Adult Attachment Theory: Attachment Types & the Impact on Quality of Communication
Looking to improve the communication in your relationship(s)? Keep reading.
This is not just another blog on Adult Attachment. This article explores the effect of adult attachment styles on communication in relationships. Included is also some practical info on how to communicate effectively with those that have insecure attachment styles.
Attachment in relationships can be understood as…
“lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969)
The way we form our relationships is influenced by our attachment style. Our style is formed early in life, developing as we interact with our primary caregiver(s). A simple way to understand the development of our style is hinged on the answer to the question:
When I was in distress, how did my primary caregiver usually respond?
The answer to this question largely dictates our attachment style. To gain a more in-depth understanding of Attachment Theory and why it is so important, head over to this post.
So, as we continue to interact with our caregiver(s), our attachment style develops. Once developed, our attachment style remains relatively stable throughout our lives (Gonsalves,2020). As we age, the interactions we had with our primary caregiver(s) are topped by the interactions and relationships we start to have with friends, teachers, lovers, coworkers, and even therapists.
Our attachment style remains active throughout our lifetime and affects the quality of all the relationships we have.
In fact, attachment styles are so enduring that there is a connection between the attachment styles of our parents and our own attachment style (Huang,2020). Attachment types are passed through generations of a family; this is referred to as “intergenerational continuity” (Huang,2020). This means that parents’ (or caregivers’) attachment style affects the way they parent their children. These parenting styles, in turn, are adopted by their children and are passed down to their children. If we think about this, we see a really strong argument to mend insecure attachment and heal trauma, because not only do these problems affect your life, but have an effect beyond your kids through to your grandkids, and so on.
Adult attachment style, although a continuation of infant attachment, can be described along more detailed dimensions. We can consider adult attachment along two axes: Anxious and Avoidant.
Anxious refers to the degree (high or low) to which a person sees themselves worthy or unworthy of attention and/or affection (Jones,2015). This also involves the attitude the person has towards themselves (either positive or negative).
Avoidant refers to the degree (high or low) to which a person approaches or avoids intimacy (Jones,2015). This also involves the attitude the person had towards others; if others are trustworthy or not (positive or negative).
The way these styles are defined is presented in the infographic below. Although one style may not totally define us, there is usually one that resonates most within us.
It is relevant to note that our style can shift and change depending on the relationship and, of course, can change depending on how much work we have done to heal ourselves.
When questioning how these styles affect our relationships; each of these styles can be categorized by some general traits in the way people think about and behave in their relationships:
- Secure Attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment feel comfortable expressing themselves and are supportive of their partners when the partner is in distress. They feel comfortable expressing their needs and are able to receive their partner’s needs. They enjoy honest and equal relationships, most of the time (Dean,2018).
- Anxious Attachment: These individuals rank low on avoidance and low on their self-worth. They are usually dependant on relationships as they feel their partner is “better” than them. They may seek partners that are dominant, critical, or emotionally inconsistent, which feels familiar to them (Dean 2018).
- Avoidant Attachment: Individuals with this attachment style devalue the importance of intimacy and emotions. They have a positive view of themselves but have a negative view of others. They promote self-reliance and are attracted to partners who are the same. They may be loners and experts at hiding their feelings, even from themselves (Dean 2018).
- Anxious/Avoidant Attachment: These individuals exhibit traits from both anxious and avoidant styles. They have a negative view of themselves and of others. Initially, they may feel desperate to be in a relationship but then disconnect once the relationship becomes too intimate. To complicate things further, individuals with this style may be attracted to people that are neglectful or abusive (Dean, 2018).
Wondering about your own attachment style? Here’s a very informal gut-check. The below statements (Gonsalves,202) are taken from the foundational research done by Hazan and Shaver on adult attachment. Read through them and see which one resonates most with you:
“I find it relatively easy to get close to others and feel comfortable depending on them as well as having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.” (Secure)
“I find that others are not as willing to get as close as I would like them to be. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or doesn’t want to stay with me. I want to feel really close to another person, and this sometimes scares people away.” (Anxious)
“I feel somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust them completely and I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I get nervous when anyone gets too close to me. Often partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.” (Avoidant)
Did one of these feel more like “you”? These provide an initial starting point in understanding your attachment style and in framing some of the difficulties you or your partner may be experiencing in your relationship(s). Below is some practical information on communicating with individuals that have insecure attachment styles.
If you feel that your attachment style may be having a negative impact on your life, you can always set up a free consult with me to discuss the concerns you may be having.
Attachment Styles and the Impact on Communication
From what we have discussed so far, we understand attachment style can affect the quality of verbal and nonverbal communication between people. The way we perceive ourselves and the way we perceive others will have an effect on the way we communicate as well as what we communicate to others.
Researchers now understand that our attachment style has an effect on several different processes within our communication patterns (Jones, 2015):
- Cognitive Scripts: The expectations we have in certain situations, and what we think will happen based on our previous experiences are known as our “cognitive scripts”. These provide us with information on how to deal with distress in certain situations and can be understood as “if-then” statements (Jones, 2015). An example of this would be: “If some acts like X and that gets me upset, then I can Y.”
