ATTACHMENT THEORY EXPLAINS WHY YOUR RELATIONSHIPS FAIL
The beliefs you adopt in pursuing your relationships determine the type of relationships you end up with.
We are attracted to those who confirm the beliefs we hold about ourselves.
Meet Miguel. Miguel plays games, hides his true intentions, and manipulates women to stay in a relationship with him. His beliefs about relationships cause him to naturally attract women who also play games and manipulate people. His ex-girlfriend Jamie, who doesn’t play games, was attracted to Miguel initially, but by the third date she grew sick of his behavior.
Miguel is seeing Susan now. She’s the only woman who stuck around, because her life experiences taught her that being manipulated is normal in a relationship.
Meet Katherine. She treats herself poorly and has no self-respect. When she met Tom, a man who respected her, he quickly lost interest because she behaved in ways that made him see her as needy and helpless. Tom moved on within a few days.
Time and time again, my clients display clear patterns that what you believe about yourself and your romantic partners directly determines who you fall in love with and how healthy that relationship is.
This is due to the simple fact that human attraction is based on beliefs. Does the man have good dad potential or is he just a CAD? Do you need to have mind-blowing sex to make love last? Do you tell your partner when you’re hurt, or do you just expect them to read your mind?
Every person has their own measuring stick on what must happen in a relationship, or what traits a person must have for them to fall in love. The beliefs that make up your measuring stick of love also determine your values and expectations, which in turn reinforce your beliefs.
Most of us are oblivious to these beliefs, but they cause us to find ourselves in relationship after relationship with people we can’t trust. These are the same beliefs that cause us to call our partner 61 times in one night because we can’t focus on anything else besides the fear of them leaving us.
It feels so real to us. Even when it looks crazy or needy when we call over and over, we can’t help it. Eventually we’re manifesting the fear our actions are trying to avoid and the relationship ends.
So where do these beliefs come from in the first place?
Our beliefs about ourselves and the world formed in our youth becomes a filter through which we see our adult life.
Enter Attachment Theory
Have you ever wondered why therapists are obsessed with learning about your childhood issues? Countless studies have discovered similarities in the way people behave with their romantic partner as they did with their parents in their childhood.1
Famous researchers James Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth independently uncovered that the way we got our needs met when we are little, determine the beliefs we hold about what we deserve in love, how others should treat us, and how we should treat others in adulthood. Their research lead to the famous Attachment Theory, which became a psychological model to describe the dynamics of long-term interpersonal relationships.
Attachment Theory says that our early relationships with our parents, shape, but do not solidify our individual expectations of our later relationships. It’s not that our childhood and adult relationships are identical, but that our close relationships in our childhood and the expectations we form about ourselves design a blueprint2 of how our adult relationships should be.
Our attachment strategy influences the way in which we interact with our lovers. This can range from how we regulate our emotions during relationship conflicts to how we seek support and intimacy (or not). It impacts how we choose to handle conflict, communicate our needs, and express our sexuality.3
In other words, it’s a pretty big deal.
The Evolutionary Benefit of Attachment
We are biologically driven to form attachments with others. Attachment gave us a survival advantage from an early age. If our parents were not attached to us, we’d never get food and we’d die.
Love is the biological drug that brings people together. Attachment keeps us together.
But as many of us know, attachment can make us do stupid things too. I had an ex-girlfriend who threatened to jump off a bridge if I didn’t see her right that minute. I had another girlfriend call me 52 times and send me 19 text messages in the span of 3 hours. I even picked up the first 10 calls to tell her I loved her and how much our relationship mattered to me.
Here’s the kicker: I’d call incessantly too if I was uncomfortable, or if I didn’t trust them. I’d panic and create an imaginary movie of my partner cheating or leaving me in my head.
This craziness has been evolutionarily engrained into our brains. In fact, these drivers are below consciousness. That’s why we sometimes do things we regret and feel crazy afterwards. Our beliefs flood our bodies with emotions, and when our emotions become tense, our rational thought process becomes nonsense.
