Save Your Marriage By Understanding Your Attachment Style

Get this article in PDF format

Warnings About Attachment Dramas

You may be more attached to attachment dramas than you think. Attachment issues originating in childhood can wreak havoc in your relationships. They are the unseen saboteur, ready to undermine the most loving relationship. Not only do you need to be alert to attachment saboteurs; you are also likely to find it challenging to deal with their enduring legacy. Even though most people are able to act from a secure attachment position most of the time, there are few people who are so emotionally healthy that their insecure attachment issues aren't triggered from time to time.

Therefore, it is smart to recognize your inner monster, so that when it comes out of its cave, you are ready and prepared. Four styles are described below, but your behaviour could reflect any combination or variation of these.

Secure Attachment Style

1. Many people have secure attachment styles in evidence most of the time. However, when stresses arise, and especially when interpersonal conflict rears its (seemingly) ugly head, that's when people with a secure attachment style excel.

2. Most notably, this attachment style has the ability to stay engaged with their partner when conflict appears. In childhood, they have learned, or been helped, to stay engaged when a significant other is highly emotional.

3. They neither have a strong desire to take off and run, nor do they have a need to go hammer and tongs and get it sorted. This person is able to stay engaged with relatively low levels of discomfort or distress.

4. Basically, a securely attached pperson has learned to trust that the conflict will be talked through and resolved to a point where their emotional comfort will return.

5. Secure attachment is characterised by a belief that one is worthy of love and caring, and that one is also confident and competent.It is also characterised by viewing others as being dependable and trustworthy, unless their actions provide sound evidence to the contrary.

6. Furthermore, a securely attached person has the capacity not only to stay with their feelings and the person with whom they are in conflict, but is able to feel sufficiently to recognise needs, desires, insights and values that these feelings are communicating to them.

7. Thus, a securely attached individual doesn't fear being abandoned during conflict, and doesn't need to run for cover. They have the ability to remain intimate and emotionally connected both with themselves and the other person.

8. The secure person has the confidence to know that conflict is just a process to be worked through, and so their reaction to it emotionally is minimal. This leaves them resourceful enough to stay engaged, intimate, and sharing of self as the need arises.

9. Totally secure people seem to be rather rare. More common are people who can behave securely attached enough in most situations that they can functionally work through differences between self and others while remaining emotionally quite calm. However, most people have a breaking point, when their secure choices break down, and reactivity takes over. At that point, one of the attachment styles described below will kick in.

Anxious Insecure Attachment Styles.

1. You will experience this relating style as an insecure fear that warns you that your dearly beloved is about to desert you or at least not be there for you. You may fear that disconnection with your beloved is happening.

2. Whether or not this has been true in the past is immaterial, this inner fear will ring all the warning bells nonetheless. This fear of separation, abandonment or aloneness can arise at any time. It may haunt you as your beloved heads off to work, goes out for an evening, if he's going to be away for a day or two, and most certainly if he goes off in a huff after an argument, or emotionally disconnects.

3. Once this fear and anxiety, more commonly found in women than men, has got a grip on you emotionally, it may now manipulate your mind and convince you that disaster is on the way. This pattern of catastrophizing can convince you of the most absurd porkies, but because the whole process is emotionally based, it will feel true nonetheless.

4. About the time that this drama is going on emotionally and taking its toll on your energy it makes its most potent strike. Knowing that you are wanting this connection to another safe, supportive, reliable, loving person, your inability to get that safe and secure feeling can cause you to abandon yourself, leaving you feeling despairing.

5. Because you probably did not fully and sufficiently internalize a self-support system in childhood, the lack of external support now causes a deep fear within you that no-one will be there for you.

6. The truth is, the child part of you was never assured that an adult would be there for you those many years ago, and so when there's no adult there once again, your inner child fears the abandonment/rejection/oversight she experienced as a child. Not only that, this needy inner child may leave you feeling abandoned because she has never learned to be self-supportive and sufficiently self-caring.

7. This is how this pattern of relating begins. When during childhood an adult lends emotional support to a child, the child internalizes this experience and is able to support self in the way she experienced it being done to her, using the internalized version of the support that was modeled by the adult those many years ago.

8. This is what gives rise to a secure attachment, a feeling that all is OK even when the boat is being rocked. So what happens when someone who was insufficiently supported in childhood, where connections, care and communication were not there when needed, becomes an adult? The adult will now not have this built-in support process kicking into place when left alone to deal with life's dramas.

