We’re wired for attachment — that’s why babies cry when separated from their mothers. Depending especially upon our mother’s behavior, as well as later experiences and other factors, we develop a style of attaching that affects our behavior in close relationships.
Fortunately, most people have a secure attachment, because it favors survival. It ensures that we’re safe and can help each other in a dangerous environment.
The anxiety we feel when we don’t know the whereabouts of our child or of a missing loved one during a disaster, as in the movie “The Impossible,” isn’t codependent. It’s normal. Frantic calls and searching are considered “protest behavior,” like a baby fretting for its mother.
We seek or avoid intimacy along a continuum, but one of the following three styles is generally predominant whether we’re dating or in a long term marriage:
- Secure: 50 percent of the population
- Anxious: 20 percent of the population
- Avoidant: 25 percent of the population
Combinations, such as Secure-Anxious or Anxious-Avoidant, are three to five percent of the population. To determine your style, take this quiz designed by researcher R. Chris Fraley, PhD.
Warmth and loving come naturally, and you’re able to be intimate without worrying about the relationship or little misunderstandings. You accept your partner’s minor shortcomings and treat him or her with love and respect. You don’t play games or manipulate but are direct and able to openly and assertively share your wins and losses, needs, and feelings. You’re also responsive to those of your partner and try to meet your partner’s needs. Because you have good self-esteem, you don’t take things personally and aren’t reactive to criticism. Thus, you don’t become defensive in conflicts. Instead, you de-escalate them by problem-solving, forgiving, and apologizing.
You want to be close and are able to be intimate. To maintain a positive connection, you give up your needs to please and accommodate your partner in. But because you don’t get your needs met, you become unhappy. You’re preoccupied with the relationship and highly attuned to your partner, worrying that he or she wants less closeness. You often take things personally with a negative twist and project negative outcomes. This could be explained by brain differences that have been detected among people with anxious attachments.
To alleviate your anxiety, you may play games or manipulate your partner to get attention and reassurance by withdrawing, acting out emotionally, not returning calls, provoking jealousy, or by threatening to leave. You may also become jealous of his or her attention to others and call or text frequently, even when asked not to.
If you avoid closeness, your independence and self-sufficiency are more important to you than intimacy. You can enjoy closeness — to a limit. In relationships, you act self-sufficient and self-reliant and aren’t comfortable sharing feelings. (For example, in one study of partners saying goodbye in an airport, avoiders didn’t display much contact, anxiety, or sadness in contrast to others.) You protect your freedom and delay commitment. Once committed, you create mental distance with ongoing dissatisfaction about your relationship, focusing on your partner’s minor flaws or reminiscing about your single days or another idealized relationship.
Just as the anxiously attached person is hypervigilant for signs of distance, you’re hypervigilant about your partner’s attempts to control you or limit your autonomy and freedom in any way. You engage in distancing behaviors, such as flirting, making unilateral decisions, ignoring your partner, or dismissing his or her feelings and needs. Your partner may complain that you don’t seem to need him or her or that you’re not open enough, because you keep secrets or don’t share feelings. In fact, he or she often appears needy to you, but this makes you feel strong and self-sufficient by comparison.
You don’t worry about a relationship ending. But if the relationship is threatened, you pretend to yourself that you don’t have attachment needs and bury your feelings of distress. It’s not that the needs don’t exist, they’re repressed. Alternatively, you may become anxious because the possibility of closeness no longer threatens you.
Even people who feel independent when on their own are often surprised that they become dependent once they’re romantically involved. This is because intimate relationships unconsciously stimulate your attachment style and either trust or fear from your past experiences. It’s normal to become dependent on your partner to a healthy degree. When your needs are met, you feel secure.
You can assess your partner’s style by their behavior and by their reaction to a direct request for more closeness. Does he or she try to meet your needs or become defensive and uncomfortable or accommodate you once and the return to distancing behavior? Someone who is secure won’t play games, communicates well, and can compromise. A person with an anxious attachment style would welcome more closeness but still needs assurance and worries about the relationship.
Anxious and avoidant attachment styles look like codependency in relationships. They characterize the feelings and behavior of pursuers and distancers described in my blog “The Dance of Intimacy” and book, Conquering Shame and Codependency. Each one is unconscious of their needs, which are expressed by the other. This is one reason for their mutual attraction.
Pursuers with an anxious style are usually disinterested in someone available with a secure style. They usually attract someone who is avoidant. The anxiety of an insecure attachment is enlivening and familiar, though it’s uncomfortable and makes them more anxious. It validates their abandonment fears about relationships and beliefs about not being enough, lovable, or securely loved.
