It’s the question everyone dreads asking (and answering). In the dating world, third party situations are a total nightmare. But attachments begin long before you move in with someone:
Attachment Theory includes four broad categories of attachment for adults: Secure, Anxious/Preoccupied (Insecure), Fearful/Avoidant (Insecure), and Dismissive/Avoidant (Insecure). There are two people whose research really helped create and define Attachment Theory: John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999). Though ladies usually get the courtesy of going first, it was Bowlby’s early work that later influenced Ainsworth’s research.
John Bowlby was a British Psychiatrist. Bowlby himself was raised by two nannies in an upper class home. His father was a surgeon to the King and was often called to military duty. His mother was a socialite—common for ladies of her socio-economic and -cultural class of the time—and only saw her children for an hour a day in the afternoons. Bowlby lost his primary caretaker at age three, later likening it as equivalent to the loss of a mother. After that, his care was left to a less nurturing member of the staff until he was sent to boarding school. It’s no wonder then that so much of Bowlby’s work focused on the need for healthy attachments during the first three years of a child’s life, and how the attachments we do form later affect our relationships as adults.
Yes, you read that right—interactions with parents and other care givers during our infancy (that we probably don’t even remember) can inform why and how we behave as adults. So whether you are actively dating, are in a relationship, or have been married for decades, understanding adult attachment styles can help shed light on relationship patterns that we (often mindlessly) have on repeat.
Mary Ainsworth was a North American Psychologist born and raised in Ohio until her family relocated to Toronto, Canada. Unlike Bowlby, Ainsworth had a well-rounded childhood with two college educated parents and the constancy of a stay-at-home mother. As a result, Ainsworth was a very secure child (and adult). By age 15, she had decided to pursue a career in psychology. Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” is a research method designed to observe and identify attachment in children as young as nine months. “Secure Attachment” is credited to Mary Ainsworth.
Attachments form in the first three years of life. How we are treated after that can certainly influence us as adults as well. Any trauma at any age has lasting psychological effects. That’s why it’s really important to practice mindfulness in order to increase self-awareness. Every action, every word, has a cascade effect on not just other individuals, but the world. Humanity is a great web of interconnected strands. True, we cannot see that pattern or how connected we really are whilst a part of the intricacies of the design itself, but we can still be aware of those connections. And, with every movement, we feel the web vibrate ourselves—as the upcoming American Presidential elections exhibit rather well—so we must remember that it is the same for others. The importance of being proactive instead of reactive has never been more pertinent than right now. Today. Understanding your attachment style can help you get a handle on your fears and anxieties. And in a year punctuated by the uncertainty of a pandemic, learning more about yourself and others is worth the next ten minutes of your time :
- Secure Attachment: Caregivers are responsive to the infant. As adults, those with secure attachments are considerate, loving, dependable, and loyal. Committed relationships are more appealing than multiple flings or affairs. Secure adults aren’t jealous or petty—they’re relatively unconcerned with how others perceive them or what others may or may not have. Score-keeping is not relative to these folks, but seeing unhealthy behavioural patterns is. Unless a secure individual is compromised by a future partner, they tend to gravitate toward individuals who are also stable and secure.
- Anxious/Preoccupied: Caregivers are sometimes responsive, sometimes not, leading to emotional confusion in the infant (which creates clinginess). As adults, this translates to an intense need for approval from romantic partners. They may even change core beliefs, patterns of speech, religious and political views, clothing and hair styles, to “fit” with their partner. There’s also a tendency to glorify the inconsistent parent(s) in a continued effort to get approval/acknowledgement (that will probably never come).
- Fearful/Avoidant: Caregivers generally don’t meet the needs of the infant, so the infant stops communicating their needs altogether. Children want the caregiver within a certain proximity to feel safe but keep their distance to avoid rejection. As adults, this same pattern is repeated with romantic partners and can replace that partner’s former attachment style (so someone who was secure can become insecure/fearful/avoidant if involved for three or more years with a partner who regularly fails to meet their needs).
- Dismissive/Avoidant: This category can be a “catch-all” for children raised in unstable, abusive homes. As adults, they tend to be independent because they are unable to fully trust. This extends to themselves as well—they often believe they aren’t dependable via “victim” mentalities. When in a relationship, they may do whatever they want but are highly focused on what their partner is doing, where their partner is, etc.. Possessive/jealous behaviour is common.
You may see pieces of yourself in more than one category. If you had more than one caregiver before age three, you may have experienced more than one attachment style. And as adults, when we start to choose partners and depend on others, we can take on traits from a partner, especially if that partner is employed and you’re not, or earns more money, has more resources (including a larger family, etc.). That’s why reducing vulnerability (in an effort to create equity/balance) in any relationship should be a priority for both partners. When there is an imbalance or lack of equity, there is a greater risk for neglect and abuse of the more vulnerable partner. This can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain, suicide ideation...just to name a few.
In order to take back control, one must become proactive, not reactive. This may be a time of great uncertainty, but the one thing we can always count on is our ability to control our thoughts, feelings and actions.
If you’re with a partner who regularly puts you in vulnerable positions and does not consider your future health and well being—physically, fiscally, mentally, and/or spiritually—it is your responsibility to remove yourself from that relationship as safely and quickly as possible.
Your primary obligation is to have compassion and love for yourself. When you do, you can truly feel compassion and love for others. Life gets a lot better after that.
Because you’ll have finally achieved your balance....
*picture insert courtesy of TCM, "Love Affair" (1939)