9. The adult will therefore experience anxiety or loneliness when a partner distances himself, or in some way backs off and withdraws his ability to connect and be intimate or caring.

10. The result is a feeling of emptiness inside, a cavernous experience where there is no part of self able to offer support when the chips are down and others are unavailable.

11. Often the anxious insecure adult interprets this withdrawing as something wrong with self. This feeling that "I'm wrong" is common, and can be associated with strong self-criticism or judgment.

12. In some, this may plunge the anxious insecure person into a tail-spin, where they spiral into a deep hole of pain – serious pain – of hurt, fear, despair, aloneness or hopelessness. This can be a truly appalling experience, and one which only other anxious insecure people would fully understand.

13.Of course, the natural reaction when in this state is to reach out and grasp for support – any support. This person reaches out, thinking that their salvation lies in having another to cling to. However, this clinging is unattractive to others, and so there is a risk that their strong desire for connection will eventually be rejected, especially if the person they are wanting to cling to is an avoidant insecure personality.

14. The anxious insecure individual may get so overwhelmingly anxious that they chase after their partner, wanting to resolve any differences at all costs. If the partner backs off, the annxious insecure person may feel even more desperate, possibly lashing out verbally, or in some cases, physically. High levels of frustration or anger are common at this point.

15. It is also common for this person to feel hurt by their partner's avoidant, disinterested or insensitive behaviour. This may leave them feeling hurt, which over time can turn to resentment and finally frustration or even anger and rage.

16. Alternatively, the anxious insecure person gives up on receiving any help, from self or others, and disappears into an emotional black hole, commonly dissolving into floods of tears and pulling away, feeling that their situation is hopeless.

17. Even when their need to cling is not intense, this anxious insecure person will want to talk everything over - sometimes often and endlessly - with their partner (or anyone else), because they are not used to using a totally internal process for dealing with stress or distress. Some partners will hear this as 'nagging' or at best, an unrelenting need to talk - again.

18. To an avoidant insecure person (who is more often than not their partner), this seems unnecessary, time consuming, energy draining, and therefore a frustrating process to have to go through. So their partner may have no idea how to support the anxious insecure person's unmet needs which originate in the need to connect and share their life.

19. Furthermore, the innate desire of this anxious-to-connect type is for connection, approval, cooperation, security, respect, understanding and validation – and whatever needs they most missed out on in childhood. They want to be a team player.

20. The anxious insecure person is seeking externally what they struggle to do for themselves - connect inwardly. Self-care and self-soothing from self or other will help, but especially selfishly prioritizing their own needs. This may seem anathaema to this person who empathizes well with, and consequently usually prioritizes the needs of others ahead of self.

21. If connection and intimacy can't be found satisfactorily, the anxious insecure person will seek it through friends, internet social connection sites, clubs or other social connections. However, the concern and discomfort with one's beloved will not go away.

22. The anxiously insecure person will tend to find themselves thrown into emotions such as hurt, despair, fear, upset, aloneness, hopelessness, helplessness, or powerlessness quite quickly or possibly quite often. This may escalate into resentment, bitterness, frustration and anger. These emotions may last for days.

23. From here it will not only be difficult to support self, but the relationship event with partner that created this emotional freefall will (probably inaccurately) be perceived through the lens of the childhood wounding. This will tend to distort the reality of the situation, so that the partner may struggle to tune in to, understand, or respond appropriately to the anxious insecure person's perspective.

24. There is a risk of blaming the relationship for these wounds, yet it's important to see that these would arise in almost all relationships, not just this relationship that the anxious insecure person had.

25. If the partner is an avoidant insecure person, they are likely to want to rationalize the situation, while the anxious insecure person will generally want to have their feelings heard, reflected and validated.

26.Rationally discussing the situation will therefore probably not work well for the anxious insecure person whilst feelings are running high. There is too much emotional static for this style of person to reason whilst upset.

27. The way ahead for the anxious insecure person, is to firstly recognize these patterns, then own and non-judgmentally accept them, then express their unmet needs. They will struggle to appreciate that their partner won't otherwise understand them.

28. Secondly, they must recognize the need to provide from within the connection, approval, understanding and validation they seek from another. This can only be done by connecting to their emotions and negative beliefs about self, tuning in to self, and owning, accepting, understanding, validating and forgiving self. This requires a reflective, contemplative, time-consuming period of just sitting with what is happening within, and patiently recognizing whatever needs are present, and then meeting these by caring for self.

29. While their habitual tendency will be to reach out and want someone else's validation and attention, it is only by giving this to self that healing can finally become complete, and they will become less needy of others.

