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Romantic attachment - The push-pull dynamic of avoidance and anxiety

Updated: Dec 11, 2023


Do you struggle with relationships? Do your partners always seem too needy or do they ghost just as things were going well? The answer may be attachment. Here are the basics, starting with the four attachment categories, how attachment develops in childhood and the effect it has on our romantic relationships.







“A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable caregiver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships”.

Jeremy Holmes



OK, before we start... let's see if you can recognise any of these behaviours from the four attachment styles- Dismissive Avoidant, Anxious Preoccupied, Fearful Avoidant and Secure. We will look at how they develop in just a moment...


Dismissive Avoidants

  • High self esteem

  • Low anxiety

  • Short term relationships that are mostly sexual

  • Fears being controlled and hypervigilant for any signs of manipulation

  • Difficulty being emotionally intimate

  • May 'ghost' to avoid conflict (dismiss and avoid!)

  • Devalues partner's good qualities

  • Needs space to regulate emotions and does not want to be chased

  • Likely uses work, substances, interests to suppress or numb feelings

  • Difficulty trusting others

  • Fear of rejection

  • Romanticises ex partners or believes an ideal partner exists somewhere

  • Does not highly value relationships, self-sufficiency is prioritised

  • Struggles to voice needs early in relationship, leading to resentment

  • Often views partner as clingy or needy, fears enmeshment

  • Doesn't often apologise

Anxious Preoccupied

  • Low self-esteem

  • High anxiety

  • Needs closeness to feel secure

  • May use communication in attempt to control (protest behaviours)

  • Has difficulty regulating emotions

  • Fear of abandonment

  • Finds it difficult to self-soothe

  • Desires to keep partner's attention, attention = love

  • Does not trust the self, requires validation from others

  • Seeking behaviours to maintain relationships

  • Places increased value on relationships over other areas of life

  • Prioritises partner's needs over their own which leads to people pleasing

  • Willing to accept poor treatment to avoid conflict

  • Very pushy when wanting to understand why partner has distanced to feel in control, leading to chasing - running dynamic

  • Overly apologises to salvage relationships

Fearful Avoidant

  • Swings between Avoidance and Anxiety shown above

  • Doesn't trust in self or others

  • Both seeks and fears relationships

  • Displays avoidance behaviours but would like to be chased (just a little bit)

  • Has difficulty regulating emotions

  • May create meanings to explain others actions

Secure

  • Good self-esteem

  • Can trust in others

  • Enjoys relationships and understands their value

  • Is happy with both distance and closeness (not to the extreme!)

  • Does not require external validation

  • Can regulate emotions and process



Which Attachment style do you identify with?

  • Dismissive Avoidant

  • Anxious Preoccupied

  • Fearful Avoidant

  • Secure


So... let's see where these behaviours originate...


Attachment as an evolutionary function


Originally taken from studies on geese (think "imprinting"), attachment is considered as evolutionary. From birth, babies ensure proximity to their caregivers through social releases, such as crying (Bowlby, 1979). The responsivity of the caregiver to the child’s needs is thought to provide an inner working model based on emotional attunement, similar to the concept of self-esteem.


For example, if sensitively responded to, the child learns their importance within the relationship; "I am responded to - I am loved - I am lovable".

A primary attachment to one caregiver for survival is necessary and can influence relationships into adulthood, while providing an organisational template for emotions and relationships.

>> Organising emotions, behaviours and thoughts is really super important! It's literally how we understand our inner and outer worlds... I mean if no one ever taught you what someone waving at you (or being rude lol) meant, then you would make your own meaning, right?!


'The Strange Situation' (Ainsworth et al., 1978) provided evidence for attachment theory using infant responses to reunion with their caregiver after a short separation.


Three categories were conceptualised: secure, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-avoidant.

  1. Securely attached infants were soothed upon reunion and used the caregiver as a secure base to explore the environment, meaning they were comforted and returned to play easily.

  2. Infants with an ambivalent attachment remained anxious after reunion and displayed protest behaviours, like clinging, not feeling safe to return to play.

  3. Infants with avoidant attachment self-soothed, dismissing their caregivers return and avoiding displays of emotions or needs.

A fourth category of insecure-disorganised was created retrospectively, describing the caregiver as an additional source of fear, activating the stress response both in absence and reunion. This last category is prevalent in children who have experienced abuse and is described as “fright without solution” (Main & Solomon, 1986). This description always makes me sad.


Each insecure attachment is likely due to caregiver inconsistency or unavailability and two behavioural dimensions are observed: anxiety and avoidance, see diagram below.

Avoidant children show distancing behaviours, such as emotional suppression and denying their need for intimacy, while anxious children show approaching behaviours to elicit attention and involvement (Mikulincer et al., 2003).

Both avoidance and anxious behaviours are considered goal-directed coping strategies to manage emotions, such as frustration and disappointment, and ensure access to the caregiver...


There are many reasons these behaviours can develop, such as

- when a caregiver places their own emotions/needs above the child's

- if a parent passes away

- if the child is dismissed or chastised for displaying emotions

- if a parent has to work a lot and prioritises work

- if a parent suffers with depression or uses alcohol frequently

- if a parent is replicating their own childhood (hello intergenerational trauma!)

