This article is part three of a three-part series on attachment styles. The first describes the four attachment styles. The second describes four critical ways your attachment style affects your relationships.
Before we talk about how to overcome insecure attachment, let’s have a little refresher on attachment styles. They’re patterns of how we think, feel, and act in close relationships. They form early in life based on the way we bond (or don’t) with our primary caregivers. The four attachment styles are:
- Secure: trusting, independent but close, and open to expressing affection in confident ways with their partners.
- Dismissive-avoidant: aloof, do not feel comfortable with emotional intimacy and tend to pull away from close others if they feel hurt or rejected.
- Anxious-preoccupied: needing reassurance from their partners, seeking closeness and intimacy more intensely and often more quickly than their partner is ready
- Fearful-avoidant: a combination of avoidant and anxious, often confused, and giving mixed signals of pushing away and craving more connection.
If you see yourself as securely attached, wonderful! You’ve got a firm foundation for healthy relationships. But if the other three styles are more relatable, know that you’re not alone. And there are things you can do to rise above your insecurities.
Your insecure attachment style isn’t your fault.
Have you ever been in a romantic relationship where your partner was clingy one moment and distant the next, and you struggled to understand the mixed signals? Or maybe you’ve been involved with someone who constantly checked in, needed frequent reassurance that you still liked them, and maybe even didn’t trust you to have your own space?
Or perhaps you were the insecure person in the relationship. Have you wondered why it is that you can’t feel confident in a close relationship, even though you try very hard not to smother your partner? Or why you can’t help but feel hot and cold alternatingly, afraid to commit but also craving connection?
It’s not your fault. It’s not that you choose to be “dramatic,” “unable to commit,” or “clingy.” So much of the way we think, feel, and behave in relationships is affected by our attachment style—a pattern of relating to close others that was possibly determined before you were even born. Even when a baby is in the womb, his mother’s attachment style will determine, with 75 percent accuracy, how mother and baby will be attached when she/he is a year old (Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991). And during childhood, long before you’re mature enough to make decisions about relationships, your caregivers’ parenting style will shape your attachment style.
So, your attachment style is something you more or less “inherit,” not something you choose. Nevertheless, you tend to carry this attachment style throughout your close adult relationships, sometimes without even realizing it.
People who tend to have a more anxious or avoidant attachment style are not necessarily doomed to let it negatively affect them forever. Let’s talk about how you can overcome an insecure attachment style.
How to overcome insecure attachment and improve adult relationships
There are clear benefits to having a secure attachment style. People have longer-lasting, more stable, and more satisfying relationships when they’re securely attached. Conversely, they experience more drama and less satisfaction when they’re insecurely attached.
So what should you do if you have one of the other three attachment styles that are not secure?
Research shows that your attachment style isn’t necessarily set in stone, and doesn’t have to prevent you from having a good relationship. Here are some tips to help you move past the insecurity and have more satisfying adult relationships.
1. Find a partner who has a secure attachment style
One of the best ways to “learn” secure attachment is to see it in action and experience how good it can feel. That’s why it’s great to have a partner who has a secure attachment style and is willing to be emotionally available and supportive of you.
How do you know if a potential partner has a secure attachment style?
People with secure attachment:
- Express their emotions (but not in an overly intense way very early on in the relationship)
- Offer and willingly receive emotional support
- Are independent but also willing to open up to you and enjoy closeness
- Are comfortable with you having your independence
On the other hand, red flags for an insecure attachment style include:
- Wanting to closely monitor you
- Needing constant reassurance that you’re interested in them
- Seeming unwilling to get close or become emotionally intimate
- Dismissing you or trying to push you away
Having a partner that has a secure attachment style gives you a role model for how to be confident and emotionally open. Plus, it will provide you a safe place to try on a secure attachment for yourself. Be patient with yourself and frequently express your appreciation for your partner—you both deserve credit for your hard work here!
2. If you tend to be avoidant, go out of your way to get emotionally intimate with your partner
If you have an insecure attachment style, you’re probably aware that you have difficulty with intimacy or commitment. You notice your discomfort with closeness in situations where that discomfort is irrational. Or you kick yourself for losing a partner you loved because you couldn’t take the next step. But how do you overcome the reluctance that automatically sets in?
The short answer is: practice.
Think of this practice as something similar to exposure therapy, a very effective behavioral therapy approach for people with phobias. If someone has a severe phobia of spiders, exposure therapy would have them purposely looking at, being near, and even playing with spiders. The idea is that the avoidance of spiders only strengthens the fear. But approaching them would show you that spiders aren’t so bad. It gives your brain and body a chance to get used to spiders, so you don’t react so fearfully.
When it comes to emotional intimacy, you can practice by purposely approaching it with your partner. You can use exercises like the “36 questions that lead to love,” a list of increasingly personal conversation-generating questions created by psychologist researcher Arthur Aaron and his colleagues. They include items like:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
The researchers found that when they put perfect strangers into a room and had them engage in conversation using these prompts, participants felt more emotionally close than if they merely engaged in small talk. Some of them even fell in love!
After this study was made popular by a New York Times Modern Love essay, many couples decided to try it for themselves and found remarkable results.
Why not give it a try? Even if you don’t fall in love, you’ll get good practice with trying emotional intimacy on for size.
3. Be patient, but work on emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness through therapy
Of course, even if you find a securely attached partner and work hard on practicing intimacy, you likely won’t change your attachment style overnight. Be patient with yourself, and let experience be your teacher. Be reflective when relationships don’t go well and open to taking responsibility for your side of it.
Working on yourself will pay off. A large study has found that even among those with insecure attachment styles, their ability to regulate their own emotions protected them from having intimacy problems in their romantic relationship.
One way to improve emotion regulation and other relationship skills is to get some outside help. Specifically, doing therapy with an objective and trained professional can help you identify patterns in your relationships, to reconsider situations that you may have misinterpreted, and to set goals for how you can act differently. A therapist who specializes in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can work as a coach who teaches you specific skills for managing your emotions and effectively navigating conflicts. For example, they might teach you how to:
- Catch yourself in an emotionally “hot” moment and slow down before you act or speak in a way that pushes people away
- Walk yourself through facts versus assumptions when your thoughts are getting in the way of trust
- Communicate your feelings in a way that is authentic and open, and also fair and kind to the other person
You can find a local therapist who specializes in DBT and relationship issues on Psychology Today. With these skills in your toolbox, it will be easier to be self-aware in your intimate relationships and to learn to trust, express, and support the people that matter most, including yourself.
Fonagy, P., Steele, H., & Steele, M. (1991). Maternal representations of attachment during pregnancy predict the organization of infant‐mother attachment at one year of age. Child development, 62(5), 891-905.