Attachment styles

Are you looking for a soul-shaking, passionate partnership, but find yourself trapped in roller-coaster relationships with unhealthy partners that you hate to love?

Perhaps you have acquired a lot of skills, tips, techniques or "red flags," to help you make better decisions in love, but no matter what you do, no amount of insight seems to help you break free from unhealthy patterns, or stop feeling attracted to the "wrong" kind of partner.  If this sounds familiar, you are in the right place.

My name is Briana MacWilliam, and I am a licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist, author, and educator. And I use a psycho-spiritual approach to attachment styles (which are 4 unique blueprints for how you give and receive love), to help insecure lovers go from self-doubting to self-sovereign, and call in those soul-shaking, passionate partnerships they want, without having to talk in circles around their feelings for hours or even years on end, with no tangible result.

But what are the 4 attachment styles exactly? Let's find out...

What are 4 attachment styles?

As an overview, attachment styles are 4 unique blueprints for how you've learned to give and receive love in your childhood, but also through your adult romantic relationships. Your blueprint is often a good indicator of how much closeness or space you desire, when it comes to emotional intimacy.

  • Individuals that want a lot of closeness with a partner, typically have anxious attachment; I call them "Open Hearts."
  • Individuals who want more space, usually have avoidant attachment; I call them "Rolling Stones."
  • Individuals that both want and fear closeness, are sometimes considered fearful avoidant or disorganized; I call them "Spice of Lifers."
  • Individuals who are comfortable with closeness and separateness in relationships are considered securely attached; I call them "Cornerstones."

But often, we will find ourselves experiencing attitudes and behaviors that overlap with different styles. And that is because the degree of anxiety or avoidance you feel is always moving around on a continuum, as exemplified by the x/y axis below.

 

Attachment styles

A common pairing that leads to high levels of conflict, which winds up looking like an "on-again, off-again" relationship, is an anxious and avoidant pairing. This is sometimes referred to as "the anxious-avoidant trap." Although the same patterns can emerge with a disorganized individual paired with an Open Heart or a Rolling Stone.

On the surface, this may appear to be a case of opposites attract, but truly, its a case of like-sees-like. Avoidant individuals avoid anxiety by withdrawing from others and turning inwards. Anxious individuals avoid anxiety, by reaching for others, in an attempt to find relief. In this way, we can come to understand why partners that appear to have opposite inclinations, are actually operating in a very similar way, it's just expressed more outwardly, or inwardly. This is why people with insecure attachment styles are often very attracted to one another--its like finding an inverted mirror of yourself! This is also why you can sometimes feel polarized by your partner's attachment style, becoming increasingly anxious, or avoidant.

Anxious Open Heart

Anxious Attachment ("Open Hearts")

If you've been trying hard to impress a partner but wind up walking on eggshells because, no matter what you do it seems to only push them away, it is likely you are an Open Heart. Open Hearts tend to demonstrate behaviors such as…

  • You are accustomed to a lack of love in your romantic relationships, and fall into people-pleasing mode.
  • You tend to give too much, and wait around too long for the reciprocation of loving feelings.
  • You take on more than the Lion's Share of the responsibility, guilt, and blame in any relationship, because you think if you are responsible for something going wrong, it must be within your power to fix it.
  • You may have critically low self-esteem and struggle with feelings of unworthiness.
  • Deep down, you believe you have to earn love and approval, and so, you are drawn to partners that are “challenging” or “edgy,” that make you work for it.
  • On the other hand, if a partner gives you love and affection too freely, you find them “boring,” or “too nice.”
  • By being over-helpful, you make yourself indispensable to a partner. You think, “If they need me, they won’t leave me.” But this generosity is a double edged sword. Since you have worked so hard to make your partner need you, you always question whether or not they really love you for you…(and you probably struggle with knowing who the “real” you is, too).
  • You tend to get lost in the potential of the relationship, rather than the reality of it.
  • You may also struggle with other forms of addiction, such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, food addictions, shopping addictions, hoarding, gaming addictions, and so on.
  • But the hardest thing for the Open Heart, is that they usually attract other partners with insecure attachment styles, and so they fall into what’s called the anxious-avoidant trap; a circumstance where you typically find yourself in partnership with someone that is emotionally unavailable, thus "proving" your deepest fear: that you are unlovable.

