Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

As Aristotle said, ‘Humans are by nature social animals’, implying that social connections are the very core of who we are and so, by extension, they are paramount to our wellbeing.

As it turns out, Aristotle was spot on and a large body of empirical research supports his belief.

Alongside many studies on the topic, an 80-year-long longitudinal Harvard study found that, among other factors, it is good quality relationships that most significantly contribute to our happiness, health, and life longevity. On the flip side, people who are more isolated than they want to be, experience a faster health and brain function decline, and live shorter lives than those who aren’t lonely.

Importantly, though, not all relationships contribute to our overall well-being.

Unsurprisingly, Harvard researchers found that relationship quality matters and only good quality ones appear to impact us in a positive way. Dr Waldinger, the lead researcher of the Harvard Adult Development project, admonishes that whilst those in securely-attached relationships were happier and healthier overall and in the old age, those in high-conflict marriages or insecurely-attached partnerships experienced poor health and even an early memory decline.

In short, stressful relationships are detrimental not only to our well-being, but also to our physical health.

It seems quite obvious, then, that we should avoid poor-quality relationships in life.

Sounds easy? Perhaps. But in practice, it’s harder than we may think.

Firstly, not always do we have a choice in regard to who we have to interact with on a daily basis. The few lucky ones might naturally get on with their family members and be surrounded by supportive work environment where the majority of their professional relationships are fulfilling and nurturing. The majority of us will, at some point in our lives, have to interact with ‘difficult’ relatives, coworkers, or bosses.

However, we do have a choice when it comes to selecting close friends and romantic partners, but building nurturing close relationships seems even more tricky.

Now, don’t get me wrong — closely relating with others isn’t easy and any kind of relationship is bound to go through highs and lows, periods of harmony and conflict, times of joy and sadness.

But it would seem logical that the moment a relationship starts generating more distress than fulfillment over a longer period of time, most of us would strive to distance ourselves from it. And yet, we often don’t. I know many people who did or still do experience a lot of distress in their romantic relationships and friendships; and I have certainly been in their shoes many times in the past.

Why do we do that? Why do we often put up with relationships, both in private life and at work, that predominantly distress us? And what can we do to seek, choose, form, and maintain secure, good-quality relationships?

Read on to find out.

Attachment Theory.

A little bit of theory first.

Psychologists will tell you that although we are all wired for connection, whether we can connect with others in a secure way or not, in large part depends on your childhood experiences.

Through these early-life experiences, including the way we were treated by our parents, relatives, and first non-familial ‘others’, we unconsciously shape the way of attaching that affects our behaviour in close relationships in the adult life.

Now, the good news is that ca. 50% of the population has a secure attachment style and a healthy dose of self-esteem that generally allows them to select relationships that are ‘good for them’; where intimacy, vulnerability, and psychological safety come naturally, both sides are able to communicate openly and assertively, and — over time — neither of the sides becomes an excessive ‘giver’ or ‘taker’.

About ca. 20% of the population, however, are said to naturally lean toward a so-called ‘anxious’ attachment style, and ca. 25% become ‘avoidant’.

In simple terms, the anxious types tend to place their relationships at the centre of their self-worth and, as such, they get preoccupied with ensuring that the relationship will last. Whilst caring about romantic relationships or making the effort to maintain them isn’t wrong in itself, those with anxious attachment style often overdo things; they worry a lot about all potential negative outcomes, give too much only to please their partners (and they feel resentful for doing so), interpret circumstances with a negative twist, become too clingy, or manipulate their partners to get attention and reassurance.

For the avoidant types, on the other hand, independence and self-sufficiency are their utmost priority and they tend to view intimacy as a threat to their freedom. Although enjoying closeness to a limit, they might protect themselves from any real connection by withholding their feelings, avoiding commitment, and creating mental distance by whatever means possible. Interestingly, though, it’s not that those with the avoidant attachment style have no need for social connection; they do, but these needs are often repressed. When a committed relationship they actually cared about ends, the avoidant types are likely to be as distressed as anyone else would be; it’s just that they bury these feelings deep inside.

