Arm-in-Arm or at Arm’s-Length – A look at attachment styles

The topic of attachment styles always make me think of the episode of The Simpsons where Marge kicks Homer out for revealing scandalous details about their relationship. After some macho bravado (“Oh, fine. If that’s what you want, you’ve got it. This scene is gettin’ old, man. I’m hittin’ the road! Maybe I’ll drop you a line someday from wherever I end up in this crazy old world.”), we find Homer hiding out in the treehouse, hungry and disheveled, two days later. After trying to come up with a convincing reason as to why Marge should take him back, he comes to an epiphany: “I know now what I can offer you that no one else can – complete and utter dependence!”

Attachment style, in essence, refers to the manner in which we connect to others and conduct ourselves in relationships. Psychologists believe that the foundation for our attachment style as adults stems from our relationship with our caregiver(s). There are four main attachment styles:

1) Secure: Some with a secure attachment style is comfortable establishing close emotional bonds but is still able to maintain a sense of individuality and independence. This is considered the healthiest form of attachment.

 2) Anxious-Ambivalent: People with this attachment style are fearful of being rejected or abandoned, so they respond by clinging to a partner.

 3) Dismissive-Avoidant: These are people who are not afraid of being abandoned or rejected – it’s actually the least of their worries. What does bother them is when people becoming too attached to them. They have little desire to develop a close bond with others.

 4) Fearful-Avoidant: A bit of an oxymoron, these are people who are fearful of being rejected or abandoned by others, so they respond by distancing themselves emotionally and perhaps even physically. It’s the “I want you, but I don’t want you to know how much I want you, even though I really want you.”

In addition to the four standard attachment styles, we included the following two styles in our Relationship Attachment Test: Dependent and Co-Dependent. The former describes individuals who take a submissive role in relationships and are entirely reliant on their partner to call the shots. The latter group is made up of people who are drawn to dependent individuals, or people who need to be “saved” (i.e. our Homer example). The co-dependents (i.e. Marge) become enablers, creating a vicious cycle of, basically, needing to be needed by someone needy.

Let’s put these styles into perspective. If we were to view each attachment style as a guest at a party, it would probably look something like this:

  • The Secure type would be the host, catering confidently and compassionately to each guest.
  • The Dismissive-Avoidant would be sitting away from the others, looking bored and gazing at his or her watch, deftly avoiding the Anxious-Ambivalent – who in turn would be hovering from guest to guest, yearning to strike up a conversation.
  • The Fearful-Avoidant would be in a far corner observing, desperately wanting to join in the fun but worried about getting his or her hopes up.
  • The Dependent would be gazing at the Co-Dependent for a look of approval, and carefully listening to every word of the latter’s advice about how to act, what to say, and what to eat…which the Co-Dependent will offer without needing to be asked.

While this may be a lighthearted way of looking at attachment styles, in reality, each style does have a significant impact on relationship satisfaction, and is often reflective of how we feel about ourselves. In essence, if you feel you have little to offer to someone, chances are that when you’re in a relationship, the bond you develop with this person will not be a healthy one.

After reviewing data from over 2,000 test-takers, Queendom’s study reveals that the majority of our sample (75%) was Securely-attached. This was followed by the Fearful-Avoidant attachment style (12%), Dismissive-Avoidant (6%), Anxious-Ambivalent (3%), Co-Dependent (3%), and Dependent (2%). When digging deeper however, we uncovered some pretty interesting results. For instance, while 75% of women were classified as Secure, the result for men was slightly lower at 69%, and at least 1% higher than women on the other five unhealthy styles, with Fearful-Avoidant coming in second at 14%.

Our theory is that men may be less comfortable revealing their feelings to a partner. This requires a great deal of vulnerability, which is something securely-attached people are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this type of intimacy, closeness, and bonding can be a bit difficult and uncomfortable for both genders, but perhaps more so for men. As one male friend put it to me, “Guys just don’t do that s**t. I’ll say ‘I love you’ and whatever, but I’m not going to break down and spill my guts or cry.”

Other interesting findings from Queendom’s relationship attachment study:

  • 77% of people in a relationship have a Secure attachment style, compared to 74% of single people. The latter are slightly more likely to be Dismissive-Avoidant (6%) and Fearful Avoidant (14%).
  • Of those who are satisfied with their relationship, 84% are securely attached, compared to 73% for those who are somewhat satisfied, and 63% for those who are not satisfied.
  • 78% of those who consider their relationship stable and long-term have a Secure attachment style. Of those who did not consider their relationship stable and long-term and those who were unsure of the future of their relationship, 68% were Secure.
  • Not surprisingly, self-esteem had a major impact on attachment style. Only 44% of people with low self-esteem had a Secure attachment style, compared to 75% of those in the mid-range, and 87% for those with high self-esteem. Our data also reveals that those with a Co-dependent attachment style had the lowest level of self-esteem, even less so than those with Dependent style.
  • The level of self-esteem for Dismissive-Avoidant women was almost as high as the Secure women (77 vs. 83, on a scale from 0 to 100). Ditto for Dismissive-Avoidant men (71) and Secure men (79).

What is your attachment style? Share your comments below!

Join me for next week’s discussion social skills!

