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Attachment Styles

When you work as a therapist for any amount of time, it becomes apparent sessions inevitably lead to exploring connection and relationship. Relationships can be both a bastion AND a battlefield.

Bastion: something that keeps or defends a belief or a way of life that is threatened.

I love this definition of "bastion" because it so beautifully reflects what a secure attachment can mean to both parties. Imagine someone who "keeps and defends" you as an individual.


In therapy we explore relationships and try to parse out those that serve as bastions and those that serve as battlefields. And, because it's therapy we will definitely consider your personal role within those relationships. Even though much of my life now is dedicated to mental health and emotional growth, the best of us can still at times be standing behind a brick wall of defenses ... locked and loaded for battle.


Attachment Style Theory

The idea of attachment styles goes way back to the 1950's when John Bowlby developed his theory for adult attachment styles. Those styles include:

  1. Anxious-preoccupied

  2. Avoidant-dismissive

  3. Fearful-avoidant

  4. Secure

Bowlby's theory suggests we establish our attachment styles early in life and they tend to follow us around until old age. In the perfect situation, we would all be born, raised, and grow old in a state of Secure Attachment. However, fate is rarely so kind and most of us would fall into one of the insecure attachment styles for a lifetime, periods of our lives, or maybe just in certain situations.


Our attachment styles are believed to begin in childhood because as a child, we are completely dependent on our caregivers for comfort, soothing, and survival. If our physical and emotional needs are consistently satisfied, then a secure attachment style is possible.


The physical needs are pretty obvious. In fact, if you do not meet your child's physical needs, it's probably illegal. It's the emotional needs we most often overlook that result in one or more of the insecure attachment styles.


I hear so often shame in my clients when they say things like, "I had a roof over my head, food to eat, and clothes to wear. I have no reason to be sad about my childhood." However, It's the emotional needs that can leave a person starving.

The relationships with our parents during childhood can be a long-standing factor in our relationships with other family members, friends, work-mates, and most pronounced in our intimate relationships. The early relationship with our caregivers will pave the way to how we build adult connection.


Attachment and Relationships

It is human to seek-out love, support, and comfort from others. It's also healthy to have an internal drive to belong. If a person is securely attached, then this natural desire for connection with others is met with both empathy and grace for not only others, but also for yourself.


Many fall into the insecure feelings in attachment where we can question our worthiness for love. We all struggle sometimes in relationships, but if you find some unhealthy patterns, you might want to ask yourself:

  • Why do I keep ending up in the same situation with different partners?

  • Do I get too clingy and jealous?

  • Am I usually more into the relationship than my partner?

  • Do I back off soon as things get a little serious?

If any of these questions resonate, it may help to start doing some digging into your defenses and automatic responses.


Attachment Styles in Therapy

Here's the thing - I get most of my eye-rolls in the therapy room when I ask about childhood. "Come on Dr. Judy, that was SOOO long ago. No way anything from back then can be effecting me now." I have only been doing this work for a bit over a decade, but I have yet to have a client who does not carry at least their biggest defenses formed in childhood into their current relationships.


Defenses are necessary and are there to do the job of protection. Defenses are there to keep you alive - not to keep you happy.


On the good side, you may be able to blame your sense of humor, your diligence, your empathy, your goals, or your work ethic squarely on your childhood defenses. Unfortunately, you may also blame your anxiety, your defensiveness, your explosive reactions, or your lack of trust also squarely on your childhood-earned defenses.


Rarely does anyone fit 100% into any of the categories of attachment and you will probably move in and out of the different styles depending on the situation. Great stuff to talk about in the therapy room.


Just because an insecure attachment style may follow you around, it is not destiny. With concerted effort, we can move our way into secure attachment in not only our behaviors, but also in our thoughts and emotions - at least most of the time.

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