Either we turn into a stage 5 clinger, or we emotionally distance ourselves so far from our partner that we no longer give them an opportunity to maintain a romantic connection. Sometimes we trick ourselves into believing it’s better to neglect our partner before they neglect us, and kill the romantic chemistry before it really begins.
Even though these strategies have the potential to be harmful, our attachment strategies have evolved with us because our ancestors who kept close to their caretakers in times of trouble survived off of them. When you’re a child and something bad happens and your parents aren’t around, it causes anxiety and fear. We feel compelled to seek them out. This happens in our adult relationships as well.
Attachment is like the big red emergency button in your brain. When life is good and fun, the button is turned off. As a child, we pick our nose, play in the dirt, and explore the world around us in all of its capacity. As adults we see friends, work on our dreams, and enjoy the leisure of life.
Then something bad happens; we scrape a knee and think we see bone. Joe, the school bully, pours chocolate milk on our PB&J sandwich. Our boss threatens to fire us. Your fiancée is thinking about calling off the wedding. All of these experiences suck. They create anxiety, and this anxiety activates our attachment button.
When our attachment button is activated, it sends emergency signals throughout our brain and body to focus on getting closer – physically, emotionally, and psychologically – to our lovers. Just like our parents, our romantic partners can either accept or reject our need for closeness. Our bad attachment experiences influence our willingness to explore and become emotionally secure and happy adults.
Are You Secure or Insecure?
Humans are incredibly adaptable. We can thrive in the coldest and the hottest places of the world simultaneously. The benefit of adaptability is survival. Survival in different environments requires different strategies.4 But such flexibility comes at a close.
Countless studies have categorized three attachment strategies: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant. 5 All of us are biologically driven to form attachments with others, but the process of forming these attachments is influenced by our life experiences; our parents, our romantic partners, and our friendships.
However, two out of the three attachment systems cause a person to undermine their optimal path of personal development to reduce anxiety so they can maintain a relationship. As a result, each strategy has its own belief system that impact the relationships we end up with.
What is Your Attachment Strategy?
Our partners and parents not only profoundly affect our relationships; they profoundly affect the way we feel about ourselves. Attachment strategy has been heavily studied and found to determine our self-esteem, anxiety levels, sociability, and how we perceive others. Below is a brief overview of each type.
The Healthy Lovers Strategy (Secure Type)
Finds it easy to be close to others and is comfortable depending on others. They don’t mind being depended on. They rarely worry about being abandoned or someone getting too close to them. They have a positive self-view and perceive others positively.
These beliefs give them the capacity to ask for what they want in a relationship or ask for clarity. They don’t feel they have to manipulate or convince someone they are good enough. Research states that only 50% of the population has this strategy.
The Manipulative Lovers Strategy (Anxious Type)
This type struggles to find others that want to get as close as they want. They often worry that their partner doesn’t really love them or want to stay with them. These beliefs tend to cause this type to behave in ways that reinforce this. They often feel that their desire for someone scares them away.
This type devalues themselves and puts others on a pedestal. As a result, they perform to meet others expectations. They are also needy because they seek external validation for their worth, because they don’t feel worthy themselves. Studies state that women, more so than men, use this strategy.
Leave Me Alone Strategy (Avoidant Type)
This type is uncomfortable with close emotional relationships. When this type was younger, it’s likely their parents were unavailable. As a result, this type doesn’t like to depend on others or have others depend on them. They need to feel independent and self-sufficient because they learned that closeness causes more pain than isolation.
Their independence is reinforced into their overly positive self-views and negative perceptions of others. They tend to use the insecurity of the Anxious Type to validate their independence. Their fear of commitment with an Anxious reinforces their arrogance. This type tends to find themselves in unfulfilling relationship after unfulfilling relationship.
According to the same research, 70% of the population holds the same beliefs and expectations in adulthood that they formed in their childhood. This is why our early relationships impact our adult relationships in such significant ways. Each attachment strategy is attracted to other strategies in very predictable ways.
We Love Relationships That Confirm Our Insecurities
If you pay close attention to the romantic relationships of your friends and family, you’ll see very clear patterns. You’ll notice that security stays in love with security, and insecurity stays in love with insecurity, even though those insecurities show up differently.
