How to Change Your Attachment Style to Improve Your Relationship Issues

Photo: Getty Images/Tom Werner
One of my exes used to tease me that I had no sense of "object permanence" when it came to him, meaning that if a text message went unreturned or a date had to be canceled, I felt as though he no longer existed in my life and would immediately be overcome with anxiety. I'd then reach out for reassurance until he inevitably granted it, and over the course of our three years, the process became exasperating to him.

While I've certainly felt shame about this behavior (and have also been shamed for it), understanding that it's reflective of the different attachment styles we form in childhood has helped me better understand why it happens in the first place. That understanding, in turn, has helped me cut myself a break. Not to point fingers at my caretakers, but largely as a result of my earliest interactions, I've developed an anxious attachment style, which is sometimes understood to take shape as "abandonment issues." So, I began to wonder whether it might be possible for me to shift to a different dominant attachment style.

First, some background: In psychology, attachment theory describes the ways we typically react in relationships when things aren't going according to plan. "Attachment styles are behaviors and beliefs about relationships that we learn from the family we grow up in," says psychotherapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "That's why a lot of people have adult relationships that are similar to the ones they had with their parents."

Three main attachment styles have been identified. The first is secure, which forms when a child experiences reliable caregiving wherein emotional and physical needs are consistently met. Then there's avoidant, which has two sub-categories (fearful and dismissive), but the general gist is that these individuals have trouble trusting people and avoid intimacy as a result. Unlike secure folks, those in the avoidant group likely did not have their needs met as children. Finally, between secure and avoidant is anxious, or insecure. Those who fall in this umbrella typically experienced inconsistent caregiving as children that made it difficult for them to read the behavior of others. As a result they, like me, need a lot of reassurance.

"If you are insightful enough to know that you have an anxious or insecure attachment style, or if you’re avoidant in your relationships, you have a chance of changing your style." —Tammy Nelson, PhD

Fortunately, experts assure me that among the different attachment styles, there's a possibility for graduating to a secure, healthy situation. "If you are insightful enough to know that you have an anxious or insecure attachment style, or if you’re avoidant in your relationships, you have a chance of changing your style," says sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD.

To make this happen, she says, first consider what you do when you get close to someone. "Do you run away, withdraw, and avoid intimacy?" she asks. "Or do you sabotage and create chaos in order to avoid getting trapped in something you are afraid will drown you in too much connection?" (I, ahem, do both.)

Once you've identified your reaction to intimacy, turn your attention to what triggers said reaction and what you do next. "Make a list of the ways you avoid or sabotage your relationships, how you blame the other person for the problems, how you feel yourself wanting to break up or cheat every time you fight," Dr. Nelson says. The next step, she says, is to list the behaviors that counter your usual reactions. "Normally run away? Stay for five more minutes. Want to text your ex when you're mad? How about putting down your phone and cuddling up with your partner instead. Do the opposite of what you normally do."

"Sometimes, if you spend a lot of time with someone whose attachment style is healthier, you can learn from them." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Spending time with people who have a secure attachment style can help, too, says Dr. Daramus. In fact, the authors of Attached (a must-read if you're interested in different attachment styles) insist those who have an anxious attachment style can become secure in relationships with other secure people. "Sometimes, if you spend a lot of time with someone whose attachment style is healthier, you can learn from them," Dr. Daramus says. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult tip to see out, since anxious and avoidant individuals tend to be attracted to one another—often leading to an exacerbation of issues. (My ex, for example, skewed avoidant. That meant sometimes he actually did "go away," especially when I became clingy. This vanishing act, of course, only made me clingier; it was a vicious cycle.)

To this end, Dr. Daramus suggests therapy as an option for people who want to change their attachment style enough to attract secure people into their lives or to have a shot at making an existing anxious-avoidant pairing work. "Feel free to ask the therapist if they're comfortable working on attachment styles before you start sessions, because different therapists have different styles," she says.

And, for what it's worth, my personal experience with therapy to shift my attachment style has shown progress: My therapist is able to point out the anxious or avoidant behaviors of mine when they don't register for me. She's also been able to help me understand how secure attachment looks. What might still be holding me back from a full-on transformation, though, says Dr. Daramus, is taking action on this information. "It's important to remember that insight isn't change. It can feel good to understand why you do the things you do, but learning to do things differently is the thing that makes a difference."

In other words, I can't just tell my partners, "Sorry, I'm insecure and that's why I'm doing this annoying, sabotage-y thing." Instead, I need to actively work to replace that behavior with a healthier one and also put Dr. Nelson's advice into practice: Instead of constantly asking my partner "do you love me?" I can practice affirming that truth by saying "you do love me." Ideally, with time and practice, I'll transform authentically into a securely attached type of person.

Prone to toxic relationships? Here's what's happening in your head. Plus, here's the one thing people in healthy relationships all have in common.

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