If you can relate to this, it's likely you'll empathize with Joe's story.

Joe is a deeply compassionate person. He’s The kind of guy that makes friends in every room and ends up being the designated therapist and mediator among them. He always has a warm shoulder and a willing ear to offer someone in need. He longs to meet a partner to share things with, because it’s just not as fun doing things alone, and everything just tastes a little bit sweeter when you do it with someone you love. In love and relationship sometimes Joe gets into trouble because this desire for connectedness compels him to fall pretty hard in pretty quickly, for partners that give him only a bit of attention. Because he so compassionate and observant he tends to anticipate his partners needs, and as a result, he may end up trying a little bit too hard. He doesn’t think of it as giving in order to get, but he does expect a partner to contribute as much as he does to the relationship...

He really loves the honeymoon phase is of a relationship because there seems to be a seamless way of falling into each other with little to no verbal communication. It’s that euphoria of ”just getting” each other. He really wants it to be like that all the time, but typically after the first few months, his girlfriends start to feel overwhelmed and like things have moved too fast; he has too many expectations of them. Often he starts to feel confused, frustrated, sad and a little lonely at this point. He thought things were going well, and now its as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath him. He feels a little bit disillusioned and as if he has been misled. But, of course,  he is all in and he’s willing to make it work. 

So he starts bending over backwards to try to suit what he thinks his partner wants, but that involves suppressing his own needs and desires to try to keep the relationship going; and an underlying resentment starts to brew like a pressure cooker. Finally he reaches a threshold, and some straw breaks the camel’s back. Maybe his partner canceled on him again, or he starts a fight over something like toothpaste--when really it’s just about the widening emotional gap between them in the relationship. He feels his girlfriend has driven him to this boiling point,  And he gives her an  ultimatum. She can either change her ways and get with the program, or he has to walk. He can’t take it anymore.

His girlfriend says that she sees he is unhappy, and perhaps a break is a good idea. Almost immediately Joe regrets what he said. That wasn’t the response he was looking for. He was just looking for her to meet him halfway. He was looking for her to start crying and confess how much she loves him and she’s willing to do anything. He was looking for her to prioritize him in the way he prioritizes her and her needs. But whatever he does to try to re-establish a connect with her, seems to blow up in his face. 

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Avoidant Attachment ("Rolling Stones")

If you are sick of falling headlong into relationships, only to wind up feeling bored, smothered, trapped, or worried about hurting your partner, just when things are supposed to be getting good, it is likely you are a Rolling Stone. Most Rolling Stones demonstrate behaviors such as…

  • You are accustomed to partners demanding too much of you, so you are sensitive to even benign requests.
  • You view generosity as a form of manipulation, obligating you to reciprocate more than you are comfortable giving.
  • You you anticipate being blamed for when things go wrong in a relationship, and may head it off by avoiding too much responsibility or commitment.
  • You might be described as having a fear of commitment, but often that is only because you take commitment quite seriously, when and if you finally decide to commit to something.
  • You might be considered aloof or emotionally distant, but when you do feel things, you feel them very intensely (so much, it might scare you). It might be hard to identify the feeling, let alone express it, and so you try your best to shut it down.
  • You may struggle with perfectionism and fears of failure, but act just the opposite so as to avoid appearing too weak or vulnerable.
  • Deep down, you believe you have to earn love and approval, and so, you are drawn to partners that are “challenging” or “edgy,” that make you work for it.
  • On the other hand, if a partner gives you love and affection too freely, you find them “boring,” or “too nice” and question your ability to make them happy.
  • You tend to fall into relationships quickly, but around 3 months, it's like a light switch flips, and all you can focus on are the flaws in the relationship, and the missed opportunities still out there.
  • If your partner flirts with someone else or expresses a need for space, you may feel a sense of relief, at first, followed by a need to test them.
  • You may also struggle with other forms of addiction, such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, food addictions, shopping addictions, hoarding, gaming addictions, and so on.
  • But the hardest thing for the Rolling Stone, is that they usually attract other partners with insecure attachment styles, and so they fall into what’s called the anxious-avoidant trap; a circumstance where you typically find yourself in partnership with someone that is emotionally dependent on you, thus "proving" your pessimistic perspective on love: that it comes at the cost of personal freedom.

