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How attachment styles affect our romantic relationships

Image of a young couple laying together

As humans, right from the get-go, we crave human interaction. We’re hard-wired to desire human touch and meaningful communication. And these experiences throughout childhood and early adulthood define our core beliefs, instilling in us what’s important, and what we can leave behind.

The experiences we have with our primary caregivers in relation to the fulfilment of our needs, allows us to form a style of attachment to other humans that provides a working model of attachment as we enter adulthood.

When we embark on romantic relationships, our need for intimacy and how we approach this desire is shaped by the core beliefs we have established. Be it positive or negative, we have a certain ‘typical’ style in which we will act upon intimacy to fulfil our needs with a significant other. Thus our approach to intimacy can actually be categorised into attachment styles.

Acknowledging our attachment styles and recognising the stereotypical behaviours of said style, can go a long way in helping us to understand our vulnerabilities and strengths within romantic relationships and help us to make positive compatibility choices. 

Attachment style theory 

The attachment style theory was first coined in the 50s by John Bowlby, noting that attachment to other humans is a basic need, just like food and water. It’s a working model for understanding the human connection and how the fulfilment of basic needs in childhood will determine how we perceive the world, developing a set of expectations and ideals. 

Attachment to others is almost like a safety mechanism using the emotional brain to determine how safe we feel with others.

The form of attachment we develop (the attachment styles) will dictate how we choose romantic partners, why we choose them and how we react towards intimacy within that relationship.

The attachment styles

Identified in the late 70s, Mary Ainsworth determined three styles of attachment in an observational study. Let’s look at each style in turn and how they might affect our romantic relationships in adulthood.

The secure type

The secure attachment style would generally indicate that the person had a happy and fulfilled childhood, enjoying a healthy relationship with their parents or caregivers. They would have developed a responsive relationship with their caregiver in that the caregiver understood and responded in a sensitive, appropriate way to the child’s needs.

In later life, this person would be completely comfortable welcoming intimacy and closeness into their relationships, and wouldn’t perceive potential ‘threats’ – for example, another person befriending your significant other and affecting their availability towards you – as an actual threat to their safety mechanism. 

Couple cuddling

The anxious type

Typically, people who possess an anxious attachment style may struggle to feel secure and comfortable in their romantic relationships. In childhood, caregivers may have been lacking consistency in their attentiveness towards a child’s needs, even abusive, or on the other end of the scale, a child could have experienced extremely overprotective parents that may have fuelled the child’s own anxieties.

In terms of romantic relationships, this may lead to an adult exerting overly clingy behaviour or needing constant reassurance of their significant other’s feelings towards them. The anxious type may become volatile and easily angered when they don’t receive their perceived adequate level of attention, becoming highly dependent on their partner for total stability in the relationship, even placing their life’s purpose and own worth on the status of their relationship.

The avoidant type

Avoidant attachment types are often highly independent, uncomfortable with intimacy and can lack commitment. They are able to rationalise why they shouldn’t commit in an intimate relationship, often sabotaging any relationship that has the potential to develop romantically.

The avoidant attachment style can often be used as a defence mechanism. In childhood, if the needs of the avoidant type aren’t constantly fulfilled by their caregiver, a child quickly learns that dependency on others is futile and that they can only rely on themselves.

In a romantic relationship, a person will often struggle with feelings of ‘suffocation’ and ‘crowding’, pushing the other person away in an unconscious attempt not to repeat their childhood experiences with the caregiver.

An example of avoidant behaviour is a person ending their relationship first, for fear the other person will end it. The avoidant person acts in this way so they can protect themselves, and take control of the situation, something they were unable to do as a child.

Boy and girl back to back

How to manage attachment style behaviour

If you struggle with maintaining romantic relationships, it might be helpful to identify which style of attachment you possess. In doing so you can understand how these behaviours may lead to unfulfilled romantic relationships.

Early childhood trauma, inconsistency and indifferent behaviour from a caregiver can undoubtedly affect your behaviour towards relationships and intimacy in later life. Working with a trained counsellor or therapist can help you identify some of the scenarios that lead to certain attachment behaviours and support you in managing them, so you can better manage your own romantic relationships.

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Katie Hoare

Written by Katie Hoare

Katie Hoare is a marketing and content officer for Counselling Directory.

Written by Katie Hoare

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