In your closest relationships do you tend to “dial up” or “dial down” your emotions?

attachment styleI’m happy to be part of a supervision group and recently a colleague gave a presentation on the Circle of Security. This is a body of work aimed at helping parents develop positive, secure relationships with their young children, and is based in part on attachment theory.

The Circle of Security offers an accessible way to understand your patterns in close relationships whether or not you are a parent.  It explains how the ways we bonded with our parents as children influence our close relationships as adults. The authors have plenty of handouts and videos on their Circle of Security website. I will outline the main attachment styles here and will elaborate in each section on the tendencies of each style in adult relationships.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory (originally put forward my John Bowlby in the 60s) says children form distinct styles of connecting with their primary caregivers. The kind of bond we developed as a child can affect our close relationships as adults but also our relationship with ourselves and our feelings.

Attachment styles

A person can tend towards one style or have a mix of styles. We tend to only see attachment patterns come out in intimate or very close relationships.

Secure attachment

In secure attachment the parent is the safe, secure base from which the child can go off and explore, and return to as needed.  To support secure attachment the parents supports the child’s exploration, and supports their return. The parent is Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind. Read more detail here on travelling around the circle of of security

For example, imagine a 2 yr old close to a parent. The pair are at a playground and the child soon decides to go explore the playground. The parent lets him go and keeps an eye on him. The boy goes off happily and meets another child. Alas the child doesn’t want to share their toy, so the boys’ feelings are hurt. The child comes running back to the parent who offers a hug and says something like “oh, sweety, your feelings are hurt. [hug]  The boy didn’t want to share his toy? Oh that’s hard. [Holding close until he settles]. Yes, it makes sense you wanted to use that truck –  it’s such a nice yellow one.”

In secure attachment, the parent is available to comfort and provide the child with what he needs emotionally, so the child gets “filled up”, feels safe again, is reassured, and then can go off again into the world. In secure attachment a child learns that they are deserving of love and affection and that it is available for them. “The child does not need to focus on the needs of the caregiver, but can simply attend to what s/he wants, needs, thinks, and feels and make that known all the way around the Circle.” (source)

An adult with a secure attachment style will typically enjoy a range of healthy relationships:

  • Being close with others is fairly easy.
  • Being with your own feelings is easy – they are easy to identify and you can be with yourself as the feelings come and go (i.e. good at “self-regulation”)
  • It is relatively easy to discern and maintain healthy boundaries between self and other.
  • You know when you’re off centre and generally know what to do about it.
  • You trust that support will be there
  • You trust that things will be okay again during challenging times

Unsurprisingly a very small minority of adults have totally secure attachment styles!

Avoidant Attachment style

The other kinds of attachment can be seen as ways of avoiding difficulties.

If the parent dismissed the childs concerns as not important (e.g. “oh don’t be silly/a cry baby, just go play somewhere else instead” or “you’ve got it easy, let me tell you about the childhood I had…”). The child learns to ignore and dismiss their feelings.  Or if the parent tended to be highly stressed or reactive when the child needed help, seeing the child’s concern as a threat to themselves instead of a call for help. (i.e they regularly get angry if the child is upset) then the child learns that it’s better not to express their needs, ie they avoid their needs. cos-2

“Avoidant—an organized strategy of attachment that overemphasizes the exploratory aspects of the relationship (secure base/top half of Circle) while underemphasizing the need for emotional closeness and comfort (safe haven/bottom half of Circle). This strategy allows a child to stay as close as possible to the caregiver while expressing a minimum of emotional need. This attachment strategy is not considered a risk for significant psychopathology.” (source)

As an with an adult with an avoidant attachment style:

  • will “dial down” his emotions and/or not be able to identify an emotionavoidant attachment
  • will not easily see or be able to be with other’s emotions because as a child they learnt not to feel emotions
  • tend to be more concrete and practically-oriented
  • tend to minimise problems and be good at letting things go
  • tend to be the “distancer” in the pursuer/distancer dynamic

Ambivalent Attachment style (also sometimes called Anxious Attachment)

“Ambivalent—an organized strategy of attachment that overemphasizes the demonstration of closeness and proximity (safe haven/bottom half of Circle) while underemphasizing the exploratory aspects of the relationship (secure base/top half of Circle). The child seeks to keep an inconsistent caregiver available through a heightened display of emotionality and dependence. This attachment strategy is not considered a risk for significant psychopathology.” (source)

cos-1An anxiously/ambivalent attached adult will tend to:

  • put a lot of focus on staying in connection with a significant otheranxious attachment
  • this is often seen as a “neediness” and the anxiously attached person will typically become the “pursuer” in the pursuer/distancer dynamic
  • tend to need external regulation
  • have no trust that they can survive a difficult process
  • will tend to feel over-connected during a break-up and experience high anxiety

Disorganised Attachment style

Disorganised attachment is typically a mixture of avoidant and ambivalent tendencies that don’t fall in a regular pattern.

This style often occurs because of the “attachment of a child to a caregiver who is either frightened of the child or frightening to the child (or both); a breakdown in organized behavior by the child when needing to seek comfort and protection from the attachment figure, particularly when under stress. This attachment style is considered to be at risk of significant psychopathology.” (source)

An adult with disorganised attachment:

  • will likely have significant problems maintaining relationships
  • may feel a “push/pull” inside re relationship – a strong desire for closeness, then a strong fear or anxiety.
  • will likely experience more pervasive anxiety in life
  • may find themselves in dramatic relationships
  • folks with more severely disorganised styles may exhibit Borderline Personality tendencies

The COS also recognises Negative Attachment: “attachment to a “procedural script” regarding how to function within relationship; this script, learned within the context of an insecure or disorganized attachment, allows for a limited experience of connection (“This may be painful, but at least it allows some predictability and some sense of connection.”)(source)

Going forward – the good news

Research indicates attachment style can indeed be changed – we can become more securely attached in adulthood even if we weren’t in childhood. This can be done through therapy, through being in a relationship with a person who is more securely attached than you, and perhaps other ways I don’t yet know about. I’m all ears. Healing attachment wounds and becoming more securely attached is often a long-term endeavour requiring significant consciousness and effort, but it’s possible.

Here are some of my favourite resources

Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

How to be an adult in relationships, by David Richo

Family Ties That Bind, by Ron Richardson

Getting the Love You Want & Keeping The Love You Find, by Harville Hendrix

Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Woititz

Find some very useful videos here for parents, courtesy of Circle of Security International (e.g. “Being With and Shark Music” (i.e. parental reactivity).