The Problem with Attachment Styles

I have found helpful, although not fully satisfying, reading about attachment styles.  If you are unfamiliar with the theory, a general summary is that people fall into categories (some say four, some have other combinations of more than four, one I’ve read about reduces them to three) which predict how they interact with others in romantic relationships.  The theory posits that attachment styles form in infancy, prior to even memory developing, and according to how they were parented. Attachment theory can explain why all the talk therapy in the world might not budge our inner anxious or avoidant voice and why we keep looking for some kind of starting point for all of our inadequacies or problems that we may never find.  Because we have no memory of how this attachment style began, it’s built into our behaviors, but not our memory.  The general categories of attachment are those people who are “securely” attached, those who are “avoidantly” attached, those who are “anxiously” attached, and those who are “anxious-avoidant”.

When I first stumbled upon the idea of attachment theory and began reading about it, I was at the painful end of a once-good relationship.  I immediately associated with the “anxious” description.  My relationship had been characterized by my ex-boyfriend’s avoidant tendencies and my repressing my need for any sort of reassurance because he would dismiss any manner of me asking for it as needy.  It created a loop which increased my anxiety to the point where I would decide that I just needed to end it; he clearly sensed when I got to that point, and that is when he was affectionate and kind and close to me, temporarily feeding my need for affection.  Then, of course, the cycle would start all over again when he would start to emotionally distance himself.

It was helpful to me to see that this relationship was apparently a classic combination of his avoidant behaviors feeding my own anxious ones.  It was definitely helpful to understand the dynamics of what made up a large portion of the push-pull emotional relationship and therefore easier to be kind and forgiving to myself for the number of times I spent in that relationship getting sucked back in.   However, I am not sure that I am inherently, by nature an “anxious” type.  In different relationships in my life, I feel I behaved differently and felt less anxious.  I felt secure in my relationship with my husband- that is what made it so unexpected when he left for another woman and, also, why it was so completely devastating.  I’ve put up with a lot of different crap from guys, but it hasn’t always been repeatedly the same dynamic.

Another part of attachment theory that I struggle with are the characterizations and descriptions of anxious and avoidant people that makes them seem inherently broken people, because they had inconsistent parenting.  Although I first read through descriptions and felt relief and a sense of letting go of feeling bad for having displayed anxious characteristics (because, according to the theory, I had no control over this happening, since it happened when I was an infant), after it settled into my brain, it felt more like I was screwed and had this unfixable flaw.  Now, I know that the various authors didn’t write the books to shame anyone, and they do have helpful guidance in how to establish a better relationship than the anxious-avoidant one I had been trapped in- but it really does make me feel like a dented can in the discount section.  I was damaged, and only could make the most of my situation.  Everything I’ve read about attachment styles seems to be written from the standpoint of a securely attached person or researcher having pity on those of us who might be other-than-secure.

And then I thought, what if you looked at it through a completely different lens and renamed the categories?  Instead of calling them “secure” (obviously, that’s what you wish you were) and “anxious” (tsk, tsk, what a shame you are that way) for example, what if secure people were instead labeled “bland, making no waves”, and anxious people were labeled “feeling and having heightened compassion”?  Because, after all, the theory does say that those who are “anxious” have a heightened awareness of emotion.  If a person has a heightened awareness of emotion, and maybe expresses more emotion than someone who is less aware- is it really fair to simply the attachment as “anxious”?  Instead of classifying the person who has a lower awareness of emotion as “secure”, why don’t we characterize it as less-than-aware or more callous?

What if, instead of insinuating that “anxious” people will never really be secure, but that they can take certain actions in order to approach being “secure”, we looked at “secure” or “avoidant” people and taught them how to heighten their senses or to work through more emotions?

My last objection to the attachment theory comes from trying to understand the connection that is made between the type of parenting and the attachment style of the child.  My oldest daughter, now 21, fits the anxious style of attachment.  She’s never had a romantic relationship, but knowing her, raising her, and watching her with her friends, I can see the anxiety runs deep.  She feels rejected at various turns:  when a friend doesn’t text back or bails on plans, when someone looks at her and glances away too quickly… she just struggles because she cares so much what others think of her.  She’s an incredible person, with so many accomplishments, and is getting treatment for her anxiety.

I was a very emotionally-present mother from the moment I found out I was pregnant.  Once my daughter was born, I stayed home and I left her at home with a babysitter once for two hours when she was six months old and again once more with my mother when she was one year old.  I don’t think I left her alone again until she was four years old.  I was with her, nursed her, co-slept with her for four months, responded to every cry, every need she demonstrated.  As a stay-at-home mother, I held her, read to her, talked to her and nurtured her every one of her waking hours.  It was one of the happiest times of my life.

According to attachment theory, anxious attachment styles are created when children receive inconsistent or lacking parental response.  I would be the first to admit my parental failings (and beat myself up over them)- but I just can’t conceive how my parenting even remotely could be characterized as inconsistent or lacking in emotional availability.  And at the same time, I wasn’t anxious or overparenting.  I was terrible at many things, but I was a good mother, excited to get to know the beautiful little girl I had been fortunate enough to give birth to.  I question my parenting of her once she got much older, when my marriage went downhill when she was about 7 years old.  However, by the attachment theory timeline, this is far later than when attachment style has formed.  I can see my own mother as being emotionally distant and therefore explaining my own anxious issues; however, I just can’t fathom how my parenting style and responsiveness would ever fit the description of what researchers say created my own daughter’s attachment style.

I’m all for self-help.  I love the idea of understanding better my mental proclivities and how to overcome them.  I’m all for being able to give up trying to control the things I can’t control, and for understanding where I can and should control them.  As instructive as the readings on attachment theory have been for me in terms of improving my understanding of a terrible dynamic that developed with my ex-boyfriend, there still seems to be a shame/blame thing going on with their development.  I actively choose to see the positive in having people in the world who see things through a more emotionally-attached style (perhaps one which some less-attached people would call “overly-attached”) rather than see them as wounded or flawed beings.  I also wonder if parenting can be the sole reason why people develop their attachment style.

Sigh.  I guess it’s back to piecing together just the parts of therapeutic readings that help, and not taking one theory to be the understanding of all of my “issues”.  I wonder how many “secure” people dig deeper to understand themselves the way that us “anxious” types do.  Maybe the world would be far better off with more of “us”.  I really wish there were a different adjective to describe the characteristics we bring to the table.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Attachment Styles

  1. This is incredible, Jennie! I agree with the tone of “shaming” and would be interested to delve further into the definitions !
    Keep on , I LOVE these posts!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your ideas about the names of the different attachment styles. The names are certainly very emotionally charged.
    I think innate temperament probably plays a significant role in attachment style, and there have to be factors other than parenting involved to explain examples like your daughter.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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