What has “Attachment Styles” to do with Break Ups?

Till death do us part – we might not utter this loud every time, but that’s what we wish for when we are in love. Realities don’t however always seem to follow our wishes.  There are relationships where we part before death, and the castle of love & trust that was supposed to last forever tumbles down.  When the castle comes crushing and we hit rock bottom – the impact of heart breaks isn’t similar for everyone.

There are no cookie cutter solutions like some articles proclaim – “5 ways to deal with heart breaks”. And that’s because each relationship is unique and so are the individuals. While we see a Devdas effect at one end, we also see people who get into a rebound relationship rather quickly.  There are couples who could still be friends after a break up, and others who can’t. Though there are many aspects of a relationship that could make us react in a certain way, having an understanding about our “attachment styles” would give us better clarity on why we respond the way we respond.

Attachment theory

Attachment refers to the particular ways in which we relate to other people. Our style of attachment is formed at the very beginning of our lives, particularly during our first two years.  Once established, it is a style that stays with us as we turn adults and plays out how we relate in intimate relationships. Hence recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.

Recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.

Evolutionary theory of attachment ( John Bowlby, 1958), suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this helps them to survive. Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment, and that the attachment figure act as a secure base for exploring the world.  The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships.

Four different attachment classifications have been identified in children: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

Secure attachment –  A child is securely attached when they form an emotional attachment to an adult who is attuned to them, that is, who is sensitive and responsive in their interactions with them.

Avoidant Attachment – This occurs when the primary caregiver is  emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. These children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves.

Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment – Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect.

Disorganized Attachment-When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening.  The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures.

Although Bowlby was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, he believed that attachment characterized human experience from “the cradle to the grave”. Researchers have found that the avoidant infant attachment gives birth to the dismissive and fearful adult attachment, the anxious-ambivalent infant attachment becomes the preoccupied adult attachment. The secure infant attachment tends to remain secure.


What has attachment style to do with break ups?

New research shows that people with secure attachment styles handle breakups much more efficiently than those with less secure attachment styles.  They are more likely to turn to close friends and family for support. They are more open to authentically grieving the loss, and are better able to empathize with their partner’s reasons for the break-up which allows them to respond in a less hostile manner.

Anxious ambivalent individuals deal with rejection and break-ups by jumping from one serious relationship to the next very quickly. They could likely engage in unwanted behaviors such as stalking and threatening. Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to turn less to friends and family after a break-up. They may avoid the former partner, sometimes going so far as to change jobs, consistent with the inclination to suppress distressing thoughts, or in this case any reminders of their former relationship. 

So the next probable question is – are these styles set in stone? The answer is “No”.  If you come to know your attachment style, you can uncover ways you are defending yourself from getting close and being emotionally connected, and work toward forming an “earned secure attachment.”

When we react in a certain way – it has probably  to do a lot more on what’s going on within us than what the other person has done to us.

The take away from understanding the attachment styles and it’s impact is to become open to the idea that people react differently when their relationship fails. When we react in a certain way – it has probably  to do a lot more on what’s going on within us than what the other person has done to us.  There is also a critical take away for parents or “would be” parents and that is about the significance of  having a child feel securely attached in the early years which goes a long way in how the child builds secure relationship as an adult and also handle relationship failures much more positively.

Understanding the psychological theory is one thing and going through a phase of grief is another. As Joan Didion says – Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. It’s humane to grieve over the tumbling castle that we once built and was meant to last. It’s important to give ourselves the permission to be sad and accepting that it’s going to be hard for a while and that’s perfectly okay. It’s okay to take our own time to find our PEACE.  Leaving you with Adele’s classic! Amen!

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