A small percentage of the population — mostly those who grew up in an abusive environment — comprise an anxious-avoidant type, which brings together tendencies of the two “main types”. Anxious-avoidants are not only afraid of intimacy and commitment, but they distrust and lash out emotionally at anyone who tries to get close to them. As such, they often end up alone or in dysfunctional relationships with others of the same attachment style.

Attachment Theory In Practice.

Although the Attachment Theory is most often used to describe the dynamics of romantic relationships, it can be flexibly used to understand how we relate to others in general.

Do you tend to get overly anxious about your boss’ frown, which may or may not be caused by something you have said or done? Are you a ‘yes’ person, falling into extremes to please your coworkers and friends, even when it chips into your wellbeing? Does your self-esteem rely too much on what others think of you? If so, you might be showing behaviours characteristic of the anxious attachment style.

Now, I don’t think we should use the Attachment Theory to put ourselves in one of the “attachment type boxes”. Instead, I think we should use it as a powerful tool that can enable us to better understand ourselves and others in the context of close relationships.

For instance, in a recent conversation with my friend, he complained that he always attracts women who seem keen at first, but then become emotionally unavailable and flaky, which in turn makes him pursue them even more.

No wonder! Research on the topic shows that whilst securely-attached people tend to gravitate toward others with the secure attachment style; the anxious often unconsciously fall for the avoidants and vice versa. In the latter scenario the anxious side becomes ‘the pursuer’, whilst the avoidant side takes on a role of ‘the avoider’. Whilst seemingly complementary, in practice both sides are likely to feel more distressed than fulfilled in this rather co-dependent interaction.

Of course, it’s also possible that someone with the avoidant or anxious attachment style will partner up with a securely-attached person — what happens then? The positive possible outcome is that the secure person will ‘lift’ the other up to their level, helping them to gradually develop and nurture a secure attachment style themselves. On the negative side, though, it’s also possible that the anxious or avoidant type will bring the other person down, making them display unhelpful behaviours instead.

Secure Is The Way.

Another reason why I don’t think it’s helpful to label oneself as any of the ‘attachment styles’ is that — as shown above — human interactions are too complex to describe them through clear-cut categories or types;

And even if your dominant style is secure, anxious, or avoidant, your behaviour is likely to change depending on who you interact with.

For instance, even if your dominant attachment style is ‘secure’, chances are that different relationships in life will drive you to behave in an anxious or avoidant way.

But what we can get from this Theory, is learning about behaviours which generally characterise the secure attachment style, and how to get closer to adopting them in real life.

Why is it so important that we strive to become securely attached in our relationships, you may ask?

Firstly, research shows that secures are consistently more happy and feel more supported [1], are less likely to become depressed [2], are healthier [3], retain more stable relationships, and become more successful [4] than the other types.

Secondly, it doesn’t take science to predict that anxious or avoidant behaviours are generally distressing for both sides in any relationship, and that they are likely to hinder both the relationship quality and longevity.

And whilst you cannot really control how other people behave toward you, you certainly can change your behaviour toward others. That, in turn, might either invite them to adopt more constructive behaviours themselves or will give you a new perspective on whether you should be closely relating with them in the first place.

Start Simple; Start Now.

So, how can we work toward developing behaviours characteristic of a securely-attached individual and, by extension, create more secure relationships in our life:

  1. Know thyself and be mindful of others.

Firstly, be mindful of how you behave in different kinds of contexts, from romantic, through familial and friendship, to professional. Try to spot if in any of these you tend to fall into extremes, becoming either too anxious or too avoidant.

Secondly, observe the behaviours of others and try to identify whether it’s situational contexts that elicit unconstructive reactions in you or whether your anxiety or avoidance happens on its own accord, across multiple contexts. Chances are that interacting with someone with anxious behavioural tendencies will tempt you to distance yourself from them, and vice versa.