30. A partner who can provide this initially through quality listening will help the anxious insecure person down the path of supporting and caring for self. Once the anxious insecure person understands (non-judmentally) how they function, they can ask for a partner's support, listening ear, patience as they express their feelings, and acceptance that they are a predominantly feeling person, especially when an emotional situation arises.

31.In summary the challenge for an anxious insecure person, then, is to connect with self, and express their feelings and needs in a way that their partner can hear. Their need is not to rely on external connection (which may seem it will work best), but to connect with, honour, respect, value, and accept self, and then express requests for support.

32. Their need from others is for understanding and acceptance of their journey; to hear and accept their feelings and what these are saying, and to be there in support of this painful and on-going inner journey, without any attempt to fix it. This must be communicated and explained clearly to any partner, because most non-anxious insecure people will not understand what to do to help unless told.

Anxious–avoidant Insecure Styles

1. The anxious-fearful person is basically fearful of not being able to sustain contact with those who are close, but finds the closeness just too demanding - either scary or a waste of time.

2. This person is an anxious insecure person who has become dis-engaged with their partner when confliict arises. They stay behind their wall, accumulating hurts and resentments.

3. They fear rejection or hurt, and often don't have the confidence or feel safe to connect assertively. So they may have difficulty opening up and being vulnerable. An inner tug of war is taking place. One part wants connection at all costs, and is fearful of not experiencing this. But another part is not confident about doing this, at reaching out for her needs to be met.

4. This struggling part is going to avoid getting too close and taking risks of intimacy, instead preferring the space, time out, and distance from unresolvable conflict. Like all avoidants in times of crisis, this person may not feel able to reach out when the going gets tough, even though a part from within cries out for connection.

5. This leaves a chaotic state of inner turmoil. It is a terrible dilemma for the anxious-avoidant person to manage. Conflict will really upset the part that wants connection and togetherness, but a lack of feeling of safety to engage may keep this person from doing so.

6. If this person gets caught in the Control Drama Triangle, they will be hurling abuse and blame (persecuting) whilst wanting to connect and feel close to the person they are abusing. If feeling caught in the victim role, they will likely just close down and avoid contact with their partner.

7. The task for the anxious-avoidant individual, like the other two styles, is to become emotionally more able to hear the other and express their own needs, wants and desires. Otherwise, the relationship will close down.

8. A major challenge for this person is to keep safe from harm, whilst staying in touch with self. This person may feel out on a limb, not knowing whether closeness or distance from the other will bring greatest comfort.

9. Like anybody else, the anxious-avoidant must eventually come to the conclusion that owning how they feel, and responding functionally by connecting and communicating, is the only way forward.

10.The first step then is to recognize feelings when conflict occurs, and that these are likely to be ambivalent, some pulling towards connection, others towards isolation.

11. The anxious-avoidant must come to recognize that the need to talk things through so that intimacy may be possible is a deeper and more compelling need than the desire to lash out, or to withdraw.

12. In summary, similar to the dismissive avoidant person, the challenge for the anxious-avoidant person is to connect with inner feelings, what these say about self, and to use this awareness to connect with others whilst staying safe. A need for this person is to allow her desire for connection to lead the way forward towards something solid, interactive, and soothing. Thus, there is a strong need for a peaceful approach to conflict resolution to be found which will not be emotionally intense, but meet the need for soulful connection.

13. Because of the unsafety the anxious-avoidant insecure person may be feeling, there may be a need to get support from someone else to help the more aggressive party to adopt a more connecting communication style.

Avoidant Insecure Attachment Style

1. The avoidant, withdraawing style is just as unhelpful as the anxious insecure attachment, but is usually not as emotionally intense, for reasons that will become clear shortly, although defensive attitudes are common.

2. The avoidant insecure person, usually a man,avoids conflict at all costs. They have grown up without the skills of intense emotional engagement with another, and so when communication heats up, they are usually out the door.

3. The avoidant insecure person is usually not very emotionally expressive or understanding. Avoiding strong emotion in themselves and others has for most been a life-long pattern.

4. Emotional avoidance will, over the course of a life, show up as emotional or physical withdrawal from intense interactive events, especially conflict with a partner who is emotionally close.

5. In some avoidants, there will be an attempt to pursue their partner. Usually this is not an atttempt to connect, but rather to get the matter sorted 'rationally'so that their emotions can settle down again.

