What’s Your Relationship Style?
Hopeless Romantic? Commitment Phobe? Jealous Green Monster? or Lone Wolf?
When it comes to intimate relationships, we all have characteristic ways of behaving that were formed early in life.
Some of us are very secure in our relationships, giving our partners plenty of space so that both of you can enjoy independent activities and your own circle of friends without undue worry or concern that your partner will stray. Others of us are less secure and like to keep close tabs on our partners, checking on their phones or social media for the slightest hint that the partner may be having too much fun somewhere else. Still others are afraid to commit to their partner. They are typically more guarded and feel most at peace being alone, fearing that being too committed to another will undoubtedly lead to a painful breakup somewhere down the road.
What accounts for these very different relationship styles? More than 50 years ago, a British psychoanalyst named John Bowlby asked himself that very same question. He believed that the quality of our earliest relationships profoundly influence our behavior as adults. Most importantly, an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful emotional and social development. Bowlby called this concept Attachment Theory.
To test his theory, Bowlby enlisted the help of an American developmental psychologist Mary S. Ainsworth. She established an experiment whereby a baby is left briefly by their caregiver, either alone or with a stranger, and then the caregiver returns. Tens of thousands of babies and toddlers were observed to see how they react when reunited with the caregiver. Out of this research, four different types of attachment styles were observed; secure, insecure anxious, insecure avoidant, and insecure disorganized.
Secure children will become stressed and upset when the caregiver leaves the room but will happily greet them with outstretched arms when they return. They are easily soothed when picked up and comforted. As adults, people who are securely attached have a positive view of themselves, their partner, and the relationship. They feel comfortable with intimacy and independence and are able to balance the two. The securely attached will readily go to their significant other for comfort and support when they don’t get an expected promotion at work or have an argument with a friend. They are also eager to reciprocate when their partner has a bad day. Secure adults will have their own friends whose company they enjoy without their partners being present.
2. Insecure Anxious
Children high on the insecure anxious side of things get visibly upset when caregivers leave the room and will likely go to them when they return but since the caregiver has been unreliable as a source of comfort in the past, they can’t be easily soothed. These children feel separation anxiety in the caregiver’s absence and do not feel reassured when the caregiver returns. As an adult, those who are anxiously attached seek high levels of dependency, approval, and responsiveness from their partners. They tend to be overly dramatic in order to get what they want and often worry and obsess about the relationship. They may also be too clingy and overly needy with their romantic interest instead of taking it slow. These are the jealous types who find it hard to tolerate a partner’s absence or their attention on anything outside of the relationship, like their smartphone or the Internet.
3. Insecure Avoidant
Insecure avoidant children will not show signs of distress in the absence of caregivers but their vital signs, like heart rate and stress hormones will be through the roof. They don’t want to show much interest in a caregiver’s return because this has not turned out well in the past. Caregivers who are routinely too busy or too bored by the child will leave them feeling ignored or rebuffed in their attempts to reestablish an attachment. These children learn it is safer to avoid the caregiver altogether than risk being hurt. Adults with this attachment style are comforted by the proximity of their partners but don’t want to risk showing their true feelings due to a fear that they won’t be reciprocated. Most often, these adults behave as if they are self-confident and in control but suffer from hidden anxiety about being rejected. Insecure avoidant adults are the commitment phobic ones who will leave you standing at the altar because they are too afraid to become permanently attached.
4. Insecure Disorganized
Finally, children falling into the insecure disorganized category have suffered severe trauma or abuse from their caregiver. These children, who have been rejected or neglected, will approach the person as they reenter the room looking for comfort but then lose muscular control and fall to the floor. The “intruder” represents a potential danger and their fear of the unknown becomes overwhelming to the child. Adults with this attachment style commonly struggle with persistent and severe depression and the inability to form meaningful attachments in adulthood. These people are the lone wolves of the world.
But let me get back to the central theme of attachment theory, which states that it is necessary for a child to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child to be successful at social development and relationships. That means it really is all your parent’s fault! But in defense of parents everywhere, let me just say that there is no such thing as a perfect caregiver.
At best, even sensitive caregivers only get it right about 50 percent of the time. That’s because our communications with children are often mismatched or out of sync, like when the phone rings or we are trying to cook dinner or the dog needs a walk. The truth is that even the most attuned caregiver frequently drops the ball and communications with the child will become impaired. However, having a securely attached child is not about being a perfect caregiver but about maintaining the free flow of communication to repair the inevitable rifts that occur. In the daily battering of any relationship, if the communications are restored, the relationship will be too.
What is your relationship style anyway?
To find out your dominant style, you'll need to take the Attachment Styles and Close Relationship Survey. Simply submit your email below and I'll send you the survey, along with some guidance on how to get the most out of the questionnaire.
If the survey says you are securely attached, congratulations! This means that you have the expectation that if you are upset, you will be able to turn to someone for help and that you will reciprocate when the shoe is on the other foot. It’s not so great for the other 40 or 50 percent of us who are insecurely attached. (It’s no coincidence that this amount is the same as our divorce rate!)
Here’s the good news. While there is some evidence to suggest that secure attachments in childhood have an enduring quality, our attachment style can change over time, depending on our situation and experiences. Our relationship styles are not set in stone.
But what if your past relationships have been less than optimal? What if you find yourself asking, why am I always attracted to someone who is so obviously wrong for me? Or why am I stuck in a relationship rut that I can’t seem to climb out of? Or why do I always wind up alone? Old habits and patterns can be hard to change.
Exploring what went wrong in the past and finding more constructive ways of interacting going forward can be difficult if you try to go it alone. If you decide you need some help and you live in the Westchester vicinity, why not give me a call so we can set up some time to talk. If you live elsewhere, I can help you find a qualified psychotherapist in your area.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 914-510-2882 and I can start helping you improve your relationships today.