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About Attachment in Relationships

“To be human is to need others, and this is no flaw or weakness.”

Sue Johnson

What is attachment and why does it matter?

As human beings, we seek to be close to, cared for and understood by others. This drive is called “attachment,” and it is not just a behavior, but a need that persists throughout our life.

The quality of our closest relationships has a strong impact on our health and wellbeing. When we are struggling in our relationships, chances are we are struggling internally as well. Further, when are emotional needs are not being met in relationships, we suffer.

Put simply: to survive as human beings, we need relationships with others; to thrive, we need supportive, responsive and secure relationships.

How do we learn to attach?

We first learn how to attach to others when we are children. Generally, this learning happens in the context of the relationships we have with our parents or primary caregivers.

If our caregivers are consistently available and responsive to our emotional needs, we learn that expressing emotions is helpful and that we can depend on others in times of distress. However, if we received inconsistent or invalidating responses to our emotions, we learn that we can’t depend on others for emotional comfort, that expressing emotion is only met with comfort sometimes or that certain emotions are unacceptable.

How our emotional expression and needs were handled in our early attachments affects the way we experience relationships as adults. The way we experience relationships and moderate our emotional behavior based on our early attachments is referred to as our “attachment style.” All attachment styles are an adaptive response to the environment we grew up in. Their goal is to help us preserve relationships with others and to moderate our own behavior in relationships accordingly.

Attachment styles

Generally speaking, our attachment behavior in adults relationships falls into the following three categories: secure, anxious or avoidant. It is important to recognize that we all engage in secure, anxious and avoidant behaviors in relationships. However, relational behaviors that we repeat frequently, rigidly and often subconsciously define our attachment style.

  • When we experience secure attachment in relationships, we find it easy to feel close, express our emotions, set boundaries, and give and receive love.
  • When we experience anxious attachment in relationships, we may get frequently emotionally escalated or anxious in our relationships, have persistent anxiety that our partner does not love us or will leave us, experience difficulty trusting our partner, and feel we can never be as emotionally close to others as we’d like.
  • When we experience avoidant attachment in relationships, we may have difficulty connecting to and sharing our emotions, feel easily smothered or trapped in relationships, push others away when they try to get close and feel far more comfortable with independence than intimacy.

If you recognize yourself or your partner in the latter two attachment styles, you are in good company. While approximately 60% of the adult population has a secure attachment style, the remaining 40% has either an anxious or avoidant attachment style. Left unaddressed, an anxious or avoidant attachment style can negatively impact our self-esteem, mental health and quality of relationships.

How attachment-based therapy can help you.

So, how do we move towards secure attachment? First of all, it is important to know that our attachment style is not set in stone; with dedication and time, you can shift the way you experience attachment in relationships.

This process begins with understanding and exploring your own relationship history, including the messages you have internalized about the security (or insecurity) of connecting with others and expressing emotions, as well as uncovering the emotional patterns that play out for you in relationships.

Therapy is a safe and supportive space to do this work, either individually or as a couple. The important thing to remember is that you are not broken, and you are not alone; many, many people with a history of anxious and avoidant attachment patterns go on to form loving, lasting and secure relationships.

Curious to learn more about attachment-based therapy? Contact me today for a free, 20-minute phone consultation.

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