We all have different ways of interacting and connecting with others; and therefore, different relationship needs.
Research has found that these characteristics – for example, how we handle conflict, vulnerability, and separation – relate to different attachment styles which stem from our childhood experiences.
Identifying our attachment style can make a world of difference in understanding who we are and help us on the path towards finding the right relationship and partner.
What are attachment styles?
Our attachment styles refer to how we connect and bond with other people.
Attachment styles typically develop as the result of the relationships and interactions we experience, starting right back in childhood.
Experts refer to this as attachment theory; the idea that the relationships we have with our parents or primary caregivers significantly impact how we relate to, and interact with others later in life – including in romantic relationships.
It comes down to learning about how much we can trust others to be there for us. If we grow up in a situation where we get used to the idea that we have warm and loving people around us that we can depend on, then we come to expect people to be like that. We see ourselves as deserving of love and we become secure in that expectation. That is, we become securely attached.
But if our experience tells us that we can’t consistently count on others for love and support then our attachment style is likely to be insecure. That can mean either anxiously attached where we become clingy and obsessed with staying close to our attachment figure, or it can mean we’re avoidant, leading us to push others away. It makes perfect sense when you think about it – we’re simply adapting to the way the world is treating us.
Of course, experiences that occur in adulthood can also impact how we behave in relationships. And once we’re into our 50s and beyond, we’ll possibly have had many relationship experiences influencing our attachment style.
As a result, understanding your attachment style can make a huge difference in helping you find the right partner and in building healthy relationships.
Experts typically recognise three or four main attachment styles, which we’ll cover below.
The anxious attachment style
People with an anxious attachment style typically yearn for intimacy and can get very preoccupied with their relationships. They may act out and play games in an attempt to get closer to their significant other – although this often backfires.
Imagine this scenario and see if you can relate to it…
So here, the person is trying to get closer to their partner but the partner is pulling away – this person is anxiously attached but their partner is behaving avoidantly, which is a toxic combination.
The avoidant attachment style
In contrast to the anxiously attached, people with an avoidant attachment style tend to value their independence and try to avoid getting too close to others.
It’s not that avoidants don’t want a relationship, but that they fear getting in too deep and getting trapped as they see it, or having their feelings hurt.
Here’s another scenario to illustrate how this might play out…
Here, the person is trying to distance himself from their partner by finding small things about them annoying, even though the partner is consistent and supportive. The potential partner is secure, but the avoidantly attached person is risking pushing a good relationship away.
The fearful-avoidant attachment style
This third insecure style is experienced by around 5% of the population and encompasses elements of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
A lot of the fearful-avoidant’s emotional energy is usually taken up by worrying about being abandoned. They deal with this fear by tending to avoid relationships and intimacy altogether.
The secure style
People with a secure attachment style tend to be more comfortable with intimacy and commitment and won’t get overly preoccupied with their relationships.
What makes a secure relationship?
Generally speaking, the most successful relationships are ones where at least one partner has a secure attachment style.
This is because securely attached people often find it easier to communicate and compromise – both important qualities for a secure relationship.
And for people who aren’t naturally securely attached, having a partner who is can help them to become more independent, secure, and less anxious too.
That’s because, out in the big, wide world we have plenty of challenges, but we’re much better able to cope with these challenges when we have a secure attachment figure – someone who we know has got our backs. When we feel secure, the world is at our feet. We can be creative, take a few risks, and go after our dreams.
A secure base gives us wings!
However, on the other hand, having a partner who we can’t rely on to be there for us, can hold us back and make it more difficult to engage with life and do the things we’d like to do.
If you think of the couples you know who are really happy and secure together, it’s likely that they don’t stress about their relationship, but instead get excited about everything else they have in their lives – their shared projects, their careers, and families and holidays. Because of this, secure couples often find that they have the time and emotional energy left over for other important things.
It seems clear then, that if we’re insecure we’d be best off finding a securely attached person to get together with as then we’d have the best chance of a good relationship, and also a better chance of becoming secure ourselves.
But it’s not always easy…
While both anxious and avoidant people would benefit from being with a secure partner, what often happens is they choose each other, as in the first scenario above.
Having an anxious and avoidant person together can be particularly problematic because as the anxious person tries to get close – for example by suggesting spending more time together or talking about future plans as a couple – the avoidant partner may become uncomfortable and pull away. A vicious cycle can then develop, with each partner exacerbating the other’s insecurity. It’s not that the anxious person has done anything wrong, but simply that an avoidant is unlikely to be able to provide what they need.
