A few weeks ago we posted our Ultimate Guide To Attachment Styles In Romantic Relationships. This topic received so much interest that we decided to make it a series!
Please read that first post if you haven't already! It will provide important context for this one. We discussed what an attachment style is in the first place, why all attachment styles are adaptive, and described the 4 main attachment styles in adult romantic relationships.
Your Attachment Style Is Malleable
An attachment style is not your destiny.
If you identify with any of the insecure (anxious, avoidant, anxious-avoidant) styles, it can be really difficult to see yourself this way.
Try and keep two things in mind:
1) An attachment style is not a life sentence. It is simply a way for us to organize our behaviour in relationships and help us understand + predict it better. The label itself doesn't carry nearly as much weight as the behaviours.
2) Behaviours can change! This may be how you relate to the world today, but it's a pattern that can be shifted.
This will take hard work, self-awareness, and a strong will but it's certainly NOT impossible!
One of the key steps is to identify your own attachment style. This allows us to see what is happening as it is happening, and ultimately make a different choice. We will provide examples in the post!
In this post we will discuss how to move from an insecure attachment style towards a more secure one. While we are focusing specifically on romantic relationships, attachment theory applies to all types of relationships. You may find the concepts useful when navigating friendships, family, and even professional relationships.
In writing this, the main resource we consulted is the book Attached by Adam Levine and Rachel Heller. We also relied on our practice experience in applying attachment theory to real relationships.
Now, let's get into it! Here's what to expect:
A Summary Of The Attachment Styles
Part I: Moving From Anxious Towards Secure
Part 2: Moving from Avoidant Towards Secure
A Quick Summary Of The Main Attachment Styles
To refresh your memory, let’s do a recap of the defining features of each attachment style. We will also get into why secure attachment is something to strive for, both within ourselves and in a partnership.
Secure (Low Anxiety, Low Avoidance)
- Comfortable being close and affectionate with others, and also okay with being alone
- Know to communicate their needs, and also cater to the needs of their partner
- Can engage in healthy conflict, without causing insult or injury
- Tend not to play games and handle rejection well
- Have positive beliefs about others’ intentions
- Expect good things to happen to them and believe they are worthy of this
- Well-developed instincts around relationships- they know when a relationship is no longer healthy and will act on this
Anxious (High Anxiety, Low Avoidance)
- Need a lot of closeness and intimacy from their partners (sometimes more than the partner is comfortable with or used to)
- Have a hard time being on their own (not involved in a relationship)
- Typically need a lot of reassurance from their partner about the security of the relationship
- Very attuned to changes in partner’s moods/behaviours
- Use activating strategies and protest behaviours to re-establish closeness once they sense something is wrong
- Tend to have a history of emotionally turbulent relationships
- Harbour a fear of abandonment and rejection
Avoidant (Low Anxiety, High Avoidance)
- Tend to be uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy
- Struggle to depend on others and likewise, have others depend on them
- Pull away when things get serious in a relationship
- May equate intimacy with a loss on independence, so they prefer to be ‘together but alone’
- Use distancing strategies to keep their partners at arm’s length
- Focus on small imperfections in their partner to stifle romance and strong feelings
- May struggle to find satisfaction in relationships and choose to rely on themselves
Why Is Secure Attachment The Benchmark?
People who have a secure attachment style do not always have perfect, healthy relationships. They also go through heartbreaks, date the wrong people, and make mistakes like everyone else.
What sets them apart is their ability to find ease in relationships.
By communicating their needs, being open to love, and having good expectations from themselves and others, the secures of this world make relationships fulfilling rather than painful or chaotic.
This doesn’t mean their relationships are perfect- every relationship goes through times of hardship. However, we can learn a lot from their process.
So let's get into how we can learn to shift insecure attachment styles towards the secure side (where we certainly have cookies, but also love, fulfillment, and emotional nourishment).
Part 1: Moving From Anxious Attachment Towards Secure Attachment
So, by now you have developed an awareness of your anxious attachment style. You also have a desire to shift it in a more secure direction. What now?
If you have an anxious attachment style, you have a very sensitive attachment system. An attachment system is the biological mechanism that tracks and monitors both the safety and availability of our attachment figures.
For you, this system is easily and often activated.
There are a couple things that can help you calm your attachment system without resorting to protest behaviour.
1. Your Partner
If you are currently single, one of the best things you can do for a lasting and fulfilling relationship is to date someone with a secure attachment style.
Your ability to tune into your partner’s feelings and behaviours is actually quite amazing. You see things that the rest of us tend to miss!
In other words, you have a strong potential to be a loyal, loving, and supportive partner, given you are with someone who makes you feel secure in the relationship.
Here is how a securely attached partner can help meet your needs (source: Attached):
You want closeness → They are comfortable with closeness
You are always looking for signs of rejection or abandonment → They don’t send mixed messages and communicate consistently and reliably
You need reassurance → They are comfortable telling you how they feel early in the relationship
You find it difficult to communicate your needs → They will help you learn to communicate better through their own strong communication skills
See the pattern? Unlike someone with an avoidant attachment style, a securely attached partner won't necessarily feel stifled by your need for closeness.
They are more likely to give you the reassurance and stability you need to let go of the hypervigilant behaviours.
2. Learn To Communicate Your Needs
Someone who is securely attached may be afraid of pushing people away. Ironically, they tend to express their needs in a way that accomplishes that. In a vicious cycle, this only reinforces their fears of abandonment and rejection.
How can we work on this?
Step 1: Acknowledge
Acknowledge that you have a high need for intimacy, availability, and security in a relationship.
