Attachment Styles

Why you love the way you do and how you can change your pattern.

"Here we go again, " Vanessa thought. "He's late - I wonder what excuse he'll use this time."

As the dinner she had prepared became colder, Vanessa's anger burned hotter. When she finally heard Tom fumbling for his keys on the porch, she stood ready to blast him the moment he opened the door. Accusations flew, harsh words were said, and Vanessa and Tom played out a scenario that was becoming much too familiar. It left them both hurting, depressed and wondering if there was any hope for their marriage. Of course, Tom blamed Vanessa's temper. Vanessa accused Tom of being inconsiderate. Neither one realized that much of these relationship difficulties had begun long before they ever met.

Numerous studies have found that the seeds of failure or success in relationships are planted very early in life. The attachment bond formed in infancy and nurtured throughout childhood is very significant to successful relationships in adulthood. For example, Vanessa's Dad would go on drinking binges and often not return home for days - leaving her Mom and the family in turmoil. But does this mean we must be controlled by our past? Absolutely not. Instead, an understanding of the attachment bond can help us understand why we think, feel and react as we do. With this understanding, we can change. We can become more intimate. We can find that elusive level of happiness and harmony we desire.

To understand how this works in a marriage, let's look at the attachment bond on a personal level. Very simply, the attachment bond is the relationship formed between a mother and her infant that answers these questions: Are you there for me? Can I count on you? Am I worthy of your love and protection? What do I have to do to get your attention, your affection, your heart? The way in which these questions are answered in infancy and throughout childhood creates a personal attachment style. This "style " or pattern of relating to others becomes the foundation for all our adult relationships.

What are these attachment styles? There are four distinct categories: avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized and secure.

Let's look at each attachment style within the context of a relationship:

  • The avoidant style avoids intimacy and dampens emotions in personal relationships. For these folks, closeness brings fear of rejection. They are very good people, but they just can't get close. They remain on the periphery of intimacy. They replace intimacy with things and success - classic workaholics or addictions to food, pornography, etc…. This defense ultimately destroys the true bond of love that can exist between two people.
  • The ambivalent style does the opposite. These people seek intimacy but grab for it too tightly. People pleasers - dancers on stage. They make you feel good but they don't ever feel safe and secure. They may deeply believe that if they can hold on tightly enough they can avoid separations and ultimately even death. Unfortunately, this defense can lead to the same outcome as the avoidant defense: feelings of alienation and aloneness.
  • The disorganized style may use the avoidant or ambivalent response or even a mixture of both. Often their past is very traumatic and they can go from hot to cold in a relationship at the drop of a hat. These people also tend to go numb, feeling as if the world around them is not real.
  • The secure style can consciously and courageously invest in close relationships, but these individuals hold them with an open palm. Life really is about love and relationships - for in them we find comfort and safety.

So how does one travel from where they are to where they want to be? There are five "stepping stones " on the path to health and healing:

Step One: Remember your story. When you retell your story - factually and vividly - the thing that happened to you becomes something with a finite beginning and ending. Using words to describe an event (or series of events) can help you gain control of it.

Step Two: Recognize your pain and the need for healing. When you have been wounded by attachment injuries, anger swells. Often, this anger is appropriate. However, to move past the pain is a major step in the healing process.

Give yourself permission to grieve your losses and then get ready to move on.

Step Three: Reframe the meaning of your story. The objective here is to see yourself, and your past, in a different light. For example, Vanessa's Dad's behavior was about him, not her. Being honest and open about your attachment injuries, and then - instead of dwelling on the weaknesses you see in yourself and others, seek out the positive strengths.

Step Four: Repair your story - and your damaged relationship and emotions. This is understandably the most important - and the most difficult step in the healing process. Begin by deciding to understand and stop doing the things that you know are counterproductive. Next, revise your "relationship rules. " Begin trusting others and yourself - even at the risk of failure.

Step Five: Reconnecting. To reconnect with others, one idea must be kept front and center in your mind. It is the concept of forgiveness. Begin by forgiving yourself - understand that you are not to blame. Second, you must forgive others. Forgiveness is crucial because it helps free us emotionally so we can face closeness again.
The process of change is never easy, but in this case, it could be infinitely rewarding.