In one of my last posts about bonding, I briefly mentioned Attachment Theory, which is one way of looking at patterns in how people form deep and lasting connections. I’ve heard growing talk about it from non-psychologist friends, often wondering why their relationships don’t last. Like it or not, the attachment styles established in childhood deeply affect how we connect now in every type of relationships, from friendships to romance. If there, how can we work through deep insecurity to find intimacy and lasting bonds?
Attachment Disorder Background
Since the 60’s, psychologists have observed in both children and adults different means of forming attachments: one healthy (secure) and three unhealthy (avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized). There are slightly different dynamics and names for child attachment and attachment in adults. From past surveys, approximately 50% of people have a secure attachment style. This means that close to half of the people you’ve encountered will have huge bumps along the road to forming a true bond. It isn’t impossible – but it does mean there are challenges, anxieties and hurts that will come up along the way.
Essentially, non-secure attachment styles arise because there was no reliable connection with a primary caregiver, which is necessary for learning bonding and emotional regulation. This makes a strong connection itself create anxiety. I’ve paraphrased and simplified the 3 different adult insecure types as:
- The Clinger (anxious-preoccupied): These people have strong experiential memories of there never having unconditional support in connections, so will constantly be asking for reassurance and closeness out of anxiety instead of a relaxed desire for deeper connection.
- The Distancer (dismissive-avoidant): These people had parents who were there but were not attuned or responsive, and so do not know what intimate support is. Real intimacy can bring up out of control feelings. They can avoid closeness in order to manage their own arousal level and emotions. They nevertheless can appear to have high esteem.
- The Mixed Signaler (fearful-avoidant). Associated with abusive childhoods, this person likely came from a home where closeness and support was associated with hurt and fear, where the only support were the abusers. Without self-awareness, they will at times give signals that they want both closeness and want to run screaming, sometimes simultaneously. They need attachment and fear it at the same time. This can be very confusing to those close to them.
First, let me point out that these are rough generalities, not labels set in stone. Even those with secure tendencies have no guarantee of having loving, safe, lasting connections, especially if someone has led an unquestioned life. We are living in a society which has poor models of what makes a relationship ‘work’, and unrealistic expectations abound, from work to intimate relationships. As I’ve written, real bonding is not the same as commitment, especially in our overstressed world.
These are often drawn in this graph, with two axis of avoidance (as a coping mechanism) and of anxiety (out of not trusting bonding):
I like this illustration because it makes it clear there is a range within each label. Far too often psychological labels, especially those in the DSM, are used to put someone in a box. The axes also give clues to how to work with the behaviors.
Even those with secure tendencies shouldn’t rest on their laurels. If you’re in the secure quadrant, that means you mostly feel that close connections are dependable and supporting. It’s a base. However, families have their own taboos. For instance, one partner I had grew up in a secure, loving family, but like many Canadian homes, no one was comfortable with anger being expressed. This created an atmosphere where any spontaneous eruption of anger created waves of anxiety which in turn led to distancing. Thus, when honest anger showed its face she could display strong avoidant tendencies just for that issue – “I’m leaving. Let me know when you’re calm”. Similarly, there can be ranges of attachment behavior one person has for different sexes and kinds of connections.
Back to the insecure styles, each of these tendencies arises because a childhood need wasn’t met and adaptive strategies were created to cover up hurts and buried emotions. They can therefore be looked at as a fairly common kind of childhood trauma. Remember that neglect can be just as much of a cause of trauma as abuse! I don’t mean to imply this means there’s anything wrong with anyone – just that heavy emotions are to be expected, so caution is warranted.
Most posts about this topic usually end here, because they’re written by a therapist who is in part trying to gain business. But deep attachments aren’t just about how a relationship looks like, they’re about the deep interdependency that comes with mutual support. How emotions are processed is fundamentally intertwined.
Growing up, one of the absolute necessities of life is caring attunement. When overwhelmed, we needed someone to calm and soothe us. When we were under-stimulated, we need someone safe to play with or to coax us to explore and learn. We needed someone to validate our emotions and to provide a connection that was solid through the full range of human experience, including all of anger, sadness, pain and joy. These experiences train our brains with habits that help us do all of this to ourselves as adults, and to provide the esteem to connect with others without covering up our inner experiences This is all called emotional regulation. We largely don’t think about it because it happens unconsciously, but it affects us all profoundly. It governs how we react after a long stressful day: do we grab a drink, talk to a friend, or isolate in front of the TV?
