If you want to understand your relationships, understand your attachment style. In this episode, I explain the three types of insecure attachment and discuss how you can identify your own attachment style. There are three types of insecure attachment: avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment. Your attachment style developed largely in the first years of your life, as a function of how your primary caregiver interacted with you.
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When your caregiver is often unavailable, dismissive, or rejecting, the child will develop an avoidant attachment—i.e, the child will become avoidant of attachment.
The child adapts by avoiding closeness and emotional connection to the parent.
Attachment is about feeling like your caregiver is there for you and responsive to you when you feel distressed (afraid, sad, mad, etc).
In the case of avoidant attachment, when the child becomes distressed, his caregiver does not provide sufficient comfort, care and connection. When the child tries to communicate his distress, his attempts have little to no effect on the parent.
So the child is forced to try to calm himself and regulate his own emotions.
On Your Own
The child’s needs are frequently not met and the child comes to believe that communication of needs has no influence on the caregiver.
An avoidantly attached child reasons that it is easier to try to regulate his own anxiety than to seek comfort from his unavailable or unresponsive caregiver. The reasoning goes like this: “Mom is either not going to understand me—or worse, dismiss me. So I guess I’m on my own.”
The child’s decision to “go it alone” is his desperate attempt to avoid further evidence that no one is there for him. The thinking is, “If I don’t ask for help, then they can’t dismiss me.” Remember, from an attachment perspective, nothing is more frightening than realizing that your parent is not attuned and responsive to you.
I’ll Just Avoid Depending On Anyone
Eventually, the child learns that it is fruitless to rely upon others to meet his needs. Since his needs and wants rarely seem to matter to his caregiver, he soon stops even trying to express what he needs and wants.
His core narrative becomes “I am alone and on my own. I don’t need you to be there for me. I’m fine whatever you do.”
He becomes self-reliant and develops a view of himself as independent and strong because, after all, he does not really need anyone.
The child adapts to his environment by avoiding closeness and emotional connection to his caregiver. He begins to avoid attachment because it is too painful to hope that his caregiver will suddenly become available, accepting, and responsive. He tries to numb his desire for deep emotional connection. He shuts down his longing for attachment.
Disconnected From Desires and Emotions
The child picks up on “there is no internal intention of my caregiver to know me.”
They don’t have a sense of that internal sea inside that fills us with feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, longings.
“We can grow up in homes in which the food finds the table, the money finds the college funds, and the family even finds the church each Sunday; but somehow our hearts remain undiscovered by the two people we most need to know us—our parents.” Curt Thompson
Since what the child wants does not seem to matter to his caregiver, he becomes disconnected from his desires.
He fails to develop a robust sense of his hopes, dreams, desires, and longings. It is simply too painful to hold onto these longings, so he becomes detached from them.
Finally, the child often becomes disconnected from his emotions. Mothers of avoidant children are often disconnected from their own emotions.
The dilemma with this is that a child develops an inner emotional world through emotional exchanges with his mother—if Mom does not have a rich inner emotional life, the child cannot develop one either.
How To Know If You’re Avoidantly Attached
As avoidantly attached children mature into adulthood, they will tend to:
feel more comfortable with distance and separateness. They minimize the importance of interpersonal relationships and the communication of emotion. May show initial resistance when a partner makes a bid for interaction. The approaching figure wants something from him or her, and reciprocity is not possible.
enjoy relationships at times, but never really need others. Adapted to aloneness by turning to self for stimulation and soothing, so much so that turning to others became nearly impossible. Therefore, allergic to dependency. This may leave their partners to experience loneliness and emotional distance. May claim to feel relieved or excited by brief or even extended separations. Their shift to autoregulation is immediate, and welcome.
tend toward an auto-regulatory state. Their bodies have been trained to not require another human being for regulation—b/c there never was another human being there to regulate them. They like being by themselves. They tend toward self-stimulating activities like being on their smart phone. This presents a problem. Whenever the autoregulatory state is interrupted by one’s partner, the avoidantly attached individual will feel like their partner is being intrusive. The avoidant’s rejection of the partner’s approach is not to be cruel. The avoidant partner is simply trying to stay regulated—to maintain psychobiological homeostasis.
The result of this tendency to self-regulation is that avoidantly attached people require little interaction and cause little interpersonal stress.
a reduced motivation to be open to the emotional experiences of others.
focus on the cerebral and analytical, so that they can avoid the pain and longing of missed emotional connections with others. A decreased access to or awareness of their own emotions. These avoidant adaptations can be seen as a minimization of right mode thinking in favor of a predominance of left mode thinking.
feel needed but not wanted. True mutuality and inclusion are foreign to the avoidant, who believes he or she is only needed and never really wanted.
recall facts about their life (such as where they lived, what school they attended, the model of their first car, etc) but have great difficulty recalling memories of family experiences where there was authentic emotional engagement
idealize their parents (to avoid connecting with how bad it really was)
minimize or downplay hurtful attachment experiences
insist that the past has little to no influence on their present life.
believe that family life has little to no effect on how they developed. How can they know that their family experiences had no impact on them if they cannot recall those family experiences? This is an example of narrative incoherence—it just doesn’t make sense.
A child will develop an ambivalent attachment when she experiences her primary caregiver as inconsistent and, at times, intrusive.
When the child becomes distressed, her caregiver may—or may not—provide soothing and comfort. It all depends on what is going on for the caregiver at that particular moment.
In other words, at times Mom is attuned and responsive to the child’s needs, but at other times she is too caught up in her own emotional needs and moods to focus on meeting the child’s needs.