I spoke to clinical psychologist Amir Levine, co-author of the book Attached – the New Science of Adult Attachment, and he put it like this…
But why do the anxiously and avoidantly attached pair up so often?
For one thing, secures will tend to side-step avoidants. Secure people tend to be good at communicating their needs from the start, and if these aren’t met because their date isn’t interested in being close, secures are likely to move on.
Anxious people, on the other hand, have a habit of being attracted to avoidants. This is largely because they tend to mistake the emotional rollercoaster of being with an inconsistent avoidant partner with passion. When the partner is cool and distant the anxious person feels dejected, but when they’re attentive and romantic it’s wonderful. Avoidants can just seem more exciting.
Against this, secure people – with their reliability and consistency and their concern for your wellbeing – might seem boring. But over time, it’s possible to realise that this isn’t boring at all and that what they provide may be exactly what you need as an anxiously attached person!
What can you do to find the right partner for a secure relationship?
The answer to the question above, of course, depends on your attachment style.
We’ll cover some of the top things to think about for each attachment style below…
If you’re securely attached
The good news is that if you have a secure attachment style, you’re typically in the best starting position to find a happy relationship and may find it easier to side-step those who wouldn’t make good partners for you.
However, if you do find yourself with an extremely insecure partner, this could lead you into insecurity yourself, so try to be mindful of this.
If you’re anxiously attached
If you’re anxiously attached, people with avoidant attachment styles generally aren’t the best match, because their behaviours may exacerbate your anxieties.
Avoidant people will tend to keep you at arm’s length, give mixed messages, leave things ambiguous, and perhaps put you down. If you recognise these signs when you start dating someone, then it’s probably best to move on.
As best you can, it’s also worth communicating your needs to potential partners from the start, as this can help you establish good boundaries. You’ll learn whether or not your needs are going to be met before investing a lot of emotional energy in the person.
If you’re naturally anxious, it’s also likely your mind may tell you things like, “If they leave me, I’ll never find anyone else as good”. But remember, it’s better to have no relationship than a bad relationship, and you’ll be free to find someone who suits you better. There will always be other options.
And lastly, as mentioned above, while people with secure attachment styles may not seem as exciting as the edgy, ‘difficult’ types, it’s worth giving them a chance. The desire can grow, and they may be able to provide you with exactly what you need to become more secure yourself too.
If you’re avoidant
If you have an avoidant attachment style, it’s important to be aware of your strategies for pushing potential partners away.
For example, if you catch yourself finding little faults about someone that don’t really matter, stop and ask yourself: “Am I just finding ways to push them away?”.
If the answer is yes, you could take some time to remember what you liked about them in the first place. Otherwise, you’re risking throwing away a potentially good relationship.
It’s also not uncommon for avoidants to believe that their real soulmate is someone from their past, or that the right person is going to turn up any minute. However, this can easily sabotage their chances of getting close to anyone else.
If this is something you struggle with, it can be useful to keep in mind why you broke up with your ex and recognise that happy, secure relationships take time and effort, rather than ‘the one’ simply turning up.
Though it may not always come naturally, it’s worth thinking about how you can help your partner feel supported. Not only is this a key part of any secure relationship, but it’ll also help them to feel less anxious about the relationship and less likely to behave in ways that make you feel smothered. Remember the airport texting example. Often, small actions can prevent a lot of strife.
Someone with a secure attachment style can also be a good match because they’re likely to be more flexible about your need for space and effective at communicating.
If you have an attachment style that’s a combination of insecurity – fearful-avoidant, then it’s a good idea to take note of the advice for both anxious and avoidant styles.
Whatever your attachment style, the most important thing is that your partner treats you with consideration and respect.
If that’s not forthcoming, then it could be time to change direction. Instead, try to pick a partner who clearly has your wellbeing at heart, and if you can reciprocate you’ll be well on your way to a secure relationship.
Mairi Macleod PhD is a dating consultant for women over 50 and if you’d like more of her advice on identifying, attracting, desiring, and finding the right partner for you – you can sign up for her Free Masterclass “Get Ready for Successful Dating – for Women Over 50”. You can also contact her or check out her other resources at datingevolved.com.