We recently discussed advice on dating in recovery, noting at the time that some of our advice would be subject to differ depending upon the personality types of the people involved. While we gave some broad examples of various personality types, we did not go into much detail on attachment styles. But attachment styles are highly important, as they influence much more than simply our romantic entanglements. Their influence extends to just about every relationship in our lives, and the attachment styles of those with whom we surround ourselves can actually tell us a lot about our own personalities.
This is important to note. In the aforementioned dating article, we suggested that a person might learn a lot by writing out a relationship history and looking for trends in their romantic life. Using the four primary attachment styles makes these trends a little more obvious. Furthermore, by assessing the attachment styles of our family and closest friends, we might learn a little bit more about how our own attachment style was developed.
In this spirit, we are going to assess each of the four attachment styles below. Before we do that, however, we should make some notes on anxiety and avoidance.
Anxiety and Avoidance
Each of the four attachment styles mentioned below can be assessed in a few different ways. First of all, each attachment style is defined by whether we have a positive or negative model of self and a positive or negative model of others. Anxiety and avoidance are simply alternative ways of assessing these models.
Those who have a negative model of self are generally high in anxiety. Most of us already have an idea regarding how the high-anxiety individual will approach relationships. They will usually be full of self-doubt, and may try to force a relationship’s momentum out of fear that they will lose the relationship if they do not throw themselves into it as much as possible. This can lead to clinginess, as those with a negative model of self will often fail to see the value in their own autonomy.
Those who have a negative model of others may value their autonomy too much, which can lead to high levels of avoidance. Their relationships might be passionate in some respects, but will often lack emotional intimacy. Some may think that this person is simply displaying their grandiosity by shutting others out of their emotional lives, but this is not always the case. In some instances, people with avoidant attachment styles are simply trying to keep themselves out of harm’s way by making it impossible for anybody to hurt them.
Note that our levels of anxiety or avoidance may not always stem from personality alone. There are several co-occurring disorders of addiction that may influence these qualities. There is an obvious link between general anxiety disorder and high levels of anxiety, but the link between avoidance and depression might be less obvious to some. We normally associate depression with a low model of self, but it can most certainly poison our perception of others as well.
If you have a decent understanding of anxiety and avoidance, then it will not be too difficult for you to understand the four primary attachment styles. These styles are 1) secure, 2) preoccupied, 3) dismissing, and 4) fearful. We will examine each of them briefly, in the same order in which they have just been listed. In doing so, we will discuss the level of anxiety and avoidance in each, as well as how these attachment styles affect our relationships with others.
Secure Attachment Style
The secure attachment style (also known as the autonomous attachment style) is the most emotionally well-adjusted of all four. Those who display this attachment style possess a positive model of self and of others, and are generally quite low in both anxiety and avoidance. They are quite able to balance their emotional attachments to others with their natural need for autonomy and independence.
While this is the most emotionally well-adjusted of the four attachment styles, those who are secure or autonomous have not necessarily led carefree lives. In fact, many people who display this attachment style may have had very rough childhoods. Some people with secure attachment styles may have even come from families of addiction, or simply homes in which they were abused. Their security does not stem from a lack of previous trauma, but from their ability to assess their lives objectively. They do not fear intimacy or abandonment. They are usually content with what they have, even if they sometimes wish they had a little more.
This sense of autonomous security is not unattainable to those who exhibit the other three attachment styles. Many addicts do not begin with this attachment style, but may become more secure over time if they are able to benefit from therapy and other recovery tools. Those who possess secure attachment styles will usually have little trouble building a strong and sober support network, as they will be able to approach others without fear.
More importantly, those with secure attachment styles will be able to seek help from others when they need it. The fact that they are secure in themselves does not mean they are oblivious to their own weaknesses. On the contrary, they are very aware of them, and recognize that their relationships are important to their survival as human beings. They are able to seek help, and they are able to give it. This is one of the primary abilities that many support groups, such as our own Amethyst Moms’ Corner and parent alumni program, attempt to teach participants.