6. Thus, avoidants will commonly ignore, resist, or just avoid situations where intimacy, sharing, emotional problem-solving, or heart-to-heart discussions with those close to them would be beneficial. A tendency in some to be rather lazy about working to create close bonds with another doesn't help.

7.The avoidant insecure person will want to explain his position, because he tends to rely on logic and reason. In doing this, his partner may experience him as being defensive and resistant to her comments.

8.He is also therefore very logically driven in what he focuses on, such as tasks, problem-solving and fixing things. He may therefore feel inadequate when he can't fix his partner, or solve her problems for her. He is likely to give up eventually, figuring that she's a lost cause who is beyond help.

9. The feeling of inadequacy, and pressure to solve problems, gains momentum when his partner becomes even more distressed when she's not heard or understood. This is when he's most likely to withdraw, either angrily or with a hopeless resignation feeling overwhelmed by her emotions.

10. Certainly, an avoidant insecure individual will want to avoid the emotions in self or other that these situations can generate, largely because they don't know how to effectively respond to either their own emotions or those of an emotionally driven partner.

12. Avoidant insecure people are likely to become cognitive during an argument (if they've not already withdrawn from the scene of confliict,), and this can frustrate or infuriate their anxious insecure partner, making even more certain that the avoidant insecure person won't hang around.

13. Whilst they may start off emotionally relatively even and calm, the emotional temperature of the avoidant inscure may rise if the other person persists,goes on and on verbally, or harangues, as the anxious insecure person can tend to do.

14. The avoidant insecure individual, unable to resist and calm their own emotions of feeling pressured or wronged, may explode if they feel the pressure of being trapped in the conflictual environment.

15. If their strategy of being calm, reasonable and rational has not worked, the avoidant insecure type may get frustrated, and their anger can reach fever pitch. This may be an ultimate reaction to feelings of pressure, hurt or fear about what to do that they may not be consciously aware of.

16. Avoidant insecure behaviours don't appear to be unhelpful, because this style of emotional management tends to be emotionally controlling and seemingly functional. Unlike the anxious insecure person who can seem emotionally messy and over the top, avoidants are usually emotionally repressed, and so less volatile or emotionally noisy. They like to be emotionally 'in control', and are experienced at times as being controlling or bossy.

17. Since childhood, they have learned to go off on their own and process feelings by taking recourse to thinking or doing. Thinking or doing anything else, that is – anything that will distract them from the conflict or problem at hand, and any attendant feeling – is their most common coping strategy.

18. This coping strategy can create its own nightmare for the avoidant person. Desperate to avoid feelings (which they've often had minimal practice processing – and so may be unskilled at working with feelings), the avoidant person will remove their body, mind or emotions – or all three – from the scene of conflict.

19. The challenge for the avoidant person is to allow themselves to fully feel, and to stay engaged with the emotions of others, and the downstream consequences of that - being able to hear, connect and work things through with their partner.

20. Avoidant insecure types may avoid what they are feeling by overworking, using drugs and alcohol, taking off to do tasks in the shed, gambling – anything that will help them anaethetize or bury unwanted feelings, or replace these with exciting pleasant ones, such as those associated with gambling, letting their hair down while intoxicated, internet porn, racy affairs, fast cars, speedy movies, exciting sport on TV, or extreme sports participation.These are especially common in young men who are still behaving like bachelors.

21. In childhood, the avoidant personality might have used the above activities as a way to self-soothe, or self-medicate and to dissociate from anything that might bring up uncomfortable emotions in a relationship setting.

22. None of these activities heal the inner scars though – the disconnection from others and from experiences of love, intimacy, closeness, support, sharing and caring. The challenge for the avoidant person is to recognize the need for deep and meaningful connection with another (why else are they in a relationship?), and to realize that the only way to get and to sustain this, is to stay present and work through emotional pain or discomfort with a partner when this arises – as it inevitably will.

23. Firstly, the preference to run away or withdraw has to be recognized, owned and accepted without being judged, but seen as unhelpful in a relationship.

24. Secondly, the many feelings of resistance, resentment, despondency, pressure, discomfort or energy loss that may arise when a partner slips into emotional neediness must also be recognized, owned, and sat with. These are the inevitable consequences of being in a relationship, which like all relationships, will have its ups and downs.

25. With time and practice, as the avoidant learns to hang in there when the going gets hot, these feelings will get easier to cope with, and will lose their initial intensity. Learning to express the more vulnerable feelings will also help.

26. Thirdly, there is a need for this person to recognize that they do indeed have feelings, lots of them, and to own, name, feel and talk about these. Feelings of pressure, defensiveness, resistance, despondency, inadequacy and fear of failure are some of the more common emotions the avoidant feels.

