Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Therapy Spot! This week, I spoke with my friend and colleague, clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Reyland. Susan believes that people are fundamentally motivated towards growth and connection. We’ve had quite a few conversations on my podcast in the past, and I encourage my newer listeners to check out those episodes. I’ll link you to them at the end of the show notes.
This week, Dr. Reyland and I talked about attachment. What are attachment styles? How did our attachment style form? How do our early attachment experiences influence some of the relationships in our adult lives? Listen along!
Attachment Begins at the Beginning
As we develop in the womb, our every need is immediately met. After we’re born, however, we depend on a caretaker to both read and to meet our needs. In other words: we need to attach to another human to survive!
Babies send out distress signals when they have needs. They cry when they feel the discomfort of hunger, or need to be changed. They smile and coo when they want social interaction and physical touch. Hopefully, the caretaker can correctly read this signal, and respond to the baby appropriately.
As babies, we experienced this, too. We learned, over time, to predict whether or not our caretaker would soothe our discomfort and anxiety. Consistency from our caretaker inoculated us against future stress, because we knew our feelings of discomfort would be temporary.
These very early experiences shaped us, and the way we conduct ourselves in our relationships as adults. They formed a lens through which we view and predict how we will feel in interpersonal relationships. This is called our attachment style. When we have a need, do we expect our partner to meet it? Or do we anticipate neglect?
3 Styles of Attachment
In the best case scenario, we have a secure attachment. As infants, our caretakers were present and consistent. (Note that this does not mean our parents were perfect, and responded to our needs perfectly every single time) Because of that, we internalized a sense that we are worth of being seen, and that our emotions are worthwhile. In a stressful situation, our capacity to regulate our emotions is much greater.
If the attachment relationship did not go well, however, the child needed to adapt in order to survive. The other two attachment styles develop as a mode of survival.
Some parents swing between nurturing and neglect, which results in anxious attachment. A person with an anxious (or ambivalent) attachment style may think, “Sometimes my parent was there and sometimes not. I can’t depend on them. I don’t know what to expect.”
In cases where the caretakers were inattentive more often than not, children develop avoidant attachment. Those of us with an avoidant attachment style strive to be as independent as possible, even if it means isolation. “I did not get what I needed, so I am not going to need anything from anyone.”
Attachment Styles in Romantic Relationships
We can look at these styles in terms of dating.
Securely attached folks feel at ease giving and receiving intimacy. They’re comfortable both with being intimate, and with being independent. They are less likely to obsess over the status of their relationship, and do not feel rejection as acutely.
People with an avoidant attachment style are very independent. Remember, based on their early experience they decided not to need anything from anyone. These folks may structure their lives to avoid intimacy. As such, they may avoid commitment. The distance they impose between themselves and other people means that intimacy has not been satisfying to them.
People with an anxious attachment style, on the other hand, find it difficult to be single. They may jump into relationships quickly and have a lot of trust issues in relationships. Anxiously attached people need a lot of reassurance. They will do much better in relationship with someone who has a secure style than with someone who is avoidant.
To put it simply:
- Avoidant people don’t reach, and don’t want to be reached for too much.
- Anxious people grab and become become distressed when their partner does not reach back.
- Secure folks reach and wait.
Understanding Your Attachment Style
Once you have recognized your own attachment style, I want you to look inward. Notice how your emotional reactions play out (and possibly hijack) interpersonal situations. Have Self-compassion as well! Say to yourself, “these reactions are based on how things went between myself and my caregivers. There is possibility of choice in the future.”
For those of you with anxious or avoidant attachment, take heart! We can heal our attachment wounds. We can all of us work towards feeling secure in our relationships, no matter what our caretaker relationship was like.
Susan, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast once more, and for sharing this valuable information. For my listeners, here are Susan’s previous appearances on my podcast:
- Snags, Waves, and Continuums: Susan Reyland on the Nature of Emotion
- Saying No Can Be Hard. Susan Reyland Wants to Make it Easier For You.
- “Real growth happens slowly”: Susan Reyland on Productive Discomfort
- Give Your Resilient Parts Some On the Job Training
- Don’t Just Cultivate Your Kids. Let Them Grow.
Thank you all for joining me again. Until next time!