If you can relate to this, you might empathize with Amy's story.

Amy is a very creative and talented young woman. She has a deep sense of independence and love of the underdog. She has a natural charisma and talent for mastering anything she puts her mind to. She’s also very analytical and takes great pride in having an unbreakable work ethic. She has a few really good friends, but most of her social interactions are with amicable acquaintances. She’s not a Huge fan of dating seriously, though men are typically pretty attracted to her. Part of her aversion to a serious commitment, is that when she allows herself to have those softer feelings, it doesn’t pan out so well.

In the past, Amy has a pattern of falling headlong into relationships, and feels intensely intimate and connected with her partners for about 3 months. After that, she starts to feel overwhelmed and as if things moved too fast for her. Her romantic feelings begin to wane and she starts looking for that stimulation in a new and different partner. She will typically pull back from the relationship, and let her partner know that she is not interested in deepening commitment, it feels burdensome and like too much responsibility. Her partner likes her too much and he’s too nice. It all feels too easy, the relationship has become boring, a turn off. For about a month or so after establishing some distance, she will feel a sense of relief.

If the partner is more anxious in nature, they will typically take on the majority of the responsibility to maintain contact, trying to exhume the past three months, and she will assume the role of limiting and controlling how much contact she will accept. This is probably the more comfortable position for her to be in: accepting or rejecting, rather than reciprocating or actively offering something up...because she need not feel vulnerable in this position. This usually spirals down into the anxious-avoidant trap, which is a roller coaster relationship with a true addictive quality to it. 

If, however,  the partner respects her space and reduces the amount of time energy and attention they give her, the relief turns into a sense of “not good enough,” vulnerability, anxiety, and fears of abandonment. She starts calling and texting this partner again, much more amorously, trying to keep their undivided attention. She will ask if they are seeing anyone else, and if they are, she becomes intensely jealous and tries to win back their undivided affection. If she succeeds in this, there will be the pleasure of victory initially, until  she starts to feel she bit off more than she could chew, and starts to wonder if it was just her pride that was wounded, and not her true intimate feelings, in which case she is not really deserving of this partner, and starts to beat herself up over her own ambivalence. 

So, she begins to pull back emotionally, but feels some sense of obligation to this person because she worked so hard to get them back. Obligation leads to people pleasing, and repression of dissatisfied feelings. She will say “yes” to things she doesn’t really want to do, and play along with future talking, only to use passive aggressive tactics to wriggle her way out of them, when the time comes to act...like saying she will join her partner for dinner with friends, and then having to cancel because she is “working late.” Or everytime she is supposed to meet her partner’s parents, or attend a family function, she somehow gets a migraine or food poisoning, or the dog needs to see the vet.  The constant maneuvering leads to resentment and feeling trapped or smothered.

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Disorganized Attachment or Fearful Avoidance ("Spice of Lifer")

If you feel your partner is a combination of the behaviors of both the Open Heart and the Rolling Stone attachment styles, they are likely a Spice of Lifer. Sometimes this is harder to determine because their attachment style might lean more towards anxious or avoidant, depending on their partner’s attachment style, and their contexts. It's important to realize a Rolling Stone or Open Heart might lean in the opposing direction from time to time as well, but a Spice of Lifer experiences this in the extreme, which makes their presentation qualitatively different. Spice of Lifers tend to...

