Have you ever felt yourself going down a relationship spiral of anxious emotions, regrettable actions or irrational behaviors? Maybe you find yourself feeling the need to get as far away as you can and pining after a long-lost ex. Or, maybe relationships have always come easy for you.
All of these thoughts and feelings can be explained by attachment theory, which explains how we form and maintain romantic attachments with other people. Overall, it teaches us why we act the way we do in relationships. An understanding of this theory can teach us our fundamental views about ourselves and the world around us, as well as give us the tools to help us overcome personal relationship struggles and insecurities.
So, what is attachment theory?
As humans, we are designed to form attachments. Research shows that our attachment system is an evolutionary adaptation through which we form bonds with people in order to get through life — to survive. As stated by researcher and anthropologist Helen Fischer, “Romantic love is a primary motivation system — a fundamental human mating drive.” A need for someone to share our lives with is literally woven into our genetic makeup.
In the mid 1980’s, Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver indicated that we develop instinctual processes and patterns of attachment in childhood that we carry with us into our adult relationships. This is through parent-infant attachment, the bond between primary caregiver and child where we develop processes of attachment through physical contact, such as hugging, baby talk or kissing. This establishes an internal working model that cultivates our implicit associations, influences emotional reactions and governs how you will feel about yourself, others and intimate relationships.
DePaul Professor Tim Cole has been teaching attachment theory in his classes. His work is on deceptive communication, romantic relationships and relational communication. He describes attachment theory as “a way of understanding people’s comfort with intimacy and closeness as well as individual expectations of relationships. This work explains patterns of communications including betrayal, conflict, affection and deception, as well as the dynamics of what happens in your relationships, your own emotional reactions, needs and expectations.”
Our attachment system provides emotional, lightning-fast responses in how we relate to others, and in turn, defines relationships for the rest of our lives. Attachment researcher Amir Levine says that one of the main messages of attachment theory is that in romantic situations we are often programmed to act in a predetermined manner.
As children, the relationship with our caregiver teaches us how to form a partnership and take care of our safety. Differences in the relationship with our caregiver as children result in four variations of the adult romantic attachment system: secure, anxious, avoidant and fearful. These attachment styles govern how we manage interdependence, as well as affect how we communicate, emote and empathize. They influence our goals, interpretations, motivations and reactions.
Carolyn McCabe, a communications and media graduate from the DePaul class of 2020, said that she tends to hold off for a while when getting to know someone new. “It’s rare for me to fully let go but when I do, I know that I’m in it for the long run. In the beginning of relationships I tend to put out a front that I don’t really care about it, which isn’t true but it is my twisted way of protecting myself.”
McCabe has an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. This style means that although she is highly anxious, she does not outwardly display this behavior. In fact, she displays the opposite. Attachment theory would argue that this pattern of self-protection in the beginning of a relationship stems from the internal working model provided by her attachment style.
These styles define our comfort with vulnerability, closeness, and intimacy, as well as inform us of the views we hold of ourselves and others. Secure individuals often hold a positive view of self and others. Anxious individuals often hold a negative view of self and a positive view of others. Avoidant individuals often hold a positive view of self and a negative view of others. And fearful individuals, which is a combination of anxious and avoidant, hold a negative view of self and of others.
Marcela Ferrarone is a senior at Pepperdine University in California where she majors in theater and communications. When Marcela took an attachment style quiz she was surprised at her results — she tested as secure, with minimal anxiety or avoidance.
Her secure working model can be seen through her views on entering a relationship. “I am not going to get into a relationship with someone that isn’t going to work,” she said. She also believes that a relationship is an additive to one’s happiness and that you can’t rely on others to provide that happiness for you. “I’m pretty secure in the fact that if it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
While secure individuals are instinctually comfortable with intimacy, anxious individuals find themselves needing more validation in a relationship, and avoidant individuals become detached when too much vulnerability and closeness are present.
These are all activations and deactivations of our attachment system, the instinctual and unconscious motivations woven into our being since childhood. It becomes the reason why sometimes we feel alone despite being together, why we feel anxious without our partner and why we get annoyed at too much attention or togetherness. When we are able to understand our own basic and visceral reactions to attachment, we gain an awareness of how to become more secure in our relationships — how to communicate with our partners and understand our fundamental views about ourselves and the world around us.
Some common behaviors include:
|– Wants a lot of closeness in the relationship|
– Worried about rejection
– Has difficulty concentrating on other things
– Feeling anxious without partner present
– “They can change”
|– Sends mixed signals|
– Values independence
– Avoids physical and emotional closeness
– A belief in the “perfect partner,” often over-romanticizing an ex.
– Emphasizes boundaries
|– Reliable and consistent|
– Naturally expresses feelings for partner
– Does not play games
– Comfortable with closeness and not concerned about boundaries
– Effective Communicators
You can read more about common attachment style behaviors in the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love.
What can we learn from attachment theory?
Cole said that he loves teaching attachment theory to students as it helps them make sense of their relationships, understand patterns of behavior and begin to change their interpretations, perceptions and thoughts. His class, Close Relationships (which is offered every quarter online), provides an intellectual framework for students to understand the processes of forming, maintaining and dissolving relationships. “Every issue in relationships — conflict, expectations, expressing love or value, as well as a wide range of problems, can be understood through the scientific literature on how relationships work,” he said.
If you have an anxious attachment in a relationship you might find yourself constantly in situations where you worry why they never texted you back, why they came home late or why they didn’t call after work. Moments where intimacy and closeness are unclear trigger the anxious attachment which might cause you to act out when they finally do respond.