Specific relationships evoke specific reactions. These reactions are then interpreted to confirm our internal beliefs about ourselves and others. Married people with bad attachment beliefs will reject their spouse who see them positively until their partners perceive them the way they see themselves. Even in dating, people with negative self-views often choose partners that offer negative evaluations to confirm their self-views.
So what makes this so hard? These interactions go far smoother in the beginning of the relationship, because their pathologies support their self-beliefs.
People with negative self-views (anxious) are most intimate with spouses who evaluate them negatively (avoidant), despite the fact that these spouses are unlikely to enable them to improve themselves.6 In my opinion, this is the most Toxic Relationship of All.
Attachment Strategies Are Not Permanent
Studies show that over time, 30% of the population changes7 their attachment dominate strategy.
No one changes from fundamentally insecure to secure under conditions of fear, disapproval, or threat of abandonment. This is why an Anxious and Avoidant couple struggle together. Only through acceptance, respect, support, and safety will anyone gain the security to climb the emotional mountain to becoming more secure.
No article, book, workshop or religion can alter our sense of security in our relationships. We are hurt by people, therefore we can only be healed by people. This person can be a relationship coach, therapist, or a romantic partner who is secure. If you spend enough time in a secure relationship, you’ll become secure!
Either way, changing your relationships requires a change in your beliefs. A change in the way you see yourself in your relationships.
Ultimately the relationship advice I offer my clients is self-help in disguise. If you want to change the people that are attracted to you, then you need to change your beliefs. If you want to change your current relationship, you need to change the underlying beliefs that cause the problem. And how those beliefs create the expectations and values that are not communicated, which ultimately causes couples to fight.
If you want to improve your relationship, improve yourself. If you want better dating opportunities, improve yourself. If you have marital problems, improve yourself.
When you improve yourself, you cultivate a higher level of expectations for the people in your life. This puts other person in a dilemma. They have the choice to either improve themselves and rise up to your new expectations, or they stay where they are at and let the relationship die.
Either way, it’s a win-win situation. When you improve yourself, you improve the quality of your relationships. The relationships that don’t improve along with you cease to exist.
If an artist takes such pains with the plaster that he is forming so that it may harden into a shape of beauty, what care should we take of the relationships which are to affect so permanently shaping our minds, bodies and soul?
Dedicated to Healthy Attachments and Relationships,
P.S. Want to become a secure individual who co-creates a healthy and fulfilling relationship? Sign-up for a Clarity Call to get the personalized information you need to be attracted to healthy relationships.
- It wasn’t into until the 1980’s when Hazan and Shaver discovered that the interactions between adult romantic partners shared similarities to interactions between children and their caregivers. ↩
- In attachment psychology, this is called a working model. I wrote about it extensively here. ↩
- Research Papers: Caspers, K.M., Yicius, R. Troutman, B., & Sprinks, R. (2006). Attachment as an organizer of behavior: implications for substance abuse problems and willingness to seek treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(1), 32. 2nd article – Roberts, J. E., Gotlib, I. H., & Kassel, J. D. (1996). Adult attachment security and symptoms of depression: The mediating roles of dysfunctional attitudes and low self-esteem. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 70(2), ↩
- Research Paper: Mikulincer, M.; Shaver, P.R.; Pereg,D. (2003). “Attachment theory and affect regulation: The dynamics, development, and cognitive consequences of attachment-related strategies.” Motivation and Emotion ↩
- There are actually 4 types, but in most research only three are focused on. This is because the 4th type is only a very small percentage of the population. Sources: Bartholomew K, Horowitz LM (August 1991). “Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61(2):226-244 Books: Attached, Wired for Love, Love Sense, & The Developing Mind ↩
- Self-Verification Theory Research Paper: Swann, W. B., Jr., De La Ronde, C. & Hixon, J. G. (1994). Authenticity and positivity strivings in marriage and courtship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 857-869. ↩
- Research Paper: Davila, J., Burge, D., & Hammen, C. (1997). Why does attachment style change?. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 73(4) ↩