“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” – William D. Tammeus
Your adult attachment style has developed as a result of repetitive interpersonal interactions with important caregivers or parents as children. These early interactions with significant others result in the development of expectations for how readily people are capable of meeting your needs and serve as an emotional blueprint for what to expect from other people. Over time, we begin to develop a sense of ourselves as an autonomous individual based on feedback and emotional containment from our caregivers. As adults, we take these attachment styles into our relationships with others, creating a complex interpersonal “dance” of emotions, motivations, and expectations.
Secure Attachment Style:
Adults with a secure attachment style tend to value relationships and are able to readily identify memories and feelings from their childhoods in non-defensive ways. For adults whose childhood held traumatic memories or unreliable/inconsistent parenting, they can still “acquire” a secure attachment style as an adult based on their willingness and ability to work through those unpleasant experiences and acknowledge their impact. For securely attached adults, they tend to not experience intense anxiety or fear when loved ones are not readily available, as they trust that they will be there when they need them. (This is an example of a relationship expectation learned in infancy/childhood.)
As you read the “typical statements” of adults with each of the four main attachment styles, consider how these statements were learned in relation to expectations from parents or primary caregivers. For example, “I know [my mom] will be there for me when I need [her].”
Typical statements of a secure adult:
- “I know he will be there for me when I need him.”
- “He is able to comfort me when I’m distressed.”
- “I enjoy it when she gets emotionally close, because I feel emotionally close to her.”
Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment Style:
A dismissive/avoidant attachment style is often marked by an adult’s inability to recall many details about his childhood. For example, when asked about family relationships or childhood, this adult may respond with a statement similar to, “My family… my parents… I don’t know. I don’t remember much about growing up.” There may also be a tendency to describe one’s parents in either overly idealized or overly devalued terms – seeing them somewhat dichotomously. This attachment style may impact current adult relationships by the expression of detachment and avoidance of emotional closeness. There may be great value placed on appearing self-reliant, competent, or independent, since as a child these individuals learned that showing vulnerability was unacceptable.
Typical statements of a dismissive adult:
- “I don’t care if she doesn’t love me / want me.”
- “I don’t tell him I’m upset because I can take care of my feeling myself.”
- “No problem. Everything’s fine.”
Preoccupied/Anxious Attachment Style:
A preoccupied or anxious attachment style may manifest itself in an adult appearing to be “all caught up” or ensnared in preoccupations about current or past relationships. It is almost as if these individuals don’t have room in their own minds for their own minds… they are completely filled with thoughts about other people and preserving relationships. The central theme of this attachment style is a fear of losing relationships.
You may guess that this attachment style tends to develop in children whose parents were inconsistently available or unpredictable. This can leave children feeling preoccupied with how to hold on to those important relationships, which were perplexing or unstable. Teyber and McClure (2011) note that “many preoccupied [individuals] grew up enmeshed (and often parentified) with an unpredictable parent who was too often caught up in his/her own emotional upheavals to be able to be a safe haven and provide containment and affect regulation for the child.”
Typical statements of a preoccupied adult:
- “I’m often wondering whether she really cares about me or not.”
- “I often feel dependent on him for emotional support.”
- “I turn to him when I’m upset, but it doesn’t really help me feel much better.”
Fearful Attachment Style:
Fearfully attached adults may display a wide array of symptoms, with some combination of emotions present in both dismissive and preoccupied adults. Two primary themes pervade the fearful attachment style: (1) they are likely to have suffered significant parental hostility or overt rejection, and (2) some have suffered physical or sexual abuse, but have not come to terms with the impact of the abuse. These adults may display a variety of acting out symptoms (e.g., drug/alcohol abuse or self-injurious behavior). These individuals desperately want to approach others and make meaningful connections, although they are terrified at the prospect of genuine relationships with other people because they have learned that relationships can be quite dangerous – even terrifying.
Consider the following “typical statements” as messages that the adult heard from the parent about themselves as a child. As an adult, they are likely to have internalized those hurtful statements and now believe them to be true about themselves. For example, imagine the impact of a parent saying to their young child, “What’s wrong with you?!?” These statements can have a lasting deleterious impact on the growing child’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Typical statements of a fearful adult:
- “There’s something wrong with me.”
- “I don’t matter – I just hate myself.”
- “No one would want to be with someone like me.”
As you read through these four adult attachment styles, consider the way in which the messages that you have internalized about what to expect from other people, relationships, and even yourself is intimately connected to the messages that you received from your primary caregivers. Imagine how differently two people might behave if one of them was raised by parents who provided consistency, stability, and love, versus one raised by parents who were self-absorbed in their own emotional dramas, yet deluded themselves into believing they did “what was best” for their children.
The messages that you received about your own self-worth/strengths and what to expect in close relationships with other people is imprinted on you as you grow into adulthood. However, even if you weren’t raised in a stable home that could provide a foundation for a secure attachment style, you have the opportunity to work through any losses, mixed messages, or traumatic experiences that you had in childhood now, as an adult. With adulthood comes the opportunity to cultivate the mindful wisdom necessary to heal any old wounds and to become the strong, loving, and consistent parent that you would like to be for your own children.
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If you are interested in learning what your adult attachment style is, try this free attachment style quiz, based on the widely used “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised” (ECR-R) questionnaire.
Teyber, E., & McClure, F. H. (2011). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model. (6 ed., pp. 232-279). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
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