27. Once these emotions have been better owned and understood, the avoidant person will come to recognize that talking about and rationalizing a problem situation is actually a strategy for avoiding feeling it fully. The advantage of feeling conflict is that the avoidant insecure person can now connect via their feelings, which will tell the full story of how they tick, and what they need, value, desire and want to communicate.

28. The avoidant insecure's challenge when confronted by another with strong emotions, is to avoid helping them with suggestions of alternative ways to think or behave, but just to support this person to discover their own truths, just as he will want his partner to do for him.

29. Whilst the avoidant insecure type may want time out rather than connection in order to rest and relax, they must recognise that they are in relationship because they want connection, even though space and alone time is their habit and preference. Balance between alone time and together time is the way forward.

30. Whereas the anxious insecure person has to reconnect with and support a sense of self, the avoidant insecure person's challenge is to reconnect with their feelings, and with what these feelings tell them about their needs, values, attitudes, perceptions, desires or sense of self, and expressing these feelings and associated needs in the communicative process.

31. In summary the challenge for an avoidant insecure person, then, is to connect with feelings and what these say about self. Their need is not to rely so much on the withdrawing inner self, but to recognize that growth for them rests on being able to engage fully and frequently with others, and to learn to enjoy, rather than fear, the feelings of being close, intimate, genuine, real and present with self. Being able to hang in when the other is being emotional, without solving her problems, is the required shift.

32. Their need from others is for understanding and acceptance of their journey; and to be given the space to move from withdrawal to emotional engagement and the struggle to stay present with whatever is going on. They want their thinking self to be valued and heard, and for patience to prevail whilst they come to see that their reasoned approach to conflict has been a way to work out solutions, but can destroy connection.

33. Avoidant insecure types have reached the holy grail when they can engage without knowing or needing the answers, be open to whatever emotions arise in self or other, communicate directly in regards to their needs or preferences, and reach out and be loving when their partner is struggling.

Dismissive Insecure Styles

1. For the dismissive person, conflict and strong emotions are monsters that were put to bed many years ago, often in childhood.

2. This person has a past history of not being able to rely on others to be there for them, and so has learned to make little or no attempt to connect.

3. Usually a male, they are distant isolates who long ago gave up trusting that someone could be there for them, or that they had the skills to reach out to others.

4. For this reason, the dismissive insecure person may often avoid close or intimate relationships and instead become successful in ways that support their notion that I'm OK, but others can't be trusted, and I can't be bothered anyway.

5. If the dismissive insecure person does 4. above whilst in a relationship, his partner will find it very difficult to be heard, to engage, or to bring this person into close connection with intimate sharing.

6. Dismissive avoidants may be very critical of any desire to sort out conflict, choosing just to drop it and get on with something else. They lack any ability to prioritize the relationship, and get things sorted out so that feelings of intimacy are protected and nurtured.

7. Dismissive avoidants wouldn't perceive themselves as having needs for intimacy, and will really struggle to develop the emotional literacy and social skills to bridge this gap.

8. Such men may not even develop the motivation to connect with their partner, because for their whole life they have been distanced from others and are usually content with that. So, if conflict does arise, they have little awareness of any need to stay connected to either self or other, and will most likely take steps to disengage from both.

9. The only way forward for this attachment type is to recognize the value of intimacy from a rational point of view, and take steps to stir from its slumber the almost totally atrophied part of their personality that has lost the desire for connection.

10. For this extreme form of avoidant insecure personality, the journey for dismissives back to feeling connection and engagement with others is usually just too much. Most don't have either the motivation or resolve to recover, because the memory of having good feelings of positive connection with others is usually well and truly buried and thus no longer beckons to them.

11. The dismissive type would have to be aware that connecting meaningfully with another will require them to give up being right, give up always arguing their reasoned response, give up on being controlling and in control, and hang in when another is distressed or angry. Whilst this is possible, motivation must come from their loving, caring self that desires to be close to another even if this can be challenging.

12.In summary, the challenge for a dismissive insecure person is to connect with inner feelings, what these say about self and needs, and meet these needs by connecting with others in a way which supports both self and other. Their need is to awaken the part of self that wants to connect with others meaningfully. This deeply buried lost self may take some time to awaken, and so the dismissive person may require some help to reconnect to the desire to love and be loved.

Read many more excellent articles about relationships from the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, Dr Sue Johnson. Read her blog at Hold Me Tight