Those who exhibit secure attachment styles benefit from the knowledge that their emotions are real, and are not spurred on by anxiety or other negative influences. Secure love, whether for family, friends, or romantic partners, is the truest love around. The pursuit of security and autonomy is one of the best reasons to stay sober, for to attain true security is to live a life free from the illusions created and fueled by substance abuse.
Preoccupied Attachment Style
The preoccupied attachment style is characterized by a negative model of self, but a positive model in others. Those who are preoccupied will generally exhibit high levels of anxiety, but low levels of avoidance. Out of all four attachment styles, this is the one most associated with clinging behavior, as the preoccupied adult will often be quite fearful of abandonment. Due to the high levels of anxiety associated with this style of attachment, it is also known as the anxious attachment style.
People with preoccupied attachment styles can often be prone to flights of romantic fancy, and this illusion can often overtake their sense of reality when they are in a relationship. They may form what is known as a fantasy bond, a relationship in which true love is usurped by mere labels and routine. The difference between the preoccupied attachment style and other attachment styles is that the preoccupied person may become overzealous about maintaining this bond, and may openly express anger or anxiety when they feel as if this bond has been threatened.
It is not uncommon for preoccupied attachment styles to be based on childhood experiences. John Bowlby’s attachment theory recognizes four characteristics of attachment that might be strongly associated with anxiety. The first is the secure base, which is to say that the attachment figure becomes the center of the child’s (or in our case, adult’s) life. The second is the safe haven, which is to say that the attachment figure is directly related to the child’s/adult’s sense of comfort. The third is proximity maintenance, meaning that the child or adult will do everything in their power to stay close to the attachment figure. The fourth is separation distress, a strong feeling of anxiety that occurs when proximity maintenance fails.
Unlike those with secure attachment styles, those who are anxious or preoccupied will not always have the most realistic outlooks on their childhoods. For them, life has been a very emotional experience, and their perspective is generally lacking in objectivity. They will either see their childhoods through a very rose-tinted lens, or through a very darkened one. They may be trying to make up for a lack of positive attachment in their lives, or they may be overly dependent on others due to the fact that they simply don’t feel lovable when they are on their own.
It can be difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who has a preoccupied style of attachment. They may have a positive model of others, but they will not necessarily respect others’ autonomy. For fear of abandonment, they may try to control those around them. They will become frightened or possibly enraged when someone they love is spending a great amount of time alone or with other friends. This poor self-concept will have to be overcome if the preoccupied adult is ever to achieve security.
Dismissing Attachment Style
The next of the four attachment styles is generally known as the dismissing, dismissive, or avoidant attachment style. In this case, the adult possesses a positive model of self but a negative model of others. The dismissive adult will generally exhibit low anxiety, but rather high avoidance. The result is that they will demonstrate little in the way of emotions in their relationships, preferring their own autonomy to the needs of others.
While autonomy is certainly a good thing, it can become overly exacerbated in the mindset of those with dismissing attachment styles. They will often become so detached and avoidant that they will not seek the help of others, even when it is most needed. This often results from a lack of trust, which causes them to become—in the words of Bowlby—“compulsively self-reliant.” This was actually one of four dysfunctional attachment patterns identified by Bowlby. Two of the others are caregiving and care-seeking, both of which apply well to the preoccupied attachment style. The fourth is angry withdrawal, which may easily correlate with dismissing attachment styles.
If the avoidant adult has developed their attachment style as the result of their childhood, you might never know it from speaking to them. They might actually think they had a great childhood, even if the bulk of their actual childhood memories seem to suggest otherwise. This is because dismissive attachment styles tend to be steeped in denial. Many dismissing adults have been hurt, but they are able to avoid being hurt again by simply shutting out their emotions and refusing to let others peek beneath the mask they have decided to wear. On a subconscious level, relationships may be important to them. If relationships were truly unimportant, then the dismissive adult would have no need to seek the fantasy bonds in which they often find themselves. But they find it easier to pretend that they do not care, because it puts them at less risk of experiencing disappointment.
