So You Have an Insecure Attachment Style…

With the day of love upon us, what better time to talk about attachment theory?

For those who are not familiar with attachment theory, a quick and dirty primer:

The basic tenets of attachment theory stipulate that our early relationships with significant caregivers create working models of relationships, models that we then carry into our adult relationships.  

Furthermore, people can be classified as securely attached, insecurely attached, or disorganized.  Approximately 56% of adults could be described as securely attached, while 40-50% of adults could be described as insecurely attached (a number that incidentally closely mirrors the divorce rate in Canada).  

Insecurely attached people are further categorized as either avoidant or anxious.  What do these labels mean?  In short, people who are securely attached have learned, through interactions with primary caregivers, that other people can be trusted to meet their relational needs.  When I need someone, I can trust they will be there.  Those who are insecurely attached hold the opposite core belief, and will respond according to their anxious or avoidant designation.  Anxiously attached people will respond to insecure attachment by seeking connection and reassurance in a persistent and fearful manner.  A stigmatizing and misguided description of this behavior might include the words needy or clingy.  Conversely, avoidantly attached people respond to insecure attachment by withdrawing and shutting down any bids for affection and attention.  Disorganized attachment is least common among the attachment styles.  It occurs when a person’s primary caregivers are violent or otherwise unpredictable, such that a person comes to respond to connection with simultaneous fear and love. This results in confused and confusing behaviours; picture a baby reaching his arms out for a hug while backing away from their caregiver.  

Attachment style is strongly correlated with many indicators of well-being and mental health.  For example, severity of depression as well as PTSD symptom severity both appear to be directly correlated with attachment style.  So, are those of us who experienced an unreliable, inconsistent, invalidating, or violent caregiver doomed to insecure attachment, mental illness, dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, emotion dysregulation, and general distress?  

Although we talk so often about attachment, there is a dearth of information available about shifting one’s attachment style.  Or even whether or not such a thing is truly possible.  We often fail to answer the-so what, now what?– question of attachment.  A few heartening things to know on this front.

  1.  Our attachment style is not permanent, nor is it necessarily pervasive.  Our attachment style may differ across the myriad of relationships in our life.  It can also change and evolve.  Sue Johnson cites Crowel et. al (2002) in a study positing that 22% of people change their attachment style from 3 months prior to marriage to 18 months after marriage.  This suggest not only that attachment style is flexible, but that it can shift in a relatively short period of time.
  2. Our attachment style changes as a result of inputting new information into our relational model.  I.e. we have new experiences that change our core beliefs about relationships.  When we experience secure relationships, we shift our beliefs about relationships, and these shifted beliefs can change our attachment style.These changes may happen in the context of a marriage or long-term partnership or friendship, as in the aforementioned study, but studies also suggest they can occur within the context of the therapeutic relationship. A study by Burgess Moser et al. (2015) , suggests that a person’s working model of attachment can shift after a single therapy session.  This of course assumes that you are working with a competent and qualified professional who understands the nuances of attachment.                       The good news here is that we can change, and we don’t necessarily need to find ‘the one’ or even a best friend in order to do begin doing so.

The message is fundamentally optimistic.  We can change our patterns.  We can change the kinds of relationships to which we are attracted.  We can change our beliefs about relationships and about people.  We can reap the pervasive interpersonal and individual rewards of secure attachment.  Trust and safety are possible, though they might currently feel like foreign lands.  

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