The 3 Adult Attachment Styles: How Close is Too Close?
posted: Aug 19, 2019.
Intimate relationships come in many shapes and by far, one size does not fit all. Whether dating, serial monogamy, till death do us part, open marriages or polyamory, each of us has our own personal style of engaging in close bonds and our own personal relationship with intimacy.
Some of us insist on greater independence, see intimacy as confining and guard against the limitations imposed by love with strategies designed to protect our freedom. Some are deeply invested in finding love, crave intimacy, strive to get as close as possible to their beloved and are willing to make great sacrifices for love. Finally, some are open and comfortable with intimacy, able to enjoy it without neither feeling confined by it nor crippled by its absence, willing to let the right partner in, interested in sharing their life with their beloved without it being a condition for their happiness.
For example, consider Kyle. Handsome, stylish and successful 42-year-old attorney of European descent. Kyle met Troy in the gym. He noticed a stunning 30-something guy with a chiseled muscular body, beautiful dark skin and piercing dark eyes working out next to him. Kyle asked for a spot on a bench press. Troy smiled, flashing his flawless pearly whites. They exchanged numbers and tonight is their second date. Kyle can’t stop thinking about Troy. One moment he is day-dreaming about them building a home together and adopting a couple of kids. The next, Kyle is overwhelmed with doubt - does Troy actually like him all that much? Do they have a future together?
To make sense out of his inner turmoil Kyle called his best friend, Marisa. Marisa listened patiently to Kyle’s long account. “Just take it slow” she suggested, pointing out that once in a relationship he will no longer be able to enjoy his freedom and will be confined by the commitment. “There will be no more solo trips to Rio, babe” she joked. “Are you ready for the marital golden hand-cuffs?” Kyle assured Marisa he is more than ready and told her to expect a call from him after the date to hash out the details of his eve with Troy.
When Kyle entered the restaurant Troy was already seated, waiting for him. He smiled, got up and gave Kyle a warm hug with a light kiss on his lips. Kyle’s heart melted. He felt safe with Troy and shared that he felt a bit nervous. Troy smiled - “I like you and enjoy our time together,” he said. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief – “I like you too, very much. This is why I am so nervous. I don’t want to mess things up!” They both laughed and Troy invited Kyle to take this leap of faith and explore together where this journey will take them.
Between Kyle, Marisa, and Troy we have three very different approaches to intimacy. Kyle craves closeness, obsesses about relationships, feels anxious whether his feelings are mutual and is willing to give up his freedom for the sake of intimacy. Marisa seems much more invested in maintaining her independence, valuing self-sufficiency over closeness, perceiving relationships as confining and viewing dependency as limiting and disempowering. Troy, on the other hand, neither craves nor shies away from closeness and commitment. He is open and willing to engage, feels comfortable with intimacy, enjoys the closeness and is much more secure in his approach to love, initiating and openly sharing his feelings and intentions with his date.
In the jargon of a couples therapist, like myself, these three distinct ways we relate to intimacy are called Adult Attachment Styles. The 3 main attachment styles are Secure (Troy), Anxious (Kyle) and Avoidant (Marisa).
Since the attachment styles describe our relationship with closeness and intimacy, they determine how we show up in our significant relationships – whether it is dating, LTR or marriage. Knowing our own attachment style and being able to identify attachment style of our date or partner can help us wisely choose our future lovers and significantly improve our current relationships.
In other words, learning to identify Attachment Styles will help you in several important ways:
Know Thyself - knowing your own attachment style will clarify your emotional needs in relationships and assist you in meeting them effectively
Predict relationship behaviors - by identifying the attachment style of your dates and partners you will be able to explain quite a bit of their past behaviors, as well as predict their future relationship behaviors.
Choose your future lovers - you will be able to filter your dates according to their ability to meet your intimacy needs. In other words, you will save yourself a lot of wasted time and heartache by focusing your energy on lovers who can fulfill your relationship needs.
Improving your current relationship - knowing your partner’s attachment style will help you speak their language and disarm the unproductive cycles in the relationship to create a more harmonious union. Cycles stemming from clash in attachment styles are pursuer-distancer dynamic, patterns of unresolvable arguments, cycle of anxiety build-up spilling into explosive anger and arguments, etc. ,
These are some excellent reasons for us to dig deeper and see what Anxious, Avoidant and Secure Attachment Styles are all about, how people with each of these styles show up in their relationships and what are their intimacy needs. To make it super simple, think of attachment styles as a combination of 2 dimensions – 1) Intimacy-Anxiety & 2) Intimacy-Avoidance.