From the outside, those with dismissive attachment styles may appear to be rather narcissistic. To understand the true turmoil experienced by those with avoidant personalities, we may look at the actual Greek myth of Narcissus. There are multiple versions of this myth, but most of them end in roughly the same manner. Narcissus is a man of beauty who has refused to acknowledge the love of another. He then sees his own reflection, falls in love with it, and commits suicide because he realizes that he loves something he can never truly attain. In similar fashion, those with dismissing attachment styles are prone to shutting out others, but they are not completely at peace with themselves. They see a gorgeous reflection of themselves—referred to by Freud in On Narcissism: An Introduction as the “ego ideal”—that they may strive for, but are not always able to reach. This is one of the major obstacles that the avoidant adult must overcome if they are ever able to achieve security.
It is worth noting that those with dismissive attachment styles and those with preoccupied attachment styles are often naturally drawn to each other. This is not always the case, but it certainly happens. The preoccupied adult will see in the dismissing adult a strong figure who is worthy of attachment. Conversely, the dismissing adult will see an opportunity to allow someone else to pull the bulk of the emotional weight in the relationship. The fantasy bond created by this combination of attachment styles may be long-lasting, but it is often quite dysfunctional.
Fearful Attachment Style
Of all four attachment styles, the fearful attachment style is the least emotionally well-adjusted. This is the attachment style displayed by those who have both a negative model of self and a negative model of others. They exhibit high levels of both anxiety and avoidance, resulting in something of a mix between the preoccupied and dismissing attachment styles. Fearful individuals may feel a drive to create fantasy bonds, but they will not trust others nor will they trust that they are worth the intimacy they seek.
Those who display fearful attachment styles may have trouble developing relationships, because they simply do not fully understand how they work. They worry that relationships will hurt them, although this fear may be a bit closer to the surface than it is in dismissing individuals. Between their hunger for emotional connections and their fear of emotional intimacy, adults who exhibit fearful attachment styles may often be disorganized and disoriented on an emotional level. They might be anxious one moment, and avoidant the next. The end result is a great deal of unpredictability when it comes to both their mood and their behavior. This can be confusing to those who maintain relationships with fearful adults, as they may find the person clinging tightly only to push them away when things seem to be going almost too smoothly. Sometimes, it is actually the person with the fearful attachment style who becomes confused at their own defensive behavior.
The problem with fearful attachment styles is not simply that those who exhibit them have a tendency to keep people at arm’s length. The other significant problem with fearful attachment styles is that a person who is both anxious and avoidant is often unable to seek help or to offer it when needed. Since many of these anxious-avoidant individuals wind up in abusive relationships, the problem is furthered if they have children. How does a fearful person ease the fear of their children? How do they keep themselves safe when they lack the trust of others, yet crave the affection of the one who has hurt them the most?
Fearful attachment styles most certainly hurt those who exhibit them. Bear in mind, the mere fact that a person is fearful, dismissing or preoccupied does not mean that they are fully unaware of it. They may not completely understand the nature of their anxiety or avoidance, and they may be steeped heavily in denial. But there are also many who are able to recognize secure attachment styles and are fully aware that their own attachment styles are anything but autonomous. The problem is simply that, since they do not necessarily understand the true depths of their anxiety and avoidance or how to deal with them, they are unable to achieve the level of security they seek in their relationships. Those who demonstrate a fearful style of attachment may find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle, striving toward security but backing away due to their distrust of both themselves and others.
While fearful attachment styles are not ideal, they are not impossible to overcome. Just like preoccupied and dismissing attachment styles, people can learn to develop a secure attachment style over time through the help of therapy and other tools that help them to develop their self-esteem as well as their trust in others. So if you ever look back over your relationship history and do not like what you see, don’t fret. Seek counseling, find a support group, or join our programs if your problems are related to substance abuse. If you are willing to seek help, then you too may one day achieve the security and autonomy in your relationships that you desire. And when you do, you will find that the connections you make with others are more meaningful than ever.