  • Behave in frightened or frightening ways  in moments of distress, including demonstrating hostile or aggressive behaviors
  • Demonstrating unpredictable, confusing or erratic behavior, sometimes with no apparent trigger
  • They often can’t make sense of their experiences, and have trouble remembering and/or forming coherent narratives about their past
  • If they’ve suffered abuse, they may offer unusual explanations or justifications for their abuser’s behavior
  • When they’re asked to convey details of their relationship with their parents, their stories are fragmented, and they have difficulty expressing themselves clearly.
  • They may struggle to self-soothe, and have difficulty allowing others to help them co-regulate their emotions.
  • It may be difficult for them to open up to others or to seek out help.
  • They often have difficulty trusting people.
  • They may struggle in their relationships or friendships or when parenting their own children.
  • Find it difficult to form and sustain solid relationships.
  • View the world as an unsafe place, and have pessimistic beliefs about the possibilities for love.
  • In conflict, they tend to vilify their partners and assume their partners have malicious intent towards them.
  • They are prone to severe black and white thinking, and cannot sustain ambiguous feelings for very long without taking action to find relief, which might look like acting out in various ways, including sexual infidelity, ending a relationship on a whim, or picking up an addiction, for example.
  • They tend to overgeneralize minor issues, assuming even the smallest disagreement is a sign the entire relationship is flawed and never going to work.
  • The assertion of personal boundaries is received as a criticism or a threat to the relationship security, and so they may treat their partners with hostility, or emotional withdrawal, if a partner attempts to assert their boundaries.
  • But the hardest thing for the Spice of Lifer, is that they usually attract other partners with insecure attachment styles, and so each partner is constantly feeling triggered, because for the Spice of Lifer, their attachment figures are considered a source of both comfort and threat. Thus, it feels like there is no way to relax into a partnership easefully, or regard any contrasts in the relationship as opportunities for deepening intimacy. And because no healthy relationship can be sustained like this, for the  Spice of Lifer, it proves their deepest fear, which is that they are inherently helpless and unworthy, and relationships are really just a game of power dynamics; control, or be controlled.

If you relate to this, you might empathize with Sandra's story.

After being single for a while, Sandy got back into the dating game, and managed to meet someone special.  At first, they got along really well. Great conversation. Good sexual chemistry. Easy laughs and good times galore. But, unfortunately, it only lasted so long.  Although, Sandy has  a soul-deep yearning for love and affection, she also has a war going on inside of her, when it comes to intimate relationships. On the one hand, she struggles with a throat-closing fear of being rejected and abandoned. On the one hand, she is terrified of being over-controlled or invaded upon. 

As intimacy deepens, she starts to distrust and doubt her partner’s affections. Jealousy takes over, and she finds herself sneaking into her partner's phone, or obsessively checking their social media for signs of infidelity. Before she can stop herself, she's picking fights and testing the limits of her partner’s affection. She is sick of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and she's convinced it's going to. She starts to wonder why they love her... And if they really do love her, there must be something wrong with them!

She thinks, “Might as well leave them before they can leave me...I can’t remember what I liked so much about them anyway.” 

Sandy’s partner feels confused and frustrated by her "moodiness," and accuses her of being "too intense." Her partner feels backed into a corner, and winds up doing the things she’s accused them of doing--just to spite her. Eventually, one or the other ends up dishing out an ultimatum. And the relationship ends.

But then, Sandy feels like she let her fears get in the way and now she's ruined a good thing. Maybe she was too hard on her partner…she starts to think, “What have I done?” After a few drinks, one Saturday night, Sandy texts her ex, "miss you" at 2am, and it starts all over again. 