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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3 thoughts on “Arm-in-Arm or at Arm’s-Length – A look at attachment styles

  1. Definitely something wrong with me but I don’t know which one…I tend to stay in very distant relationships and not ask for more. Not out of a feeling of not deserving it, but more because I’m often not particularly interested in the other, or because I don’t know if I want it, or because I assume it’s normal and asking for more would be too demanding. I’ve never argued with a boyfriend and all of my relationships have been long term and firework-free. Fearfully avoidant? To be honest, though, I don’t tend to not leave because no one else will want me (lots of people do…), but because there’s no point. I have the belief that relationships offer me nothing, which tends to keep me single when I’m single (I won’t look, what’s the point?) and I won’t leave when I’m in one (it’s not like there’s anything better, what’s the point?) But if a significant other pulls away – or even someone I don’t know but who I’ve slept with – the pain is unbearable and I can completely fall apart and lose months from my life (can’t work, can’t think straight, just horrendous pain etc.) even if I was pretty sure I didn’t think much of them (wasn’t planning to stay around too long anyway because they weren’t ‘good enough’ for various reasons). I think the reason is that every relationship or potential for a relationship comes with the question ‘does love exist?’ and every relationship or potential for a relationship appears to answer that question (in the negative). Even if I’m unsure of a man, I tend to start thinking ‘but maybe they will offer me something this time…’ and then I become emotionally entangled very quickly.

    I also don’t tend to get too involved in my partner’s life (not sure I’ve ever made friends with boyfriends’ friends, for example, nor particularly invited them to make friends with mine) and would never make demands, but this is mostly because I don’t feel they have the right to make demands on me or to have any say over my life (because it’s none of their business) and I don’t have the right to have any say in their life. I guess I mean it’s important to me that we remain separate beings. I’ve never worried about my partner spending time with friends and have never suspected anyone of cheating – if they say they like me I take them at their word unless their actions suggest differently (like ignoring me, for example).

    If there is definite pulling away then I tend to feel more clingy and desperate – or just want certainty one way or the other, to be honest, so that I know how to control my own emotions and expectations. But even after relationships in which I still love the other person, if they have left and then move to kiss me or something after having left I will not let them regardless of whether I still love them or not because I don’t think it’s fair on me and why would I trust them anyway? (but I’m pretty sure that’s just self respect…) I tend to become obsessed with those who have left me, sometimes for years, but feel confused as to whether I want them back or not (can’t stop thinking about them, desperately want them in my life – or more specifically want their approval/adoration – but don’t see any point in being with them because they can’t offer me anything). I forget those who I have left pretty much instantly regardless of how many years we have been together. I have never gone back to a previous relationship.

    Very confused at the moment as to what is wrong or whether I want to be in a relationship or not. I feel like maybe I’m missing out – I can remember there were some nice things about being in a relationship (sex, mostly), and I know that I am very attractive so there shouldn’t be anything stopping me, but I am very against the idea of ‘looking’ for a boyfriend (that’s weak) and I still feel like there’s no point anyway; I won’t enjoy it. I’m female in my late 20s but I don’t want to find ‘the one’. That’s too final and I’m afraid of getting trapped with someone who will drag me down. Besides, there might be someone better out there. Sometimes I wish I was asexual so I didn’t have to care at all. Sometimes I think about only having sex with people who live very far away so I can separate them entirely from everything else and never get to know them. There are a lot of thoughts all of the time and they all conflict.

    Any ideas? Fearfully avoidant? I can tell you it’s extremely painful and even though I don’t want to think about relationships because there are so many more important things in my life that I want to focus on more, they find a way of getting into my head all the bloody time, which makes me feel pathetic and weak.

    • Hi,

      I can honestly say that I read elements of myself in your description, and several other people I know, so you are definitely not alone in what you feel. I can see elements of Fearful-Avoidance, but to be honest, you seem to have a mixture of all types, because there are certainly unhealthy but also healthy elements in there: You have a great deal of self-respect for yourself, and deep down, you know you don’t need to be in a relationship to be happy.

      You absolutely need to have a good reason to start a relationship – not just because you’re lonely, not just for the sex, and not just because society dictates it. I think the common theme for you (and I only say this because I am almost exactly like you, based on your description) is that you’re still figuring out what you really want. The type of partner, the type of relationship, how you want to feel in that relationship, etc.

      Honestly, as complex as relationships are, try not to over-think things. Focus on the moment. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, because you really can’t predict the future. And not to sound even further cliched, but I truly believe you’re going to know who the right person is (at least who you need most at the time) when they come along.

      An ex-boyfriend with girl troubles once asked me for a piece of advice as to why he was struggling to find the perfect girl for him. I sidestepped the fact that he knew I was that person, and told him this: “The perfect girl doesn’t exist. The only ideal is to find someone whose imperfections you can live with.”

      Best of luck to you 🙂

      D

      • I did not see reply until now, thank you for taking the time. That was horrible last year, really horrible, midst of the worst breakdown I’ve ever had. Extremely confusing. I agree with your comments in that once the thoughts had died down I resolved to just ‘cross that brige when I come to it’. I’m still unsure whether I would enter into another relationship and certainly not something I would consider in the short term but I am not making any final decisions in the long run.

        Thanks!

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