Distancers need someone pursuing them to sustain their emotional needs that they largely disown and which wouldn’t be met by another avoider. Unlike those securely attached, pursuers and distancers aren’t skilled at resolving disagreements. They tend to become defensive and attack or withdraw, escalating conflict. Without the chase, conflict, or compulsive behavior, both pursuers and distancers begin to feel depressed and empty due to their painful early attachments.
Although most people don’t change their attachment style, you can alter yours to be more or less secure depending upon experiences and conscious effort. To change your style to be more secure, seek therapy as well as relationships with others who are capable of a secure attachment. If you have an anxious attachment style, you will feel more stable in a committed relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style. This helps you become more secure. Changing your attachment style and healing from codependency go hand-in-hand. Both involve the following:
- Heal your shame and raise your self-esteem. (See my books on shame and self-esteem.) This enables you not to take things personally.
- Learn to be assertive. (See How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits.)
- Learn to identify, honor, and assertively express your emotional needs.
- Risk being authentic and direct. Don’t play games or try to manipulate your partner’s interest.
- Practice acceptance of yourself and others to become less faultfinding — a tall order for codependents and distancers.
- Stop reacting, and learn to resolve conflict and compromise from a “we” perspective.
Pursuers need to become more responsible for themselves and distancers more responsible to their partners. The result is a more secure, interdependent, rather than codependent relationship or solitude with a false sense of self-sufficiency.
Among singles, statistically there are more avoiders, since people with a secure attachment are more likely to be in a relationship. Unlike avoiders, they’re not searching for an ideal, so when a relationship ends, they aren’t single too long. This increases the probability that daters who anxiously attach will date avoiders, reinforcing their negative spin on relationship outcomes.
Moreover, anxious types tend to bond quickly and don’t take time to assess whether their partner can or wants to meet their needs. They tend to see things they share in common with each new, idealized partner and overlook potential problems. In trying to make the relationship work, they suppress their needs, sending the wrong signals to their partner in the long run. All of this behavior makes attaching to an avoider more probable. When he or she withdraws, their anxiety is aroused. Pursuers confuse their longing and anxiety for love rather than realizing it’s their partner’s unavailability that is the problem. It’s not themselves or anything they did or could do to change that. They hang in and try harder, instead of facing the truth and cutting their losses.
Particularly after leaving an unhappy codependent relationship, people fear that being dependent on someone will make them more dependent. That may be true in codependent relationships when there isn’t a secure attachment. However, in a secure relationship, healthy dependency allows you to be more interdependent. You have a safe and secure base from which to explore the world. This is also what gives toddlers the courage to individuate, express their true selves, and become more autonomous.
Similarly, people in therapy often fear becoming dependent upon their therapist and leave when they begin to feel a little better. This is when their dependency fears arise and should be addressed — the same fears that keep them from having secure attachments in relationships and propels them to seek someone avoidant. In fact, good therapy provides a secure attachment to allow people to grow and become more autonomous, not less.
Herein lays the paradox: We can be more independent when we’re dependent on someone else — provided it’s a secure attachment. This is another reason why it’s hard to change on your own or in an insecure relationship without outside support.
Suggested reading on attachment
The many books by John Bowlby
Mikulincer and Shaver, Attachment Adulthood Structure, Dynamics, and Change(2007)
Levine and Heller, Attached (2010)
What if we could identify the filter that shapes our perception of the world and change it so as to have a better life? We are born into the social context of our families and quickly need to /develop strategies to get our needs met by our caretakers. Depending on our early emotional environment, we make the best adaptation to get our needs met by the potential caretakers we have available to us, usually our parents or other relatives. We are incredibly adaptive creatures, which is quite possibly our most unique feature as humans. Our early interactions create internal working models of how our future relationships will transpire and of how we will go about getting our needs met. Research has demonstrated that these childhood relationships shape our perceptions of others and our understanding of their minds and motives. These internal working models also influence the ways others are likely to treat us and perceive us. They impact our ability to self-regulate and tolerate our emotions and the level of distress we experience. They contribute to the development of personality disorders and, to a lesser extent, to mental illness in general.
How does this veil through which we experience the world and the world experiences us impact our thoughts, feelings, and behavior? What is the language of this filter? I believe it is the “critical inner voice.” “What’s wrong with me?” is perhaps the most common question I hear patients and friends utter when pondering the mystery of their own behavior patterns. “What scares me away from getting close to someone who really loves me?” “What draws me to desperately long for that person who continually rejects me?” The answers to these questions can frequently be found in a complex combination of unique human experiences, but one factor is a universally accurate determinant of the make up of our adult struggles. Our earliest attachments significantly contribute to the puzzle of how we relate to others in our lives.