It is easy to see how a person with an avoidant attachment style will complete this statement differently than someone who has, for example, a secure attachment style.
- Goals: The goals that we have for the communication we have with our parents/lover/best friend etc. are influenced by the expectations we have (as detailed above).
- Information Processing: Simply put, the way that we interpret the events and behaviors of the things and people around us is referred to as our information processing. We all have biases that affect the way we process the world around us (ex: “I am not loveable.” or “People are not trustworthy.”).
Information processing works together with our cognitive scripts, so it is easy to see how someone with an anxious attachment style might have a completely different perception of an interaction compared to someone who has a different attachment style. For example, if I have the bias that people want to leave me or don’t want to be around me, then I might feel anxious if my partner asks for space or wants to do something without me, in turn, causing me to react a certain way.
Communication patterns are affected by the above processes that act as “filters” with which we receive and send out messages in our relationships.
Since these “filters” exist, people with Anxious or Avoidant attachment styles actually have some common communication patterns in the ways that they deal with conflict (poorly) and, they also tend to have a higher level of sensitivity in interactions, which makes communication more negative (Jones, 2015).
In fact, research has found that attachment style has such a large impact on communication that it even impacts the quality of a couple’s sex life. Turns out, insecure attachment styles, especially an avoidant attachment style, creates a large barrier when communicating about sex (Kinsey Institute, 2018).
Improving Your Communication
It may be that either you, your partner or both of you identify with one of the insecure attachment styles listed above. Not to worry. Although it can be difficult at times, better communication is possible. Below are some common traits/difficulties we may encounter within each attachment style and some approaches to make communication easier.
Secure Attachment Communication Traits
These are the traits we all strive for. If you do not fall into the style of secure attachment, this is a good list of reminders of what healthy communication looks like (Heller,2019):
- Listen to their partner and are emotionally present.
- Express empathy for their partner’s feelings.
- Use face and eyes to offer safety for their partner.
- Maintain contact (such as answer their phone/texts).
- Engage in “repair” when things go awry and there is miscommunication.
Anxious Attachment Communication Traits
These are examples of a few traits that may make communication difficult:
- They may be controlling and/or excessive caretaking.
- They may be sensitive to criticism.
- They may need constant reassurance.
- They may not be able to regulate and/or properly express their feelings.
Effective communication with these individuals would be to help them define feelings, be emotionally available for them and provide reassurance.
Avoidant Attachment Communication Traits
Some examples that may make it difficult to communicate effectively with these individuals are:
- When upset, these individuals may shut down and create emotional distance.
- They may seek space, distance, and time away from their partners even when they are not upset.
- They may misread social cues as negative.
- They may be emotionally disconnected from themselves and unaware of what might be upsetting them.
Effective communication with these individuals would be to let them know that they are being hostile, give them space to process their emotions, and if possible, providing useful insight into what they may be feeling or why they may be feeling that way.
While supporting and trying to understand your partner, you may also end up focusing on your own healing. If you find that you are having some difficulty, you can always remind yourself:
- To have some compassion for yourself, and that healing and making changes takes time. Remember that understanding your unhealthy attachment style is the first step to healing.
- To continue to be mindful of the way you feel and how your feelings influence your interaction with others. Maybe even explore the origins of these feelings.
- To remind yourself that you may act/react in certain ways because of your attachment style and you don’t have to blame yourself.
If you find you are having difficulties in your relationships, please don’t hesitate to set up a free consultation with me to access the resources I can provide which may be beneficial to you.
- Dean, M. E. (2018, January 27). Unhealthy Attachment Styles: Types, Definitions, And Therapy. Betterhelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/relations/unhealthy-attachment-styles-types-definitions-and-therapy/?utm_source=AdWords&utm_medium=Search_PPC_c&utm_term=_b&utm_content=118051370367&network=g&placement=&target=&matchtype=b&utm_campaign=11771068538&ad_type=text&adposition=&gclid=Cj0KCQjwzYGGBhCTARIsAHdMTQx4VXCVVhSEKR0uGlVELDYNaaaHsVdVbvCN_Uw2uGk_aFX11N7wdN4aAhg8EALw_wcBogs.iu.edu%2Fkinseyinstitute%2F2018%2F03%2F16%2Fhow-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-communication-about-sex%2F
- Heller, D. P. (2019). The power of attachment: how to create deep and lasting intimate relationships. Sounds True.
- Huang, S (2020, Nov 03). Attachment styles. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment-styles
- Institute, K. (2018, March 16). Indiana University. Kinsey Institute Research Institute News. https://blogs.iu.edu/kinseyinstitute/2018/03/16/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-communication-about-sex
- Jones, Susanne. (2015). Attachment Theory. The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication. DOI:10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic161.
- Kelly Gonsalves Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach based in Brooklyn. (2020, September 20). How Your Childhood Affects Your Adult Relationships: Attachment Theory, Explained. mindbodygreen. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/attachment-theory-and-the-4-attachment-styles