Intimacy-Anxiety: How strong is our craving for intimacy and closeness? How preoccupied and worried are we about finding love and securing our intimate bonds? How eager are we to merge with our newly found beloved in expense of our selfhood and independence?
Intimacy-Avoidance: How comfortable are we with closeness? Are we able to enjoy intimacy and feel comfortable being close to our partner? Does closeness make us uneasy and makes us look for escape routes to put some distance between us and our beloved? Do we create barriers between us to maintain personal space and regain sense of independence?
Low Anxiety High Anxiety
The 3 main Attachment styles are the combination of our intimacy-anxiety and intimacy-avoidance dimensions. Let’s briefly describe each character, and as we are talking about each Attachment Style I invite you to think about your own behavior in your intimate relationships, as well as the behavior of your current and past partners and dates. Try to put a face to each of the Attachment Styles and breathe life into the picture we are painting.
Anxious: The Anxious folks score high on intimacy-anxiety and low on intimacy-avoidance. In other words, they worry about relationships, crave intimacy, preoccupied with finding love, feeling insecure during dating, suspecting that their feelings are not mutual, and experience themselves as incomplete without that special someone.
Anxious types have a hard time communicating their upsets directly, expecting you to read their mind or guess. Instead of letting you know what is bothering them, they will act out through giving you a silent treatment, sulking, being passive-aggressive, etc.
They experience themselves as needy, undeserving of love and inadequate in some ways and tend to play “games” to stoke their partner’s interest in them. Their behavior is driven by Fear of Abandonment, Rejection and Being Alone.
Avoidant: The Avoidants score low on intimacy-anxiety and high on intimacy-avoidance. Avoidant folks learned to deny their needs for closeness. Instead, they emphasize their need for autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence. They feel uncomfortable in situations with a high degree of closeness and use distancing strategies such as humor, sarcasm, criticism, rigid time schedule, physical separation, etc to create distance and diffuse the intensity of intimacy.
They send mixed signals about their intentions and interest in you, leaving you guessing. Intimate moments are followed by an increased sense of distance between you and there is a hot/cold or confusing quality to the relationship.
They tend to devalue their current or previous partners through criticism, jokes in their expense, contempt or cheating. The multitude of strategies the Avoidant partners use to create distance in the relationship is driven by Fear of Dependency, Entrapment, Engulfment, Loss of Self in the relationship and Loss of Freedom.
Secure: The Secures of the world are low on intimacy-anxiety and low on intimacy-avoidance. They are open and engaged, welcoming closeness and intimacy into their life without being preoccupied with it and exasperated in the absence of it. They feel comfortable with closeness and will not play games. You will know how they feel about you.
More so, they will be reliable and consistent, standing by their promises, calling when they said they would and keeping the plans made together. As the relationship progresses they will allow you into their life, making mental, emotional and physical space for you in their own experience. During arguments, they will not strive to be right. Instead, they will work toward resolution of this particular disagreement and restoration of harmony in the relationship. They see both, themselves and you, as worthy and deserving of love. Their comfort with closeness and intimacy makes them easy to date and build a relationship together.
These are very broad and general descriptions of each attachment style and in the Part II of our Relationship Ninja training we will add more detail and dimension to each character. We will use our understanding of each attachment style to enhance few important areas of our relationship experience:
We will get a better understanding of our attachment style and our intimacy needs in order to date more effectively, spare ourselves unnecessary waste of time and heartache.
For those of us who have anxious or avoidant attachment styles, we will learn how to move toward more secure style of relating in order to enhance our relationship and life satisfaction.
We will learn to become a dating ninja, identifying the attachment style of our dates and choosing the ones who can fulfill our relationship needs.
We will learn to understand the attachment style of our current partner to see how to communicate in our current relationship and enhance our relationship satisfaction.
These are big plans and to accomplish them I need your help. An excellent place to start is to get an idea of your own Adult Attachment Style. There are multitude free questionnaires online offering to measure your Adult Attachment Style. Search and complete a couple of them to get a sense of where you stand in your own relationship to closeness and your own comfort level with intimacy.
For the next time, come back armed with the knowledge of your own Adult Attachment Style. In the Part II we will paint a more detailed picture of each attachment style for you to develop an attachment X-ray vision and identify attachment styles on the fly. We will discuss intimacy needs of each attachment style and the pitfalls of dating from Adult Attachment perspective.
Do your homework, folks, and see you in Part II!