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  • Jed Murphree, LPC

"A" is for attachment.

As I start this series of writings on and about relationships and couples, I figured the simplest way to begin was to take the first letter of the alphabet and proceed to discuss concepts and conditions that begin with that letter.

"A" is from attachment. Psychologically, we know that attachments frame our lives', impact how we view the world, create expectations, and help explain the ways we relate to others. Attachment can be defined as: "a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space". (Bowlby, 1969)

Attachment develops in infancy, and according to Bowlby, the connection we have with our primary caregiver (most often our mother) sets the stage for the rest of our lives when it comes to the relationships we have as adults. However, it was Cindy Hazen and Philip Shaver that applied Bowlby's work to explain adult patterns of attachment and also discovered that infant attachment and adult attachment are only moderately correlated. In other words, you can learn to attach better as you mature and what may have been lacking while growing up can be compensated for later in life.

I'm describing attachment as having a trajectory: beginning with our interactions with our parents, then onto how we play with friends and communicate with peers; and as we experiment with dating and become sexually active with others, each and every experience represents a piece of the puzzle that creates our own individualized style of attachment.

By style, I mean a set of behaviors and beliefs that have been adopted that can both promote and hinder stable emotional bonds. Our style impacts how we respond and relate to another person, and in turn, how they relate to us.

There are four styles or types of attachment for adults: secure, dismissive, fearful, and preoccupied. I'll explain each in more depth briefly. Firstly, what must be understood is that we can be more of a blend of all the styles, yet will show a dominate or preferential pattern based upon one's family history and experience with relationship.

You will notice that this diagram (based upon Barthlow and Horowitz's work, creates four quadrants, and is set on an X and Y axis and represents levels of anxiety and avoidance.

1. Secure

Secure attachments are described as being both low in anxiety and avoidance. Individuals that securely attach, most frequently express higher comfortability with expressing themselves emotionally and are at ease with themselves and their partners in being intimate. Other attributes of secure attachers include: empathy, ability to set and maintain boundaries, along with skills to negotiate. Just because a person is capable of building secure attachments does not mean that all their relationships are successful, meaningful, passionate, or healthy. The fact is secure attachments can still be challenging and difficult; at times dull, monotonous, and lacking in vitality; and stressful.

2. Dismissive

Dismissive attachers are also referred to as avoidant types. Often, outwardly, this group of individuals appears on the surface as "put together" and independent, yet inwardly, they are more detached emotionally and often seek and prefer isolation. Sometimes described as aloof, and at their best "mysterious", the dismissive types' tendency to withdraw or shut down emotionally is a defense mechanism utilized to avoid real connect. Simply put, emotional expression is more difficult for this group of people.

3. Fearful

This group is both anxious and avoidant. They are afraid of being either too close or too distant, and find themselves stuck in between. Fearfuls find themselves becoming overwhelmed in relationships and demonstrate mixed up and sometimes unpredictable moods that confuses and distances them from friends and partners alike. Fearfuls possess the most volatile and least secure attachment style. High drama and explosive emotional expression is common. Relationships built upon this attachment style are frequently tenuous, potentially chaotic, and likely short-lived.

4. Preoccupied

Another term to describe this group is anxious. They are low on the avoidance scale, namely because they are seeking someone with which to create a fantasy bond. This group often feels an "emotional hunger" and look for partners and peers alike to rescue them emotionally. When facing fear, this group can become clingy, demanding, and possessive in relationships, They express unrealistic expectations, show marked jealousies, and appear to misrepresent boundaries as rejections.

Understanding your own style, or combination or styles of attachment, can help to better understand how you do relationships (i.e. platonic, romantic, familial, professional, etc). Additionally, our styles of attachment influences our experiences with:

  • jealousy

  • self-disclosure

  • forgiveness

  • commitment

  • dishonesty

  • sexual behavior

  • infidelity

Granted, how we attach is only one factor among many that impact the quality and longevity of relationships. Please remember, although a person demonstrates a particular style of attachment, labeling them as healthy or unhealthy based solely upon their style is inaccurate, unfair, and detrimental.

Altering one's style of attachment requires work. Usually beginning with a careful examination of past relationships, issues of trust, communication patterns, roles in relationship and intimate/sexual expression, all are laid out in order to assess where individual strengths exist along with the deficits that deserve attention.

Relationships, be they intimate or platonic, familial or professional, can be very challenging for those who question their connections with others or expect too much from them. Learning your own style of attachment can help foster stronger emotional bonds to those around you, as well as set better boundaries so as not to get hurt.

If you are questioning your own style of attachment, have a history of challenging and emotionally draining relationships, fear opening up and letting some else in, or are uncertain about just what a healthy relationship is for you, consider seeking professional guidance. If even for just a few sessions, having a safe haven to explore where you are can be of tremendous benefit.

Mental health matters.

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