Emotions play a huge role in decision making. The renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio observed patients with brain damage in the part of the brain related to processing emotions and found them incapable of making even the most minor decision. Small wonder they affect all the subtle actions in forming a connection.
This is important this because it’s impossible to separate attachment and intimacy with how we govern emotions. Let’s face it, intimacy is scary. Ideally in a close relationship we can let go of protections, masks and controls without giving away our own autonomy or self of self. We are then touched, moved and even transformed like a chemical reaction. We never know how that will turn out; when protections are dropped, we might feel mystically alive and loved, but on the other hand, something may trigger hurt and overwhelm in a moment’s notice. You can’t control it – if you could, it wouldn’t be real intimacy. And letting emotions be just what they are is a major part of intimacy.
I like to say feeling emotions is a collaborative act. Have you ever noticed that around reserved, unemotional people it’s much harder to let emotions simply flow without restraint? A deep attachment is one where you feel safe feeling absolutely everything with your partner.
Attachments cannot be separated from emotional regulation. They are the essence of support – a part of which is feeling together. We let some of another’s emotions inside us and vice versa. Support helps us process stress, make sense of our emotions and gives a sense of purpose in our lives.
If you don’t have a secure attachment style, chances are you don’t have much experiential trust that this kind of support is available. So how to build that trust when you don’t know how it works?
Working with what’s there
I’ll make a confession to you – if there’s one phrase that I loathe being told, it’s “fake it till you make it”. (1)The other phrase I loathe is “maybe you should see someone”. In other words – you have a problem and now get out of my face. I’d rather someone say the latter directly. Far too many people try to live their lives by this. We’re regularly told ‘good’ characteristics, such as the habits of successful people and then we think we should imitate them. This usually means suppressing emotions that lead to ‘bad’ behaviors, which in turn actually reinforces our maladaptive ways of dealing with emotions.
The primary building block of deep, long lasting, supportive bonds is intimacy. There’s no faking that. Intimacy requires the ability to connect with whatever is there in the moment. It includes intimacy with one’s own self. Even with an insecure attachment style, there can still be intimacy – it just may not look ‘normal’.
I myself come from a fearful avoidant attachment style – the most ‘fucked up’ of them all. My mother was borderline personality with a counselling degree and never noticed or respected boundaries of any kind – physical, sexual, emotional. I grew up both desperately lonely and experiencing closeness as painful. Yet I am over three years into a wonderful and fulfilling relationship that is the most secure and fulfilling that either of us have ever known. Relationship patterns don’t define the future. What does create a loving future is regular connection just as we are – intimacy.
What Makes Intimacy
Intimacy is something hard to define, because what each person considers intimacy varies greatly. From my experience, there is a strong correlation with attachment style.
I remember listening to a friend (call her Mary) about her on again/off again relationship with a shy, uncomfortable but well meaning guy (Doug). It was clearly a chaser/distancer dynamic, where Mary would go through cycles of insecurity in the relationship, pressure him to talk about it and his emotions, which Doug might try for a bit before feeling overwhelmed and then withdrawing. At times, she would pursue more firmly which usually led to him completely cutting off. Then he would miss her and rekindle the connection. This cycle repeated for months and months.
It’s easy to pick sides here or to give advice (even DTMFA), but first let’s look at what was going on under the surface. I could hear Mary’s distress in having to ask him to have one of those ‘talks’. She was feeling tremendously insecure and wanting that to change. One common behavior inside an anxious-preoccupied dynamic is to reach out compulsively (or show distress) and imply it’s your partner’s responsibility to make it better – making them emotionally responsible for you. This came from being overwhelmed with the emotion and not knowing how to process it herself.
For those of you familiar with Non Violent Communication, one of the hallmarks of it is the removal of pressure, including all reward and punishment implications. In other words, the desire for truth and honesty is clearly stated.
On her partner’s side (who I never met, but I can project from my own past experiences) he likely felt the emotional pressure, did not have the trust or experience in finding words that were honest about what he was feeling at that moment (a part of being avoidant, having less practice), and so did what he thought she wanted for a while before the emotions built up, the dam burst and he did the only thing he knew to regulate his own emotions – run. She didn’t know what he was feeling throughout the exchange.