The child learns that she cannot depend upon Mom to be attuned and responsive to her.
Never knowing what to expect, the child develops a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about whether she can depend upon her Mom or not.
This creates a sense that others cannot be relied upon to meet her needs. The child develops an inner franticness as she struggles to find relief from her anxiety and uncertainty.
Mom’s inconsistency and unreliability may not seem like a “big deal” when you think about it as an adult, but for a child, it is absolute terror.
Mom’s inconsistency and uncertainty forces the child to become hyper-focused on her mother—that is, to attune to the Mom’s emotional state rather than Mom attuning to the child’s emotions.
The relationship becomes primarily one in which the child is responding to the parent’s own emotional needs.
This pattern of attachment essentially says, “I’m not certain whether my father will be able to meet my needs, at least in any reliable way. Sometimes he can, and sometimes he can’t. Which will it be this time?”
Such anxiety creates a sense of uncertainty that others can’t be relied upon to meet one’s needs.
How To Know If You’re Ambivalently Attached
As ambivalently attached children mature into adulthood, they will tend to:
> have difficulty regulating anxiety
> often experience intense emotions
> feel frantic inside as they struggle to find relief from their anxiety
When in distress, they often talk too fast and too erratically. Don’t know how to edit what they are saying. Their speech is often hard to follow, overly emotional, and exaggerated.
> believe that unless they dramatically expresses pain, it is unlikely that another will respond
> be plagued by a deep-seated fear that they are going to be rejected or abandoned, which makes it very difficult to trust anyone. This leads to habitually seeking closeness (which their partner experiences as “clingy”) and often asking for proof that they are loved. “Are you really there for me? Are you? Show me. Now show me again.”
> always be watching for relational disruptions, and have a deep need for resolution
There may be a sense of urgency for connection that may ironically push others away and thus create a self-reinforcing feedback loop that others are not dependable.
> feel like they are too “needy” and that they do not deserve to be loved in the way that they want
> suffer from self-criticism, insecurity, and a sense that something is wrong with them
> rely heavily on others to validate their self-worth, often seeking approval and reassurance from others
> assume the role of the “pursuer” in a relationship.
> tend to complain (inwardly if not outwardly) of unfair treatment and injustice. The core cry is “that’s not fair” b/c it wasn’t fair for them growing up when their brain was learning how the world works.
> Tatkin: They make it their mission to settle old scores before they will even consider any forward movement. Their tenacious hold on meta complaints can lead them to dominate their partner, as well as therapy sessions, in a very persuasive way.
> Tatkin: they anticipate relationship failure. They are wired for this. “Wired” means recorded and recalled in procedural (implicit) memory.
Knows, with certainty from within his body, what is to come from hope… and it is bad. This becomes an allergy to hope. This is reflexive and psychobiological.
> Often make misappraisals of another person’s feelings, thoughts, and intentions. In couples therapy, they will tend to assume their partner is feeling or thinking something that the partner is not.
There is actually one more category of attachment. Called Disorganized Attachment. It’s less frequent. About 10-15% of the population.
And it is beyond heartbreaking.
Children with a disorganized attachment had a caregiver who didn’t attune and who frightened. In this biological paradox, the child’s brain has an innate drive to move toward the mother.
However, since the parent is also a source of alarm, the child is faced with an approach-avoidance conflict. The resulting inner turmoil dysregulates the child to the point that his coping skills become disorganized.
The biological system of attachment is constructed to motivate the child to seek proximity to — to get close to — a parent at a time of distress in order to be soothed and protected.
But in this situation the child is “stuck” because there is an impulse to turn toward the very source of the terror from which he or she is attempting to escape.
It is an unsolvable dilemma for the child.
There is no solution to the paradox that your parent is creating a state of disorientation or terror in you that drives you to seek comfort from the very source of your fear.
“Disorganized attachment results when frightening or abusive parental behavior places infants in an irresolvable conflict: the desire to move toward the caregiver and flee from the source of fear, when they’re one and the same person. This activates two brain circuits simultaneously. The attachment circuitry screams out: “Go to my attachment figure for protection!” Yet, at the same time, an even older circuit of survival screams, “Get away from this source of terror!” The same person triggers approach and avoidance, and the infant’s capacity for an organized response collapses.” Siegel
Someone with this attachment style will have chaos inside.
Parental unresolved trauma is often associated with disorganized attachment. Parents with unresolved trauma appeared to enter abrupt shifts in their state of mind that are alarming and disorienting to their children.
While rigid parents need order and control, a newborn brings just the opposite into their lives. The child’s early implicit memories are likely to be centered around being a source of annoyance, anxiety, and disgust to their parents.
When we’re exposed to something terrible (9/11), we first try to make contact with our tribe, our home. And as long as we have people who are there for us, we don’t get traumatized. B/c we are an immensely relational people. In trauma, such as 9/11, the impetus is to run home. As long as you can run home and be with your loved ones, you’re okay. Which is why the trauma that happens at home is the worst kind of trauma. As long as the trauma is not inflicted by someone you know, it is readily treatable.
When your body is in a state of high arousal and someone comes and holds you and says, “it’s okay, I will be there for you” then you recover.
If you’re distressed as a small child and the face you are met with is either blank or gets distressed herself or blames you for being distressed, then you have to regulate yourself. How do you regulate yourself? Drugs, self-harm, etc. But you do these things because as a child you never developed receptors in the brain for interpersonal kindness.
For help with engaging your story in a group setting, consider the Allender Center’s Certificate Program.