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How Attachment Styles Impact Relationships

Unless we take a step back and question our expectations of how intimate relationships operate, we can all too easily repeat the patterns of our past

According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, our 'attachment styles' are born out of the bond we form with our first primary caregiver, usually a parent. Our relationship with these caregivers has an overarching influence on the way we act in future relationships.

Identifying and understanding our attachment styles – and our partner's – can help us gain great insight into each other's strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.

Researchers look at three main groups of attachment styles:

  1. Anxious – where we may feel insecure or vulnerable in our relationships
  2. Secure – where we feel comfortable in our relationships
  3. Avoidant– where we may try and keep our distance as that feels safe

Let's take a look at two people on each end of the attachment spectrum – Sarah, and Sanjay. Each was working hard to make sense of their relationships, wanting to love and be loved, and their styles were impacting their relationships in very different ways.

Sarah has an Anxious attachment style. She came to see me as she was finding it hard to keep a relationship going. Her relationships would start out well, she often thought her partner was the one, but something would go wrong fairly quickly. If she hadn’t heard from her partner when she expected it, she would respond either by sulking or by becoming frantic – calling and texting repeatedly. She felt like all the good men had gone and she was now just meeting men who didn’t want to commit. Her last partner said to her: “You’re too much, I can’t breathe”.

Sarah was brought up by her mother after her parents divorced in her early childhood and she had seen very little of her father since then. She didn’t feel like her parents were available, and this repeated itself in her present relationships where she needed a lot of reassurance. What was happening for Sarah was that, in the early stages of a relationship, if she felt like she wasn’t being made a priority by her partner, it triggered her internal alarm of safety and security. This led her to use protest behavior to try and get her feelings met. Protest behavior is any action that is used in order to re-establish connection with a partner, and often involves trying to get their attention by punishing them or sulking. It’s the adult equivalent to stamping our feet like a hurt and angry child, and is often unhelpful in a relationship.

The second client of mine, Sanjay, has an Avoidant attachment style. Both of Sanjay’s parents ran a family business. They worked long hours and put pressure on him to succeed at school, so school work was a priority in his early life. His parents sacrificed a lot for him to have a good education but they were not able to spend much time with him. He soon learned to be independent and self-sufficient and got a lot of praise for this.

Sanjay came to me at the insistence of his wife. They seemed to argue all the time and she felt that he was cold towards her and lacked empathy. He, on the other hand, felt suffocated by her level of emotional demands. He felt that he was a good provider and wasn’t appreciated. Sanjay’s operating system as 'Avoidantly Attached' served him well growing up. He became self-reliant and put his school work first. After he got married though, it caused him problems – he found it very hard to provide the level of intimacy that his wife desired. The more she pressured him to engage, the more he felt like running away.

In times of stress we will still be drawn to our factory settings, so learning how to take charge of our own attachment style and understanding our partner’s style gives our relationship the best chance to succeed.

In my practice, I often see what looks like, at first blush, startlingly different stories of relationship battles. Amazingly though, they almost all boil down to attachment styles and how one person’s operating system connects with their partner’s operating system. In times of stress we will still be drawn to our factory settings, so learning how to take charge of our own attachment style and understanding our partner’s style gives our relationship the best chance to succeed.

Sanjay and Sarah took the time to discover why they were experiencing such strong emotions and were then able to understand why their attachment styles were being triggered. They went on to discover the small things they were able to do that would soothe their emotions and enable them to make the intimate connections they so dearly wanted.

Exercise

This exercise will help you think about how your attachment style may have impacted your present and past relationships, and how those relationships may have impacted your attachment style. Get out your journal and give yourself plenty of room to write your answers.

Start by thinking about your relationship history:

Write the names of your current and past partners at the top of the page. Now take yourself back to each of these relationships in turn and ask yourself these questions:

  • What was the relationship like – can you remember any patterns of behaviour? For example: was the relationship generally harmonious, or did you repeatedly break up and make up, or perhaps you drifted apart?
  • What were the situations that triggered your Attachment Style?How did those situations make you feel, think or behave?
  • Can you recognise any attachment styles in either you or your ex-partner?
  • Could there have been a different way of operating?

Now let's think about your present relationship:

  • Is it completely different to your past relationships or are there similarities?
  • What expectations do you have about it?
  • Are these expectations useful or a hindrance to its success?

We all operate from a characteristic attachment style, and people with a secure attachment style tend to believe that their relationship partners were and are there for them, so they act accordingly. Conversely, people with insecure attachment styles may have had a belief in the past that their partner would either abandon them or overwhelm them, and so they act in response to that belief. This belief can lead to a relationship history that is not as satisfying as it could be, because we create what we believe to be true.

To learn more about attachment styles and how understanding them can improve your relationship,listen to Pam's 'Attachment Styles' course on Paired.

About the writer

Pam Custers

Pam Custers is the founder of The Relationship Practice, based in London UK. The practice specialises in supporting clients to create relationships that thrive, with her 10-strong team working with clients both locally and across the globe.

Pam holds an M.A. in Relationship Therapy and a B.A. (Hons) in Psychology and is an accredited member of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP). Her experience is diverse, and includes working closely with those in the public eye and international sporting figures. She has a rich, wide-ranging background, including working as a university lecturer and running a video unit within the psychology department of a major university.

Since graduating with her M.A., she has worked for the NHS, Relate, and in drug rehabilitation. She currently works as a psychotherapist, speaker and as a consultant to various media projects and uses this experience – along with her insights and perceptiveness – to develop her unique, solutions-focused approach to couple work. Pam has made her expertise available to a wider audience via online programs, group workshops and intensive couple weekend retreats. Pam is an acknowledged expert in the field of relationships and has featured on radio, TV and in many newspapers and magazines including the BBC, Sky, The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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