This is a prime example on why closeness is not the same as intimacy. You can force someone to be close to you (which can be a form of violence!) but you can never force intimacy. Intimacy can grow at its own pace, but you can only plant the seeds.
While Mary in her own mind was trying to get intimacy, and even using that word with him, she was pushing for it on completely her own terms. She was defining what intimacy was – sitting down for one of those Relationship Talks. She didn’t listen to what he wanted, or what intimacy looked and felt like to him.
Admittedly, someone with an anxious-avoidant style doesn’t often overtly ask for intimacy, but when it happens it’s because of a conscious choice. There will always be the desire to run, but intimacy in one particular moment can look like “the door is open, I can go at any time – but I’m choosing to connect, at least for now”. It can be through email, rather than in person, where the ability to connect words with emotions is perhaps a little stronger. It always comes from a place of agency and choice. Cornering the avoidant type backfires all the time.
How would that look like between both of them? As always, it’s a dance of the moment. Real intimacy doesn’t come from making rules, but is about letting go of control of what it looks like. Creativity and flexibility are extremely helpful – it’s all about going with the flow of what’s here now.
Differing Relationship Styles
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in an alternative style (non-monogamous) relationship. We’ve been seeing each other for over 3 years now and love each other dearly. We don’t live together. Yet there is intimacy, commitment and bonding.
I wrote a little about my journey connecting with her in a past post, which in retrospect is very connected to navigating intimacy with my fearful avoidant style. In summary, it worked because I tried to be honest and visible with everything that was going on, including all the distrust and fear that was present in my system while being clear I was ok with that being there. I was self-aware enough to not demand of her the management of my emotions, saying that I simply wanted her seeing them and being connected through it all. It helped that we lived apart and I could always escape if too much was exploding inside. Rather than being disturbed by my state, she was actually more curious and grateful that I was courageous enough to reveal my depths without the usual drama associated with such emotions. She calls me the healthiest really fucked up person she’s ever known. She had to let go of many expectations of what a relationship should look like, but has consistently said how much I’ve expanded her worldview, appreciation and compassion for others. She was married for a decade which was stable but stagnated over time. As she says, with me it’s never boring. And I’m continually amazed how appreciative she is when I am very visible with my non-secure emotions. It’s the trust that we can both be completely visible with every emotion that being human entails that has turned insecure emotions into security. In other words, it’s about the connection, not what it looks like on the outside.
This is why I always believe the structure of a relationship should adapt itself to the people involved, not the other way around. I find it wonderful that there’s much more open discussion about relationship forms now. Suppression is an enemy of intimacy, and one major source of suppression is the attempt to conform to relationship roles. These can be based on gender, but also ideas on what love and romance is, what fidelity is, or even what it is to be a ‘good person’ when close to someone. In intimacy, we need to know we are good, and it should never be dependent on what emotions or desires are present. In everyone there are emotions that culturally aren’t considered ‘loving’. And yet people love each other wonderfully with them there.
For some, this can look like Solo Polyamory – an emphasis on autonomy without predefined rules, but with listening and respect. For others, it can mean a more traditional structure with regular time for expressing crazy emotions in a safe way. Some people don’t want as much raw intimacy as I like – and this is fine, but make sure expectations are set clearly without pressure.
So instead of faking it, be real and honest. Focus on the connection rather than what it looks like. How can you be more you? If you’re avoidant, how can you include the desire to flee in the connection? How can you include shyness in closeness? If you’re preoccupied, how can you be visible with any raw insecurity without pressuring? We all have insecurities. If you’re in the secure style, use that as a base rather than a prison. We all grow closer by testing the limits of our vulnerabilities, as that is what builds trust.
While there is a correlation between long lasting connections and a secure attachment style, it is far from a definite thing. Those with secure pasts have relationships blow up and those with an insecure style can discover a long term sense of family they didn’t know could exist. In fact, in this world where there are very few portrayals of realistic healthy relationships in the media, sometimes it’s an advantage to be forced to question everything. You come out with a greater sense of self – and therefore more depth for others to connect to. There’s a style out there for every attachment!
|↑1||The other phrase I loathe is “maybe you should see someone”. In other words – you have a problem and now get out of my face. I’d rather someone say the latter directly.|