Understanding Your Attachment Style in Romantic Relationships

Have you ever wondered about why you act the way you do in your romantic relationships? Or how you have certain expectations of how your romantic partner is meant to behave or even how you are to behave and be in your own romantic relationships?

Attachment theory posits that our beliefs and expectation of ourselves and others, and the ways we behave in close relationships are based on our repeated interactions with caregivers growing up. These beliefs and expectations held are called attachment (or internal working) models, and how these individual differences in our attachment models manifest in our behaviours, attachment styles. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the first to classify three attachment styles of Secure, Anxious-ambivalent and Avoidant, and researchers since have applied Attachment theory to adult romantic relationships and found that we could similarly classify our romantic relationships by these styles!  In fact, researchers have demonstrated the presence of four styles that map on the two dimensions of Anxiety (anxiety and vigilance over abandonment and fear) and Avoidance (avoidance of intimacy and discomfort with closeness or reliance on others).

How might these attachment styles manifest in your romantic relationship you may ask- Well, they can be broadly classified like this:

Secure: Secure attachment styles have a positive view of self and a positive view others. They see themselves as worthy and deserving of love, and others as available and responsive if they required help or were in need. They feel safe enough in their relationships to be open and vulnerable, yet secure enough within the relationship to know that they and their partners can weather any ‘storms’ together. 

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Comfort with asking for help without impacting self-esteem, trusting of others without assuming the worst of their partner even in stressful situations (i.e., having dinner with an attractive co-worker), good conflict management skills and willingness to work on relationship issues together, able to respect, and maintain a balance between autonomy and interdependence.   

Preoccupied: Preoccupied attachment styles have a negative view of the self and positive view of others. There is a prevailing fear of abandonment and the sense of the self as ‘not good enough’ to maintain the interest of the romantic partner who will exit the relationship once they find someone else ‘worthy of them’. Yet preoccupied individuals also tend to idealise the romantic partner and to hold them often to too-high expectations in the romantic relationship.

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Mind-reading and repeated questioning of your partner’s ‘actual’ intent, Catastrophising the worst of the relationship and your partner, repeated reassurance-seeking but it’s never enough, hypervigilance in relationships leading to frequent comparisons against potential ‘love rivals’ and intense but unnecessary jealousy

Dismissing: Dismissing attachment styles tend to have a positive view of the self and a negative view of others. There is a tendency to rely only on the self, me, myself and I, and to view intimacy and closeness with others as a ‘weakness’ and less desirable. Dismissing individuals tend to minimize being close to others and not to share when they are experiencing difficulties (emotional especially).

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Engaging in more casual or non-committed relationships, or if in a relationship, avoiding physical closeness or expressions of vulnerability, mentally checking out when your romantic partner starts to talk about their (and your) emotions, or being vague when discussing future (sometimes even weekend) plans.

Fearful: Fearful attachment styles have a negative view of self and a negative view of others. They feel that they themselves are not good enough and are reliant on external approval and others for reassurances. Yet they simultaneously believe that others will hurt or abandon them in some way, and cannot be trusted. Fearful individuals therefore can be avoidant of intimacy and self-disclosure, and demonstrate reluctance to be attached to someone else especially in the beginning stages.

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Vacillation between being close and being distant in the relationship; being overprotective of one’s behaviours and thoughts, and react badly to criticism; being overly-passive or aggressive in the relationship, and finding it difficult to trust others.

That said, attachment styles are not immutable, and are continually open to revision and change both within and across our romantic relationships. Rather, knowing more about our attachment styles allow us the opportunity to begin to consciously change the way we think about and behave in our romantic relationships.

Be aware: Be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviours in your interactions with your romantic partner. Notice your own reactions to actions and words spoken by your romantic partner and mentally ask yourself, “Why am I reacting this way to what my partner is saying/ doing? ”, “What does this say about my expectations and behaviours in my romantic relationship?”. Try to be as open and non-judgmental about your thoughts and behaviours and document them down so that you can begin to identify triggers, trends and themes.

Identify triggers, trends, and themes: Once you have become aware and have processed your behaviours and thoughts, see if you can identify trends or themes in when you might become more heightened with anxiety, or more dismissive with avoidance. These might relate to how you yourself are feeling at certain points, stressors in the workplace or at home, or how your romantic partner is managing their own stressors or emotions.(Try to) Do the opposite: Take baby steps towards changing some of those interactional patterns that you may notice. For those higher in Anxiety, you may want to notice when your mind begins to wonder to those worst-case scenarios and mentally refrain from going there. Reduce the amount of questioning or reassurance-seeking that you may ask from your romantic partner. For those higher in Avoidance, notice when you begin to distance yourself from your romantic partner or become more reticent with disclosure. Work on communicating more with your partner, even if it’s just about your day at work. Focus on talking about your emotions or explaining the processes behind your thinking.

Some references for the interested:
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987).Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201-210.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York., NY: Basic Books.
Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Some interesting websites to read up more on relationships:

Written by:
Dr. Daphne Goh
Clinical Psychologist

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