The adaptations we make to the interactive relationship between ourselves and our early caretakers impact every area of our lives as adults, from how we parent to how we treat our partner. The particular attachment style we develop strongly colors the lens through which we view the world. It often operates as a subconscious force that can leave us reliving rather than living our lives, recreating in one form or another feelings from our earliest social relationships in our current lives.However, we are not trapped by or locked into our attachment style. Research has demonstrated that these patterns are malleable and can be altered in the context of reparative relationships. We can alter patterns that were at one time the best possible adaptions to our social world, and instead, live our lives based on pursuing our adult goals and desires in a flexible manner. When we stop reliving our past, we adapt to our current life circumstances and create satisfying loving relationships with our partners, our children and our friends.
We can start by exploring: what is our attachment style? How was it formed and in what ways is it impacting our lives? We can get to know our “critical inner voice,” an internal coach that monitors this filter through which we see the world. Our critical inner voice is the language of these internal working models of relationships and our social world. It encourages us to recreate our early lives through our behavior, both by evoking responses from others and projecting our past on to people in our present lives. Once we have identified this enemy within, we can know what to challenge. It will then be possible to change behaviors and shift the patterns that have kept us stuck in the past, and free ourselves to live fully in the present.
Securely attached individuals grow up feeling safe, seen, secure and soothed. They see their caretakers as a secure base from which they can venture out to explore independently but whom they can always return to for safety or nurturance. Think about a baby crawling around on his own, enjoying the adventure of new discoveries. When something startles him, he can return to his parent for comfort. However, once soothed, he feels comfortable to again go out on his own. People with this type of attachment orientation are adaptive and flexible. They tend to have an easy time in social relationships. In school, they receive more positive reactions from both teachers and peers alike.
A secure attachment is the ideal type of attachment that we would like to form, as adults, with our children, our close friends or our romantic partner. When we have a secure attachment style, we have faith that we can get our needs met by others and we are able to be giving toward others. We can appropriately depend on others and rely on ourselves. We are capable of and drawn to feeling trust and closeness, but we can also feel secure within ourselves separate from others.
Insecurely attached individuals did not feel security in their early relationships and developed different adaptations to attempt to get their needs met. In one style, called anxious attachment in children and ambivalent or preoccupied attachment in adults, the individual learned that to get his or her needs met by staying focused on the caregiver and remaining in their proximity; eventually they will meet the child’s needs.
Preoccupied individuals have a more frantic, less confident approach to getting their needs met by others. They tend to act clingy or needy, because their needs were inconsistently met as children. They may have had a parent who sometimes met their needs, but at other times acted out of their own needs or was intrusive with the child. These unresolved issues from childhood play out in their present day relationships, making them feel anxious and insecure, even when there is no need to feel this way. Think about the person who is constantly jealous or overly worried about his partner’s whereabouts, or the person who never believes her spouse really loves her and constantly seeks reassurance. Another way a person might recreate this pattern in their adult relationships is to unconsciously be drawn to partners who are inconsistently available, thus recreating the feeling of their early environment. In essence, they can maintain their defended posture; they may feel miserable but in an old familiar way.
An individual with a dismissing attachment style has the opposite way of relating. They have learned early on that the best way to get their needs met is to act like they don’t have any. As adults, they often act pseudo-independent, taking care of themselves and acting like they don’t need anything from others. They rarely have many memories of their childhood, or they will write off whatever took place in their childhood as not mattering. These people often resist seeking out connection or closeness and avoid feeling dependent on others.
So, once we identify our attachment style, what can we do about it? There are two primary ways to alter your attachment style. One is by getting into a long-term relationship with someone with a healthier attachment style than your own. The second is entering into psychotherapy. Therapy helps, because good therapy itself offers a secure attachment. In the therapeutic relationship, you ideally feel both safe and seen. In addition, therapy can help a person identify the filter they see the world through, challenge their critical inner voices and the defenses they formed to deal with emotional pain in their earliest relationships.
For example, if you have a preoccupied attachment style, you can learn to identify and get a hold of your insecurities and moments of anxiety. You can become aware of the critical inner voices that are fueling these feelings and come to recognize the internal working models that are informing your perception of the situation. You can learn techniques to calm down within yourself rather than acting out toward your partner and potentially hurting the relationship. You can start to develop a new image of yourself and trust in others.
Furthermore, psychotherapy helps you to do the most valuable thing you can do when it comes to living life free of the more negative impositions of your history; it enables you to create a coherent narrative, so that you can both understand your past and evolve in the present. This process involves both making sense of your story and feeling the full pain of your childhood. Only then, can you truly start to change the lens through which you see the world or the model for how you relate. Instead of unconsciously replicating your childhood, reformulating similar attachments to those you had as a kid, you can reshape your relationships to be what you want them to be.
A healthy, secure relationship will further reshape your attachment model, as you have the lived experience of relating to a trusting, caring, attuned partner. You can begin to see the world in a more realistic light, rather than taking on the point of view of your critical inner voice. You can form healthier relationships and live the life you imagined, not the one prescribed to you from your past.