I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time so I’m glad the opportunity finally presented itself. According to one theory, there are three relationship styles, also called attachment styles or systems. Usually, when we’re talking about attachment theory it’s in terms of parenting, i.e. how “attached” a child is to a parent. Since attachment theory was developed, researchers have started applying it to all relationships, not just parents and kids.
Here is a brief overview of the three kinds of attachment systems and how they play out:
In the strange situation [an experiment developed to study attachment styles], 12-month-old infants and their parents are brought to the laboratory and, systematically, separated from and reunited with one another. In the strange situation, most children (i.e., about 60%) behave in the way implied by Bowlby's [the inventor of attachment theory] "normative" theory. They become upset when the parent leaves the room, but, when he or she returns, they actively seek the parent and are easily comforted by him or her. Children who exhibit this pattern of behavior are often called secure. Other children (about 20% or less) are ill-at-ease initially, and, upon separation, become extremely distressed. Importantly, when reunited with their parents, these children have a difficult time being soothed, and often exhibit conflicting behaviors that suggest they want to be comforted, but that they also want to "punish" the parent for leaving. These children are often called anxious-resistant. The third pattern of attachment ... documented is called avoidant. Avoidant children (about 20%) don't appear too distressed by the separation, and, upon reunion, actively avoid seeking contact with their parent, sometimes turning their attention to play objects on the laboratory floor. Source.
Like I said, this applies not only to kids, but to adults as well and comes out most prevalently in romantic relationships. For me, I’ve noticed my attachment system is at work in ALL of my relationships. (If you want to read more about this, and how your “bad luck” with romance could boil down to picking avoidants again and again, I highly recommend picking up Attached.)
You may have already guessed, but I have anxious attachment. What that means in practical terms is if a friend is late and they haven’t told me they’re running late, I immediately start to feel anxious and envision them lying in a ditch somewhere. I start to fret and am unable to calm down until I hear from said friend.
I’m not nearly as anxious as I used to be because I’ve done a LOT of work on myself to become more secure, but sometimes my anxiety gets the best of me, like this week.
A friend of mine dropped off the face of the Earth for two weeks and at first I was fine with it, but then the thought came into my head that something could be seriously wrong. I am so embarrassed I acted out of my anxiety and sent him an email expressing my concern. Through the process, however, I’ve realized the external is internal.
My anxiety is not really about another person, I’m projecting because I feel insecure. I (unknowingly) flash back to childhood and being rejected or abandoned by my peers. I relive feeling anxious and insecure about getting my basic needs met. Hearing back from the person I’m worried about only temporarily fixes the problem, much like putting a band aid on a wound that requires stitches. The best thing I can do is reframe my past and heal myself.
Instead of replaying how certain people would be my friend and then all of a sudden stop talking to me, I can remember “rejection is God’s protection,” so perhaps those are people I wouldn’t want to be in my life anyway. And I can remind myself of how many friends from my childhood I do have. I have a busload and many of them live in the Bay Area. Sure, I only saw them one or two weeks out of the year at retreats, but the bond is there. Instead of focusing on the few people I never heard back from, I can feel gratitude for so many people who are still in my life. Most importantly, I can create security for myself by affirming I will never abandon myself and that I will always be around to take care of me.
I know this post is quite long, but the point I want to drive home is sometimes we think external things will fix us – if only so-and-so would call we’ll feel better – but we do not control other people and trying to do so only makes us feel crazy. The inner peace we seek only comes about from doing internal work, which is where the real healing is anyway.
I dream of a world where we recognize our external feelings are often projections of our internal ones. A world where we understand the real healing comes from reshaping our internal thoughts and beliefs. A world where we confront our traumas and then release them. A world where we understand to fix our external world we often have to work on our internal one.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.