Attachment theory has come into the fore of late, but it actually dates back to our old pal Freud. Well, at least the basis for it. It was developed further by Bowlby and Adler in the twentieth century to become the science we know today. But, what is attachment? In short, it’s how we attach to others. And how do we learn to attach? From our caregivers of course.
Attachment mostly forms in the first year of life and there are four types; anxious, avoidant, secure and disorganized/fearful. Depending on our attachment style we can find attaching to others very challenging or relatively easy.
Colloquially called ‘bunny boiler’ or ‘clingy’. People with anxious attachment need a lot more reassurance than the other types. Anxious attachers struggle to trust that the connection and love isn’t going away.
Think Ross from Friends, he is a classic anxious attacher. He is so insecure about his relationship with Rachel that he is completely over the top, for example, sending the barbershop quartet to her office. And then showing up with the picnic because she was working late. Remember how jealous Ross was of Rachel’s colleague Mark? And how immediately after she said she needed a break, he sought validation from the ‘Xerox girl’. All classic signs of anxious attachment.
However, anxious attachers can be the kindest and most romantic partners out there. They’re highly sensitive to changes in the dynamics of a relationship and once they receive the reassurance they crave, they can be incredibly sweet and thoughtful, if a bit full on.
Colloquially called a ‘fuckboy’. People with avoidant attachment need a lot more space than the other types. Avoidant attachers value their personal freedoms over anything else. They have a deep-seated fear of intimacy and will often try to bolt as soon as someone gets too close.
Think Lorelai from Gilmore Girls, she is a classic avoidant attacher. She keeps Jason (Digger) a secret from her parents, ostensibly because she doesn’t want them involved, but really because she wants to keep him at arms’ length. She breaks up with Max, by literally running away from their wedding. She pushes Luke away constantly, eventually convincing herself it's not right because he won’t marry her, on the spot, with five seconds’ notice.
Avoidant attachers struggle with intimate relationships. Avoidant attachers will find the smallest reason to pull away from a romantic relationship, for example ‘oh he doesn’t like white wine, guess we’re not meant to be’. Avoidant attachers need to do a lot of inner work, and have open and honest communication with their partners about their need for space in order to make relationships work.
Also known as the ‘boring’ attachment. This is one you rarely see in movies or TV because it doesn’t make for very dramatic viewing. Secure attachers are comfortable in intimate relationships and are comfortable expressing emotion with an intimate partner. These types are very secure in their relationships.
Think Rebecca Pearson in This is Us. She is so comfortable in her relationships with Jack and her children. She can hold space for her children’s emotions without projecting her own. Even when her children are adults, she shows up for them and has no problem having the hard talks. Like when her granddaughter Tess comes out in season three, and she tells her about how holding emotions in your body can cause pain from her own experience. It’s all very calm and open. When Kate is getting married, she openly talks with her about her own feelings and Kate’s negative perceptions of her without any drama.
Secure attachers are the most comfortable in relationships. Think that couple who rarely have any major drama or blow outs. All relationships have jealousy, anxiety, conflict and tears, but secure attachers manage the majority of them without falling off the edge.
Disorganized/fearful attachment is a combination of anxious and avoidant styles. People with this attachment style often crave intimacy and can be quite ‘clingy’ but as soon as someone gets close attempt to run away. This type of attachment often comes with a ‘self-destruct’ button, i.e., getting close to someone and building a relationship, then sabotaging it because the intimacy feels uncomfortable.
Think Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. She desperately craved male attention, having a never-ending stream of boyfriends, but as soon as the relationship got comfortable, she pushed them away. Look at Aidan, he proposed, and once she had the reassurance that he loved her, she refused to wear the ring and cheated on him. Even Mr Big, she chased after him for years, constantly pining for him, turning herself inside out to please him. And then as soon as they’re engaged and she’s comfortable, she’s throwing a wedding he’s explicitly said he’s not interested in. She’s absconding to Mexico with her friends, she’s saying ‘it’s all my fault’.
This attachment style is a very small minority of the population but is well known for it’s push-pull dynamic. Often this type of attachment is due to childhood trauma, and can be worked on by working through the underlying issues.
No attachment type is exempt from engaging in protest behaviour, but secures are less likely than the others to demonstrate it. Protest behaviour looks similar across the other three attachment styles, what is different however is the intent. Protest behaviour could be:
Withdrawing: Ignoring their partner, not responding to calls/texts.
Waiting to see how long it takes for a partner to call back and then waiting the same amount of time before returning their call.
Eye rolling, walking away or leaving the room.
Making comments like “I can’t do this anymore”.
Trying to incite jealously e.g., flirting with someone else in front of them.
In anxious attachment, protest behaviour is designed to incite reassurance. When they walk away, they want to be followed. However, in avoidant attachment they do not want to be followed, protest behaviour is designed to create space and distance. With disorganized/fearful attachment it could be either, or both. The only way to know for sure which one is in front of you, is to be open. To say, “I wanted to follow you, but I wasn’t sure if it was OK”. If you want to learn more about attachment and discover your attachment type I’d recommend reading ‘Attached’ by Amir Levine & Rachel Heller.
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