It can also explain why avoidant attachment styles often feel a need to isolate themselves from their partner, through physical or emotional distance, as this is the avoidant reaction to closeness.
Grace Choi, a student at Dark Horse Institute, spoke about her trouble with trust and anxiety in past relationships. “I have had a long battle with trusting people, especially romantic partners,” she said. “My anxiety just took over my life. It already is really intrusive on a daily basis, but an unhealthy relationship just made every day a self-destructive spiral,” she said of one particularly bad relationship. She would blame herself and be distrustful of her partner. “Whenever I dated someone I really liked, I would be really cruel and tell myself there’s no way that that person would be with me for long, or that there’s something they want from me. This creates a need for a lot of reassurance.”
Attachment styles change throughout your life from a wide range of experiences. What happens in the first years of our life isn’t fully encapsulated, so while it creates reoccuring behaviors they can be changed through trauma or positive relationships.
Choi added that she used to have a fearful attachment style, which is a combination of anxious and avoidant. This creates inner conflict full of anxious thoughts about the relationship as well as the avoidant reaction to intimacy which is to maintain distance.
Once we start to understand our actions, reactions and triggers in romantic relationships using the theoretical framework of attachment theory, we can begin to cultivate an awareness of our needs and relationship with intimacy.
This awareness then helps us to communicate these needs and relational expectations to our partner.. Maybe that comes in the form of needing a little more reassurance such as an extra phone call or text during the day or maybe needing an hour alone — all of which has the potential to provide solace to an activated attachment system. This is important as these small issues all highlight a bigger problem in our internal attachment system.
Choi has now been in a secure relationship for nine months. She said that she has become better at reassuring herself of the relationship adding that her current partner definitely has made it easier to trust. “It helps that we’re both pretty open-minded, but I think the biggest factor is that we know we aren’t trying to prove each other wrong or attack each other,” she said regarding facing conflict in the relationship.
One important thing to make clear is that despite a person’s personality and self-sufficiency when our attachment system is activated new patterns of behavior kick in regardless of how independent we are and despite what our conscious wills. “If you go into a relationship with the wrong person or with an unstable mindset, you can absolutely lose yourself in someone else,” said Choi. “It’s easy to lose yourself.” What attachment theory shows us is the importance of cultivating a relationship towards a place of respect and mutual understanding of each other’s attachment needs.
“True love, in the evolutionary sense, means peace of mind,” said Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. “‘Still waters run deep’ is a good way of characterizing it.”
From theory to practice
Cole said that in moments where our attachment system is activated and we begin to resort to counter-productive reactions, one of the first things we should do is acknowledge our emotions — don’t bottle them up. Recognize and come to terms with how you are feeling, and then ask yourself: Are there other ways I can interpret this event? By taking a different perspective we are able to think through more productive ways of reacting. A tip he recommends is asking yourself how you would advise a close friend to act.
Ferrarone said that when she and a close friend are having an argument she likes to press pause, and take a moment to acknowledge that they are having issues that they need to discuss. She states that “it can be awkward in situations like that, but there is always the security and the trust that the awkwardness will pass after you resolve the argument, and can move on together.”
Tanshinik Harris, a student at DePaul University, took Cole’s communication class last spring. “I learned how to be more mindful of how to communicate with my partner, who has an avoidant/fearful attachment,” Haris said. “I no longer become irritated when he withdraws from certain discussions. I allow him time to ruminate on his emotions, instead of pressuring him to engage.”
“Overall, I’ve noticed that he will disclose more with me, after he has had ‘alone time.’ Honestly, if I wasn’t aware of his attachment style and my own attachment style, I believe our relationship would have suffered,” Harris said, adding that learning about attachment theory helped them to become a more effective communicator.
Gaining perspectives and cultivating relationships
When we have a medical problem, we go to a doctor. Cole says that we should attribute that ideology to relationships. When we have a relational problem, we should turn to the advice that we gain from scientific literature. Cole believes that we often put too much faith in our own knowledge as when we turn to our own personal experiences, we can often repeat the cycles that are woven into our subconscious and end up reinforcing our attachment beliefs. Through understanding we are able to gain perspective of the patterns we repeat and how to change them.
Attachment styles are not permanent. They are not fully encapsulated, meaning that they tend to stay consistent but are open to change and adapt. Through various methods such as therapy, mindfulness, meditation and even entering a secure relationship, we are able to come more in touch with our personal relationship needs and emotions.
Courses at DePaul University that touch on relational communication are also huge fountains of resources for students to learn an intellectual framework on relationships. Such classes include Interpersonal Communication, Conflict Management, The Dark Side of Personal Relationships, Communication & Dating, Evolution & Communication and Close Relationships.
We all go through life with this desire to connect, make friends, and form attachments. At our core, we all just want people to share our lives with. Becoming aware of your attachment style can help to make your life and experiences easier to understand. Learning about how we form attachments and communicate how we feel is so fundamental, and while it can be harsh to see your results mapped out, it starts a conversation with yourself to make those changes and reflect.
“I think relationships are the meaning of life. Friendships, romantic relationships and familial relationships are all so important to living an exciting and validating life. On one hand, love is everything, but at the same time, it’s not,” said McCabe. “Building a loving foundation with yourself should come before any romantic relationship. There is something so beautiful about love and growing with someone else. Knowing someone fully and completely is incomparable to any other feeling.”
If you’re interested about your own attachment style, I encourage you to take the quiz and find out. Another helpful tool is the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
Header image by Phoebe Nerem