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Attachment styles and how they affect relationships

The way we relate to others, including our partners, is complex and multi-layered. It is developed over time, and although we can, to an extent, control what we say and do within our relationships, it is more difficult to understand why we behave and feel the way we do in relation to others.

One way of describing how we function within relationships is to talk about our style of 'attachment'. How we attach to others affects everything from the partners we choose, to how well our relationships progress and how they end. Once we recognise our attachment patterns, we begin to understand our strengths and vulnerabilities within our relationships, including those with friends and family.

Attachment patterns are established in early childhood. The developing infant builds up a set of 'models' of themselves and others based on repeated patterns of interpersonal experiences with their caregiver (usually the mother and/or father). These repeated patterns continue to function as 'internal working models' for relationships in adulthood. The problem is that much of this is happening at an unconscious level and, as such, we remain unaware of these models, leaving us likely to repeat unhelpful patterns which may, in turn, leave us feeling frustrated and hurt.

The four different attachment styles

According to attachment theory, there are four attachment styles.

Secure attachment

Securely attached people tend to have satisfying relationships. Broadly speaking, their internal working model gives them a core sense of being safe and secure within themselves. These people feel more or less good about themselves and their capacity to be effective and create positive relationships. This can also be described as having good self-esteem. This allows them to believe that if they experience a rupture or a falling out with a friend or partner, it’s OK. The relationship can be repaired and things will get back on track between them.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment

These people are often described as being clingy and needy. Their internal working model does not provide them with a core sense of safety and security. They look to others to provide this for them.  Therefore, when they experience a rupture or falling out, they feel insecure and unsafe and in their attempt to feel secure and safe again, and they become demanding and possessive of their friends and partners because they cannot provide themselves with these feelings. Unfortunately, this behaviour tends to push people away - confirming their worse fear - and so the cycle is complete.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment

People with this style of attachment tend to distance themselves from others emotionally. Like people with an insecure-ambivalent attachment style, their internal working model does not provide them with a sense of safety and security, but they protect themselves from this by becoming 'pseudo-independent' and telling themselves that they do not need people. They have the ability to shut down emotionally and turn off their feelings, even in heated arguments with friends or partners. Their relationships often end because their friends and partners experience them as detached and unemotional.

Fearful-avoidant attachment

A person with this style of attachment fears being both too close or too distant from other people, and moves between these two states. They often feel overwhelmed by their feelings, over which they feel they have little control. Their internal working model is that in order to achieve any sense of safety and security, they need to move towards people, but that if they let people get too close they will get hurt. This leaves them in a state of confusion as to how to get their needs met, although this may not be entirely conscious. What they are conscious of are feelings of being trapped when they get close to people, and clinging to people who reject them. Their relationships can end up being abusive.

How psychotherapy can help

By becoming aware of your attachment style, over time you can challenge the insecurities and fears that have formed your 'internal working model', and develop new styles of attachment for sustaining more secure and satisfying relationships with others. This sounds easy but, in reality, it is more complex. Exploring and understanding your internal working model and resultant core state can be challenging, as defensive strategies that have come into play to protect you from psychological pain are hard to change and can leave you feeling vulnerable.

However, change is possible within a relationship of trust with a skilled and experienced therapist. On a very basic level, the relationship with the therapist provides a space where repeated patterns of interpersonal experience occur and can be thought about. The therapist will be able to stand back and reflect on what is happening between you with the intention of helping you identify the patterns which, so far, have remained unconscious and out of your awareness. In this way, over time, you are able to choose to do things differently, bit by bit.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Anna Reynolds MClinSci, PGDip, BA Hons. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

There are many different reasons why you might be looking for help from a counsellor or psychotherapist. It may be that you are struggling with a difficult life event or are looking for support to help you manage a time of transition and change. Sometimes conflicts within our relationships become overwhelming; at these times a space in which to work through these problems with a neutral, empathic,… Read more

Written by Anna Reynolds MClinSci, PGDip, BA Hons. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

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