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Secure Attachment ("Cornerstone")

In contrast to the presentation of insecure attachment styles, secure Cornerstones may demonstrate the following…

  • Cornerstones generally are comfortable with intimacy in a relationship.
  • They assume their partner means well and so they are quick to forgive in an argument, or when their partner makes a mistake.
  • A Cornerstone might ask for space, but they will let you know when you can expect to hear from them again.
  • A Cornerstone might raise their voice, but they will not attack your character.
  • And even in the heat of the moment, Cornerstones make bids to reconnect emotionally.
  • Like cracking a joke, or referencing a shared experience, or making physical contact.
  • Sex is usually emotionally intimate with a Cornerstone because they don’t need to create distance in the relationship by treating sex and intimacy as two seperate things.
  • They are also secure in their power to make changes in a relationship because they don’t think compromise requires sacrificing all of themselves.
  • They believe there is plenty of time and opportunities to find love.
  • They are open to romantic relationships, but don’t desperately need or reject them.
  • They are not typically jealous, and trust a partner will voice a problem when they have it.
  • The also tend to be friends with their exes.

If you relate to this description, you might empathize with Tom's story.

Tom is typically a friendly, go-getter with a lot of hobbies and personal interests. He also has a close knit group of friends that he likes to spend time with, and has positive relationships with his family members, which he finds supportive and rewarding. Romantically speaking, he has had a handful of previous relationships, most of whom he is still on friendly terms with. His relationships have usually ended because of slowly growing apart, in different directions, or circumstantial changes that made it difficult to maintain the relationship, but rarely did it involve a tremendous amount of drama, even though it was hard, at the time. 

In relationships, he views arguments and conflict as difficult sometimes, but it is  also a way to experience deepening intimacy, and learn about how he can show up as a better partner in the relationship. He is not that interested or easily hooked into “drama”  or partners who play games. He enjoys being in a relationship, but equally enjoys spending time on his own and with friends. He believes the right person will come along at the right time, and when they do, they will steadily get to know each other, and build trust. Because that establishes a strong foundation for real romance, which grows over time.

If Tom experiences frustration in the dating world, its that he is sometimes characterized as "too nice" or "too good" for potential partners, and can sometimes fall into the "friend zone." Tom thinks this might be a function of the online dating scene, because he prefers to meet people "in real life" situations, like through friends, at work, activity meetups, or through family recommendations. He likes when he can get to know someone in a less pressured, routine way.

Based on these descriptions, do you think you might have an insecure attachment style? If you're not exactly sure, or simply want confirmation, take this attachment styles quiz, and find out how you can start feeling more secure, today!

3 Comments

  1. Ralitsa Markova on November 14, 2020 at 9:01 am

    I’ve made the test and my type is Secure Attachment (“Cornerstones“). I’m absolutely sure my partner’s type is Avoidant Attachment (“Rolling Stones“). He’s by the book – doesn’t want to put labels on our relationship, he’s very close and affectionate sometimes and the other times he’s very distant. So how do we make it work? How do we end up in a loving, serious relationship without sacrificing his needs for freedom, without pushing him to do something he doesn’t feel ready for?

    • Briana MacWilliam on June 12, 2021 at 8:06 pm

      Thank you for reading and for commenting! Anxious-avoidant relationships can work, but sometimes couples are simply incompatible.

      Mismatched needs and values may not be deal breakers on their own, but they can be if you add attachment fears into the mix.

      Now you have damaging, defensive communication going on.

      You must be emotionally honest with yourself – and your partner. It is the only way to expose true attachment insecurity and incurable incompatibility.

      Communication is key.

      For a dive into this topic, this video explains it all. https://youtu.be/LqtJnZkUVdM

    • Briana MacWilliam on August 6, 2021 at 11:55 pm

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. This blog post addresses this question best. I hope it helps. https://brianamacwilliam.com/2021/04/06/anxious-avoidant-relationship/

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