It's possible that you have been labelled 'needy' and 'dependent' before. Start off by letting go of the shame associated with these labels. Your attachment needs are not an anomaly! Instead of trying to make yourself fit into someone's life, ask yourself: "Can this person give me what I need to be happy?"
Step 2: Express
Now you can work on expressing your needs.
If you are anxious, this might be how communication regularly goes:
Something starts to bother you → You are afraid that expressing your thoughts will make the relationship collapse on itself → So you bottle it up until it comes out in an explosive, accusatory, or critical way → Your partner withdraws rather than giving you the assurance you are seeking
Here is an alternative to this:
Something starts to bother you → Hit the pause button to consider what needs aren't being met and what you want to express → Clearly communicate to your partner what your fears/worries/insecurities are, without blame or judgement
3. Learn How To Handle Conflict Effectively
Someone with an anxious attachment style may find it very difficult to approach conflict head-on. This is because conflict stirs up deep-seated fears of rejection, abandonment, and shame around being perceived as needy or demanding.
When conflict occurs, it’s easy to react using protest behaviours to get their partner’s attention (i.e. silent treatment, harsh accusations “you don’t love me and you never will”).
There is a different way and more effective way, we promise!
Secure Conflict Principles
Here a few tips and truths to keep in mind when you engage in conflict.
- The conclusion of a fight is NOT usually the end of the relationship
- If you speak openly about your fears, you give them less power over you (i.e. express to your partner that you are afraid they will reject you- saying it allows the possibility to hold less power over your actions)
- Don’t assume it’s your fault/you are burdening or inconveniencing them by bringing up your concerns
- If your partner has been caring and responsive to your needs in the past, trust this pattern and expect well of them
- Don’t assume your partner knows what is on your mind
- Likewise, don’t assume you know what is on their mind- always ask!
Part 2: Moving From Avoidant Attachment Towards Secure Attachment
If you have an avoidant attachment style, your attachment system is under-active, not over-active. This means that despite connecting with romantic partners, people with an avoidant attachment find ways to create mental distance and always have an escape plan.
It’s important to get one hard truth out of the way: Being avoidant is not about independence and self-sufficiency. It’s a struggle to suppress a very powerful attachment system that ultimately leaves you out in the cold and rather lonely. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes.
So, what can we do to shift an avoidant attachment style in a more secure direction?
1. Self-Awareness Is Crucial
Those with an avoidant attachment style have a tendency to believe that the reason they can’t be in a successful relationship has little to do with them, and a lot to do with external circumstances (I.e. not meeting the right people, haven’t found ‘the one’, people are too needy/demanding.)
Practice searching inside yourself for the source of your dissatisfaction instead. Looking inward is the only way those with an avoidant attachment style can shift their behaviours.
2. Identify Your Deactivating Strategies
Deactivating strategies are anything you might do to suppress (deactivate) your attachment system. Notice the little things you do to create distance from your partner or a potential partner!
And be honest with yourself: when you are feeling excited about the prospect of getting to know someone, and then suddenly you feel an urge to step back, what is that really?
Chances are, it’s a deactivating strategy- noticing small imperfections, suddenly finding them irritating when before you didn’t etc.
If you think they were great, recognize that you are losing out by pushing them away.
3. Shift Away From Self-Reliance Towards Mutual Support
Chances are, you are so used to depending entirely on yourself, that the idea of letting that go is very distressing.
This also makes it difficult to allow anyone to truly depend on YOU to meet their needs- you may be afraid that you will also be expected to let your walls down and reciprocate this level of trust, and that may not come naturally to you.
Having your identity and independence outside of a romantic relationship is very important. However, perceiving a relationship as a threat to your self-reliance is getting in the way of your ability to be in a fulfilling relationship!
Mutual support is important between partners. Try and see it this way: if you allow someone to depend on you and meet their needs reliably, they will ultimately be less ‘needy’. You will also feel better about sharing your load in life with them because there is no longer pressure to reciprocate.
4. Make A Relationship Gratitude List
Writing down what you are grateful for about the relationship helps counteract your instinct to jump ship. It’s important to remind yourself that you DO have a tendency to skew towards the negative when it comes to your partner or date.
A gratitude list helps you notice the positive. By recognizing and reinforcing how much value this person adds to your life, you are less likely to feel skittish or uncertain about the relationship.
The next time you feel the urge to draw back from a relationship that is otherwise going well and meeting you needs, pull out your pen and paper and remind yourself what this person contributes to your wellbeing.
5. Do Not Avoid Conflict
Like those with an anxious attachment style, avoidants are not very good at facing conflict- for a very different reason though! Conflict, when done right, increases closeness and intimacy. This is usually what the avoidantly attached person is trying to avoid, knowingly or unknowingly.
It's important to recognize WHY you distancing yourself during a conflict (i.e. shutting down, giving up etc.). Fighting the instinct to avoid conflict is difficult.
However, conflict is crucial for two people to get closer. If this is truly what you want, recognize what is going on and be honest with your partner about your tendency to avoid confrontation.
This will help you both build awareness and make different choices when that instinct strikes.
Before You Go...
My goal for this blog post was to give you hope.
Our attachment styles are not set in stone, and they can evolve over time with self awareness, a strong will to change, and hard work. As we change, so can our circumstances. This idea has always been a great source of comfort and strength for me!
When we are children, we have little control over our environment. As adults, we can take our power back and make different choices. I hope this post on shifting your attachment style inspires you to do just that.
I want to hear from you: Can you see yourself putting any of these tips into practice?
Until next time!
Hala is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.
Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!