What Does Your Attachment Style Mean?

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In the last four blogs I have explained the complicated picture of our internal world of come-closer/go-away behaviors. Now let’s think for a moment about hook-ups, dates, and marriages. Who are the players that prefer a certain type of arrangement?

Might it be that those sexually adventurous, culturally progressive partners in hook-ups are actually emotional avoidant, dismissive, boys and girls who conveniently use the rules of a hook-up for their own inadequacies? Or worse, might the anxious gals and guys, go after the hook-up culture as a way to unconsciously live out their own trauma, again, and again? That is, they may painfully wait by the phone for the hook-up to call back and morph into a real suitor. These people are more likely addicted to longing than to comfortable feelings of love. What about those who date, maybe even live together, but avoid the big M? Could they be kind of fearful and avoidant? And, the marriagble types? Could the gazillion dollar wedding industry only be fueled by securely attached people? I don’t think so. If so, why do they need such a public display of committment? A cream colored vintage dress at a city hall might due as well, if it is really based on a secure commitment. But as you can see, there is much more going on below the surface, and sometimes paying a ton of money and getting married in front of a giant crowd, can be a sign of INSECURITY about love.

 

The first step in attachment style is to become aware of yours. I’ve included one attachment survey at the end of this chapter and there are many more online. Once you see where you fall in the spectrum of Anxiety and Avoidance, think about how that plays into your sexual behavior, your objects of attraction, and your relationship goals. Are you a hook up, a date, or a mate? And why? And most importantly, is your behavior vastly at odds with your goals, i.e. you crave autonomy yet you are attracted to smothering lovers, or visa versa.

The next thing to consider is that each partner in a given relationship has a different attachment style. There are a couple trends in attachment mate selection — like anxious lovers tend to become easily attracted to avoidant people because they live out their pre-programed pain. Let me explain that a bit. Once we survive childhood pain, we become familiar and even “comfortable” with it. When we meet a version of that same pain later in life, we become attracted to it because it reeks of something we know. Something we know we can survive. We did it once, we can do it again. But what about love, acceptance, and happiness? Let me tell ya, that is one scary propesition when it is a foreign concept. Take Richard, for example, a classic anxious attachment story:

I just got offline from an IM conversation with my friend Richard. He was bemoaning the loss of yet another much younger girlfriend who sent him to heaven with each sexual encounter and then threw him a hell of lies and insincerity the rest of the time. He kept wanting to analyse her. Why she would do this if she loved him so much? Was it the hurt from her last boyfriend? Couldn’t he prove to her that he could love her more? His love for her felt like an addiction. He was missing her so much that I could feel his pain. But the word he kept asking was WHY. I told him to accept what is, not ask why, and just sit with his pain for awhile. He wasn’t prepared to entertain that thought for one minute. He was like a junkie jumping out of his skin, wishing for his lost love, or a new girlfriend, or a posse of buddies, or even for me to come over and share a bottle of wine. My heart broke for him. This man couldn’t be alone for one minute because — we eventually talked about this — alone with his thoughts meant feeling lonely and unlovable. And that is the place where the wild things are. That is the place we all must visit if we are to become whole. Of course, the best place to say hello to our wild things is in the safety of a therapist’s office. There in a trust-filled environment, we can become the sad baby who we have trouble showing to a lover. The sad baby who has no place in an adult love relationship anyway.

Three Healing Relationships

The good news about attachment injuries is this: Despite John Bowlby’s dire prediction that attachment injuries are permanent, today’s attachment theorists say that attachment style can change during the lifespan — for better or worse. But let’s talk about the better side. Psychologists have identified three relationships that have the power to heal the damaged child within us. The most obvious, of course, is a therapeutic relationship. In the safety of a private and confidential dyad, a therapist can become a container for our most shameful memories and thoughts, and a presence whose consistency can help rewire our brain. The infant inside can imagine that “mommy” will always be wise, stalwart and compassionate — every Tuesday at 3 pm. Consistency is one mechanism for healing.

Another valuable relationship is the one we can have with our own children. If we are able to break the family cycle of family dysfunction and parent our children the way we wished we had been, both parent and child can benefit. Freud called this psychic defense from pain, sublimation. He felt sublimation was one of the most functional ways to deal with emotional injury –  redirecting pain and helping others avoid a similar fate. But the secret mechanism here the very words parents use. Every time a parent encourages, soothes, and assures a young child, words echo in the adult’s head like a long lost parent. Through our ability to give love, we are soothing and consoling ourselves at the same time. It’s really amazing.

Finally, Psychologists give credit to the marital relationship as a powerful healer. If we are fortunate enough to choose a partner who has an ability to fill in some of the gaps of our childhood, we can be fortified. Too often, though, people have a “compulsion to repeat” and we choose the very pattern that injured us in the first place. At other times, even a relatively happy adult relationship can feel absolutely terrifying, especially if happiness and caring is something foreign to the child within us. I encourage you to take some emotional risks in your relationships. To look closely at your tendency to recoil from care or withhold affection — because authentic love can feel scary. Authentic love is not a perpetual happy place, but it is a home for the heart, one that creaks with age, and burns with an internal fire. Love is the thing that makes us whole.

 

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