If you’re in any of the same online bubbles as me, you’ve probably seen a resurgence of people talking about “attachment” and “attachment styles”. These articles often mention the four main attachment styles of adult relationships – secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant attachment – which are certainly worth investigating.
Though I love seeing attachment theory becoming a mainstream concept, I also notice a lot of the content online only tells half the story. I love a good Facebook graphic as much as the next person, BUT….what if attachment theory is more beautiful and complex than most of us realise?
One of the big misconceptions online is that attachment theory concerns only how we act in romantic partnerships. In reality, attachment theory is a lot broader. Attachment styles concern how we understand all relationships: familial, friendships, romantic, and even our relationship with our own self.
One of the best definitions I’ve seen says: “Attachment is the way our brains and bodies understand and predict relationships, and how we expect we need to behave in order to be in relationship with important others.” (Levine & Heller, 2012).
Using this definition, we better understand “attachment styles” and how they are created. Attachment styles are the ways we practise attachment in relationships. In other words, our actions and reactions are based on our understanding of how a relationship functions. Different theorists categorise these styles into broad categories (as in the link above) and assign certain beliefs and behaviours. Our attachment style originates from our earlier relationship experiences, and to a small extent, on our innate personality traits. Our attachment beliefs and behaviours are often unconscious to us and constitute our automatic assumptions about how relationships operate so that they feel familiar, and therefore safe.
Many theorists discuss different life experiences and how these affect our attachment style. The major “relationship experience” that contributes to our style is the relationship we had with our parent(s) in our formative years. This could include whether your parents allowed you to show emotion, if they were present in your life, how they disciplined you, and much more. However, it isn’t just familial relationships which affect the development of your attachment style. You can have beliefs and learned behaviours from other relationships in your life, or ideas about relationships derived from the culture. Different cultures have different concepts of how relationships operate and these ideas can often be reinforced by cultural institutions, such as media.
However, this doesn’t mean your attachment style is static. If you become aware of your attachment style and understand the beliefs you have around relationships, you can change and evolve your attachment style. From understanding how you operate within relationships and the beliefs which underpin these actions, you are able to cultivate a healthier attachment style for yourself. If you have identified that you have an unhealthy or unsustainable attachment style, this kind of self-work can be crucial for the wellbeing of yourself and others you care about.