-->> Basically... there is no cut and dry template and sometimes it is beyond control. Children need consistent and available parents and in today's society this isn't always possible! We can only do the best we can do!


FYI.. Disorganised attachment describes the disorganisation of emotions and behaviours- individuals oscillate between avoidance and anxious strategies, to both seek comfort and avoid maltreatment (Blatt & Levy, 2003).


Adult Attachment Patterns



Figure 1. Four adult attachment styles distinguished by the axes of anxiety and avoidance


In adulthood, these styles are described as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant respectively, and are apparent in romantic relationships, mirroring childhood relationship dynamics.


Attachment categories appear to reflect the inner working model and a working model of the caregiver, or the ‘other’, and these are projected onto romantic partners in adulthood, as depicted in the next image.


Avoidance behaviours are thought to be based on distrust of the ‘other’ (Bowlby, 1979), creating extreme self-reliance and fear of rejection/enmeshment, while anxious behaviours reflect distrust in the ‘self’ and a fear of abandonment. Secure attachments put trust in both models and fearful avoidants place trust in neither.


So what I'm saying here is that you have two models in your head... one is your self-construct and one is a construct of 'the Other', which was created based on your caregiver and it is then projected on to romantic partners... let's see the little diagram...



Figure 2. Models of the Self and Other


Although deterministic, working models are considered generally stable concepts and may influence adults to seek familiarity. For example, preoccupied attachers often attract avoidants and vice versa, perhaps mirroring parent attachment styles, so their relationship might look like this:


The avoidant and the anxious preoccupied: A love story


  • They meet and 'fall in love'... and then... the excitement wears off and emotional intimacy begins to grow, the preoccupied naturally encourages this.

  • The avoidant becomes triggered, fearing commitment and loss of self, and deactivates the attachment system, leading to ghosting/avoiding. Remember, the avoidant prioritises self-sufficiency and worries about being controlled, they've learned to suppress emotions and the need for intimacy for self protection!

  • The preoccupied then also becomes triggered by inconsistency, things were going so well, what happened?! They respond with protest behaviours to win back attention (which they consider 'love'), such as chasing, texting, ignoring, overt displays for attention etc.

  • The preoccupied eventually gives up seeking. The space allows the avoidant to regulate. The avoidant feels safe and returns, the preoccupied has received validation, love is good again!


Until it's not... and the cycle repeats again and again and again! Repeated experiences may create a confirmation bias, reinforcing both self and ‘other’ models, so the avoidant KNOWS that partners' are needy and preoccupieds' KNOW that they aren't truly worthy of love. It doesn't matter there is no truth behind either of these beliefs! Neither partner fully understands how to give and receive love.


Ultimately, all three insecure styles fear distress caused by an unreliable attachment figure, yet avoidants deactivate, whereas anxious attachers hyperactivate proximity-seeking behaviours. Consequently, the self-concept may become distorted, and self/other models lack cognitive progression, perhaps due to a lack of feedback from a parent in development.


Avoidants tend to hold an idealised model of the self - refusing to apologise and displaying slightly narcissistic tendencies (this does not make them narcissists!), whereas anxious preoccupieds' lack self-confidence and may be more neurotic.


------>These concepts may contribute to developing personality disorders (Brennan & Shaver, 2007)... Check out Borderline personality disorder and Avoidant personality disorder! (These are extremes... just remember, there are always other factors!)


While attachment shows continuity, correlations between childhood and adulthood attachment styles are low to medium (Fraley, 2002), indicating individual differences and malleability in response to the environment.

Which, actually is great news! Attachment styles can be changed and developed and also different people will trigger different behaviours... meaning you can always change your partner, as well as yourself!


While many of these behaviours can be useful, for example, distancing when a relationship is overwhelming is perfectly acceptable, mostly they become maladaptive and do not serve us in our romantic relationships. Addressing the thinking patterns which provoke these behavioural responses is pivotal in changing your attachment style, leading to more positive interactions and fewer relationships where the same issues keep reappearing.


The things to take away from this article today (before tomorrow's on how we can change attachment in therapy) for all the styles are:

  1. Dismissives.... it is OK to voice your needs for space, it is better than ghosting! Your partner probably isn't being clingy, they just need consistent communication. Learn to reflect on how your behaviours contribute to the dynamic and be accountable!

  2. Preoccupieds... It is OK to voice your boundaries if you feel you aren't being respected, know your value! If your partner needs space, that is nothing to do with the love they have for you - attention does not equal love!

  3. Fearful Avoidants... It is OK to both seek and fear relationships. You need to learn your worth and address what happened in childhood. Be aware that others have their own reasons for their behaviours and these may be nothing to do with you. Love you first!

  4. Secures... sometimes it is difficult to validate other's needs, especially if you feel overwhelmed by them. While you can really help your partner feel more secure, make sure that you prioritise your own needs too.


And... LASTLY.... We can pretend we don't need other people, we do though - humans are social beings. Value those relationships guys! But, also, value your own identity too. Other people can't make you happy and validate you all the time- that's your job, they can support you but you must also take responsibility. It is OK TO ASK FOR HELP!


Big love all xx



Side note: While attachment style may be useful within therapy dynamics, classification is not a diagnostic tool and cannot predict psychopathology (Zelinka, Cojan & Desseilles, 2014), highlighting limitations of its use.


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