However, if the other person shows no signs of extreme behaviours — they are mostly secure, healthily independent and assertive, but also sufficiently attentive — the onus is likely to be on you.

2. Be proactive about your own behaviours.

Most articles I read on the topic of changing your inherent attachment style, recommend that you seek professional support to facilitate the process; and there’s nothing wrong with it. Psychotherapy and coaching can help you deal with a variety of more complicated issues, and changing one’s unconscious way of relating to others certainly can be considered as such.

However, as pointed out by Mark Manson in his brilliant article on Attachment Styles, there’s a lot each of us can do to move closer to adopting more helpful behavioural patterns; and the wealth of literature on the topic can definitely help with that.

For instance, according to Bartholomew and Horowitz‘s model [5], one’s attachment strategy reflects their positive/negative self-image and positive/negative image of others.

According to this model, secures display positive self-image and image of others, anxious harbour a negative self-image, but positive image of others (hence they often place others on the so-called ‘pedestal’), whilst avoidants show a positive self-image, but negative image of others (thus, their distance is often paired with a layer of arrogance). By extension, anxious-avoidants tend to have a negative image of both self and others.

From this model, we can infer that in order to move closer to the secure attachment style, the anxious type can work on developing a more positive self-image — find a hobby or passion to master, do more of the things that bring them joy and fulfillment, devote a sufficient amount of time to self-care, and surround themselves with caring and supportive people.

Avoidant types, on the other hand, can practice opening themselves to others more — by helping a friend or co-worker with a complex issue or problem, volunteering, donating in or supporting an important cause, practicing empathy, and finding something great in everyone they meet.

3. Communicate.

Every relationship necessarily involves two people and, therefore, clear, constructive communication is key in ensuring that both parties can connect with one another in a secure way.

Whilst it might feel uncomfortable at first to communicate to the other party that you might be struggling with anxious or avoidant tendencies, doing so in a constructive way might help them to better understand your behaviour and realise what you need from them to feel more secure.

If it’s the other person who behaves in an anxious or avoidant way (or mix thereof), they may not always realise the impact their behaviour has on you, and so it’s even more important that you communicate it to them in an empathetic way.

There are many books and articles on how to develop a constructive communication style, but the one I would recommend is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen from the Harvard Negotiation Project. The book aptly addresses the biggest issues preventing people from communicating in an effective way in a variety of contexts, from romantic to professional.

As shown in this article, relating with others isn’t always a straightforward task, and people often display unconscious attachment patterns that might prevent them from building secure relationships.

However, I believe that by being mindful of our and others’ behavioural patterns, actively addressing our potential shortcomings, and effectively communicating with others, we all have a capacity of developing a secure attachment style, and therefore building and maintaining more fulfilling relationships in all areas of life. In some cases, working with a therapist or coach can speed up the process.

Close relationships can be a great source of gratification in our lives and, as a wealth of research suggests, fulfilling social connections are paramount to our health and mental wellbeing. Thus I think it should be our utmost priority to learn how to relate with ‘close others’ in a secure and nurturing way, and actively avoid those we are not able to do so with.

[1] Ognibene, T. C., & Collins, N. L. (1998). Adult attachment styles, perceived social support and coping strategies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(3), 323–345.

[2] 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), 310–320.

[3] Feeney, J. A. (2000). Implications of attachment style for patterns of health and illness. Child: Care, Health & Development, 26(4), 277–288.

[4] Blustein, D. L., Prezioso, M. S., & Schultheiss, D. P. (1995). Attachment Theory and Career Development: Current Status and Future Directions. The Counseling Psychologist, 23(3), 416–432

[5] 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(2), 226

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Business Psychologist, Life Coach & NLP Practitioner, 200hr Yoga Teacher. A firm believer that we can all be better than ‘ok’, in every area of our lives.

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Agnieszka Zbieranska

Business Psychologist, Life Coach & NLP Practitioner, 200hr Yoga Teacher. A firm believer that we can all be better than ‘ok’, in every area of our lives.