough to open up to you in the future. To help your avoidant or anxious partner change that structure over time, you have to build on what’s already there, not tear it down and start anew. Intimate relationships are all about meeting each other’s needs.

Written by Alinda Small – Muse Sex & Relationships Expert

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