Are you in a needy relationship? Or are you more of an 'avoidant'? Charlotte Haigh explains attachment theory
Be honest. How is the balance of power in your relationship right now? Is one of you always doing the chasing at the risk of turning it into a needy relationship, while the other is more self-assured and seems to require less from the partnership?
You may never have considered the way you attach yourself to others – described by psychologists as your ‘attachment style’ – but it’s probably about time you did, because it affects every aspect of our relationships, from the way we choose our partners to how our relationships work day-to–day, and even how they end. Knowing what your attachment style actually is, where it comes from and how it’s played out is critical to avoid slipping into cycles that repeat themselves for the rest of your life
Specifically, how your parents soothed you when you were a baby. According to Dr Amir Levine, psychiatrist and neuroscientist and author of Attached, early programming by your parents dictates your behaviour patterns in romantic adult partnerships.
Needy relationship? Blame your parents
If your parents panicked too much at the smallest thing when you were young, you will have got the message that the world was unsafe and you couldn’t cope. In adulthood, your brain is still likely to flood you with stress hormones at the slightest threat, giving you an anxious attachment style. If your parents left you to manage your own distress, you learned that you had to cope on your own. So, in adult relationships, you may switch off and detach when emotions get strong, leading you to have an avoidant attachment style where you fear intimacy. If you were lucky enough to have parents who soothed you without making you feel smothered, you’ll have a secure attachment style and be open to close relationships without feeling fearful.
But while your parents’ behaviour is the best predictor, your genes and previous relationships also play a part. A devastating heartbreak could tip a securely attached person into a more avoidant style, for instance. The key, says Andrew G Marshall, a relationship therapist who works with adult attachment styles, is being conscious about the things that have shaped you. ‘Many of us lean towards one of the attachment styles, but recognising this and developing a supportive relationship can ensure that a more secure pattern comes to the fore,’ he says. Here’s how to spot your style and work with it.
You know you’re an ‘avoidant’ if…
- You can quickly switch off after a break-up
- Your independence is more important than a relationship
- You prefer not to share your inner feelings with a partner
- You feel uncomfortable when others depend on you
- You’re not always sure what you want in a relationship
The reason: Your parents left you to get on with it when you were in distress as a child. That might have been because of how their own parents raised them or because other issues stopped them being attentive, such as depression or the needs of another child. You therefore learned there was no point relying on others – in fact, starting to have feelings and depending on someone else feels very risky.
Your danger zone: Idealising ‘the one’. Whether it’s an ex or someone you’re yet to meet, if you’re avoidant you’re likely to think there’s a perfect person for you, which means you miss out on potentially great relationships.
The neuro-fix: ‘You may start off by feeling very excited by someone but, as you get closer, you suddenly have a gut feeling that you’re not right for each other,’ says Dr Levine. ‘In fact, the chances are that’s a deactivation strategy – your avoidant attachment system is kicking in and warning you that getting close to someone is dangerous. Try to take a step back and see this for what it is. If you thought they were great to start with, you’ve a lot to lose by pushing them away, so don’t make any rash decisions.’ You can change your negatively skewed brain chemistry by making daily gratitude lists, noting the ways your partner contributes positively to your life – or seeing the potential in someone you’re dating. Research from the University of Southern California has found that looking for things you appreciate can raise levels of feel-good dopamine and serotonin.
The behaviour fix: Say what you need. ‘If you want some time apart from your partner, simply telling them that is much more effective than just vanishing,’ says Marshall. ‘If they know that you need some space, they are less likely to panic, which means they won’t overstep your boundaries.’
You have a needy relationship style if…
- You worry a partner will stop loving you
- You’re very sensitive to your partner’s moods
- You spend a lot of time thinking about relationships
- When you’re single, you feel incomplete
- You get attached to a new partner very quickly
The reason: Your parents may have been consistently anxious about everything – whether you were eating enough or overreacting when you fell over. As a result, you grew up feeling unsafe in the world, thinking you need the support of a significant other.
Your danger zone: Falling for an avoidant. ‘An avoidant may give strong signs initially before pulling away,’ says Marshall. ‘This will set off your fear response, but you’ll try to win them back, setting up a toxic cycle that can leave you more anxious.’ This pattern is a common one. Sound familiar?
The neuro-fix: Don’t be ashamed of seeming ‘needy’ because you want a serious relationship, says Dr Levine. ‘Lots of popular self-help approaches suggest happiness comes from within, but biologically we are meant to become attached to a significant other,’ he says. In research from the University of Virginia, MRI scans showed that when two people are in an intimate relationship, they regulate each other’s psychological and emotional well-being. Accept that it’s natural to want intimacy and be open about your needs. Playing it cool will only draw in avoidant partners, who think you’re up for a no-strings relationship and will back off when something more is on the table.
The behaviour fix: Give the dating apps a rest. ‘You find a lot of avoidants on dating sites and apps, partly because they’re more likely to be single and partly because internet dating suits their non-committal approach,’ says Marshall. ‘I prefer what I call the “bridging” approach, joining groups – such as a choir or meditation class – and saying “yes” to invitations you wouldn’t normally accept, so that you meet a wider network of people.’
You have a secure attachment style if…
- You’re able to ask a partner for support
- You find it easy to show affection
- You believe there are plenty of people out there for you
- You’re comfortable depending on romantic partners
- When you look back on previous relationships, you’ve generally been satisfied
The reason: Your parents managed to give you just the right amount of attention most of the time. You didn’t feel smothered, but nor did you feel you had to look after yourself. So, you’ve grown up feeling confident that you can rely on a significant other, while not being overly dependent.
Your danger zone: Letting bad behaviour creep in. Dr Levine points out that while secure people are naturally better placed to have fulfilling relationships, they’re not immune to problems. If you’ve had a generally positive relationship history, you may let a partner’s bad behaviour go unnoticed until it starts to wear you down.
The neuro-fix: Understand your buffering effect. ‘In an experiment, researchers found that couples with one secure partner and one who was insecure (whether anxious or avoidant) functioned just as well as couples with two secure partners,’ says Dr Levine. ‘People with a secure style create a buffering effect, raising their insecure partner’s relationship satisfaction and functioning to their own level.’ A study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania discovered that you can maintain this effect by comforting your partner if the relationship hits a bump, encouraging them without taking over, and boosting their self-esteem.
The behaviour fix: Be conscious of any negative behaviour that you are tolerating. ‘Secure people tend to forgive easily, as they are confident in relationships,’ says Marshall. This can be very positive, but sometimes means unhealthy patterns creep in if bad habits go unchecked – whether that’s allowing your date to go quiet on you or your partner to act up to get your attention. Keep communicating about anything that makes you unhappy or anxious.