Is Your Attachment Style Creating Conflict in Your Relationship?

It is now well accepted that a person’s attachment style affects the way they manage conflict.

It’s not surprising that those with an awareness of the way they manage conflict fare better in relationships, and in relationship breakdown. They bring consciousness to their behaviour, observing their patterns. This consciousness shines a light on their reactions, giving freedom to choose their response, rather than being carried away by habitual patterns. I call the time between the stimulus and the response ‘the gap’ and this gap is a powerful tool in preventing or limiting dysfunctional conflict.

Attachment theory, originating with the seminal work of John Bowlby in 1958 and later demonstrated by Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment, is based on the idea that between the age of 0 to 5, humans develop an attachment style to their primary carer. Attachment is adaptive, it keeps babies safe. The attachment style essentially programs the infant/child to behave in certain ways towards their primary caregiver when they are anxious or afraid. The Strange Situation Assessment looks at how babies react when their primary caregiver leaves them with a stranger, and then how they react when they return. This experiment consistently demonstrates that young children fall within one of the following attachment styles:

Secure Attachment

Children with secure attachments become distressed when their primary carer leaves, are avoidant of the stranger when the mother leaves but friendly when their primary carer is present, is positive and happy when the primary carer returns and use their primary carer as a safe base from which to explore. Such children feel confident that the attachment figure will be available to meet their needs.

Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant Attachment

Children with a resistant attachment become intensely distressed when the primary carer leaves, avoids and shows fear of the stranger, when the primary carer returns the child will approach them but will resist contact and may push them away. Children with this attachment will explore less than the other two types. Such children are likely to have a caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs

Insecure/Avoidant Attachment

Children with an avoidant attachment show no sign of distress when the primary carer leaves the child with the stranger, plays normally when the stranger is present, and shows little interest when the primary carer returns. The stranger and the primary carer are able to comfort the child equally as well. This behavior results from an inconsistent level of response to their needs from the primary caregiver.

Disorganised/ Disorientated Attachment

Carers who harm their children through neglect or abuse (whether intentional or not), create a “disorganised” attachment style. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. In these conditions, children often disassociate from their selves. They may feel detached from what’s happening to them what they’re experiencing may be blocked from their consciousness. A child in this conflicted state develops a disorganized attachment with their parental figures.

Attachment style continues to affect our behaviour in adulthood. Our self-esteem, ability to control our emotions and the quality of our relationships are all affected by our attachment style. Attachment theory was extended to adult romantic relationships in the late 1980s by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver. Four styles of attachment have been identified in adults: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. These roughly correspond to infant classifications listed above.

Anxiety and avoidance are two polarising coping mechanisms driven by one main thing in common, fear. People who are high in attachment-related anxiety tend to worry about whether others really love them and often fear rejection. People who are high in attachment-related avoidance fear being dependent on others and opening up.

People with insecure attachment styles (anxious or avoidant) tend not to approach conflict head on. When in conflict, Anxious types tend to over-extend to the other, putting all their focus on trying to fix a relationship or solve a problem in order to reduce their anxiety. An Avoidant type can feel overwhelmed and pressured by this approach, they try to reduce their fear by creating space. As a result, anxious/avoidant couples often struggle to find solutions acceptable to both of them. Conflict is often left unresolved because the resolution itself would create too much intimacy for the avoidant partner. Conflicts then repeat.

If you want to know more about your own attachment style there is an online test here:

Bringing the light of awareness to your unconscious patterns is one of the best things you can do in situations where you experience frequent conflict. Of course, if you feel unsafe or can’t manage the conflict in your relationship, you should seek professional help.

Bonnie Esposito