Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is your Attachment Style?

The earliest research on adult attachment involved studying the association between individual differences in adult attachment and the way people think about their relationships and their memories for what their relationships with their parents are like. Hazan and Shaver developed a simple questionnaire to measure these individual differences. These individual differences are often referred to as attachment styles, attachment patterns, attachment orientations, or differences in the organization of the attachment system. In short, Hazan and Shaver asked research subjects to read the three paragraphs listed below, and indicate which paragraph best characterized the way they think, feel, and behave in close relationships:

A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

Based on this three-category measure, Hazan and Shaver found that the distribution of categories was similar to that observed in infancy. In other words, about 60% of adults classified themselves as secure (paragraph B), about 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A), and about 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C).

Attachment Styles

When we fall in love as an adult, the style of attachment formed as an infant influences how we treat our romantic partners.

Secure Attachment

People who formed a secure attachment to their caregivers tend to form a similar secure attachment to the person they love. As adults, they usually have trusting, more satisfying and longer lasting relationships. Secure individuals are comfortable being close to their partners.  They are comfortable having someone depend on them just as they are comfortable being dependent on another individual.  Being more trusting, open, and understanding, they approach problems and issues that may arise with their partners in a constructive manner.

Other key characteristics of securely attached individuals include having high self-esteem, enjoying intimate relationships, seeking out social support, and an ability to share feelings with other people.

In several studies, researchers found that women with a secure attachment style had more positive feelings about their adult romantic relationships than other women with insecure attachment styles.

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Anxious Attachment

People who formed an anxious or preoccupied attachment as an infant, by comparison, are more likely to be preoccupied with their relationships as an adult. Anxious or preoccupied adults are constantly worried and anxious about their love life - they crave and desperately need intimacy - but, they never stop questioning their partner’s love (“do you really love me?”). Anxious individuals are concerned that their partners will leave them. These adults are obsessed with their relationships and everything that happens in them.  They rarely feel completely loved and they experience extreme emotional highs and lows. One minute their romantic partner can make their day by showing them the smallest level of interest and the next minute they are worried that their partner doesn't care about them.

Overall, anxiously attached individuals are hard to satisfy; you can’t love them enough, or be close enough to them, and they constantly monitor their relationships for problems. Ironically, their need for love makes it easy for anxious individuals to be taken advantage of when it comes to love and romance, which in the long run can create even more suspicion and doubt.

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Dismissing Attachment

Finally, people who had a dismissing (or avoidant) style of attachment as an infant are likely to form a dismissing attachment to their romantic partners.  As adults, dismissing individuals are uncomfortable with intimacy and close relationships - they actually fear it. They do not like it when people get close, and they don’t like being dependent on a partner or having someone be dependent on them. Dismissing individuals tend not to trust others, and they are more self-sufficient, cynical, and independent in nature. They are less likely to fall deeply in love and need a lot less affection and intimacy. They do not invest much emotion in relationships and experience little distress when a relationship ends. Dismissing individuals are more apt to put their time into their careers, hobbies, and activities than their relationships. They often avoid intimacy by using excuses (such as long work hours), or may fantasize about other people during sex. They also get easily annoyed with their relational partners and often display negative feelings and hostility toward their loved ones.

Research has also shown that adults with an avoidant attachment style are more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex. Other common characteristics include a failure to support partners during stressful times and an inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions with partners.

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Disorganized Attachment

The adult with a disorganized pattern of attachment has difficulty viewing others without significant distortions. As children they had parents who were frightening. Often they have experienced chronic early maltreatment within a caregiving relationship and may be described as having significant dysfunction in their capacity to form emotionally meaningful relationships and attachments. Many people with personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, have a disorganized state of mind with respect to attachment. During discussions of loss or abuse, these individuals show a striking lapse in the monitoring of reasoning or discourse. For example, the individual may briefly indicate a belief that a dead person is still alive in the physical sense or that this person was killed by a childhood thought. Individuals may lapse into prolonged silence or eulogistic speech. Their relationships tend to be volatile.

Main and Solomon (1986) proposed that inconsistent behavior on the part of parents might be a contributing factor in this style of attachment. In later research, Main and Hesse (1990) argued that parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child contribute to a disorganized attachment style. Because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, confusion results.

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Can you Change your Attachment Style?

Can adults with insecure attachments develop a more positive view of themselves and change the long-term interactive patterns they demonstrate in relationships?  Since these patterns have existed since childhood and are deeply embedded in their unconscious beliefs and neurological pathways change is not easy, but certainly possible.  Change can come about in a number of ways.

Some adults, despite their insecure attachments, may engage with a partner who is able to accept and understand their insecurities, not respond in negative ways and over time repair the damage from the early childhood relationships. In time the positive experience in the adult relationship overrides the early belief that intimate relationships are not trustworthy and safe.

Although such a positive experience can occur, most adults with insecure attachments will need to enter therapy to change their beliefs about and patterns in relationships.  They will need to develop a relationship with a therapist who has knowledge about Attachment Theory, who will understand their attachment patterns in relationships and allow this pattern to develop in the therapeutic relationship. Over time the therapist will need to help the adult client/patient to develop insight into himself/herself, work through his or her losses and hurts from childhood and risk change in both the therapeutic relationship and natural intimate relationships.

The insecure person may have to mourn for what they did not receive from their parents as a young child. Longing for the early nurturing and closeness is a normal feeling but must be understood and resolved in order to develop a secure and realistic adult relationship. This can be a painful stage in the therapy and it is important that the therapist allow for the sadness to be supported until the mourning process is complete.  Without the resolution of this longing, individual adults will seek what they missed as a child in an adult relationship, when this is no longer appropriate. 

Adult relationships differ from infant/child relationships in that they are mutually interactive. In parent/infant relationships the parent is the giver, not expecting the child to meet their adult needs.  Each individual in an adult relationship must be both a giver and receiver. At times in an adult relationship one partner may be more stressed and in greater need of support, requiring the other partner to be more nurturing and giving. At other times of stress, the other partner may be more the recipient of the support and nurturing. It is this mutual give and take with understanding and the capacity to receive less for a period of time, which characterizes healthy adult attachment relationships.

Redeveloping a secure adult attachment is possible and essential if one is going to be a healthy parent, develop satisfying intimate relationships and have self-awareness and a feeling of self-worth. There is good evidence that if a mother has an insecure adult attachment she will have an insecurely attached child.  Individuals who have mutually satisfying marriages and partnerships have secure attachments, whether from good childhood experiences or resolving poor early childhood experiences.  Individuals with secure attachments have self-awareness, are able to accept differences in others and have a positive view of themselves and of relationships. Redeveloping a secure adult attachment is possible through Attachment Focused Therapy and worth the effort and pain required to achieve this.

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