I recently covered a study on pronoun use and attachment styles for Psyched for the Weekend, a recurring feature in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts.
As part of that article, I posted a quiz that you can take to discover your own attachment style.
In spite of being really into attachment theory and having trained as a psychological researcher, it occurred to me that I’d never actually tested mine. So on a lark, I took it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the theory, a person’s attachment style is essentially the baseline unconscious expectation they develop regarding how they will be treated in all their social relationships.
The basic three attachment types are:
Securely attached people find it fairly easy to connect with others and achieve fulfilling relationships. People with this attachment type typically don’t worry about being alone and are at peace with both intimacy and independence.
People with anxious attachment crave closeness to others but often worry that others find them clingy and can feel quite insecure, fearful that their partners don’t reciprocate the strong feelings that they have. Anxious types can become extremely dependent on their partners, viewing themselves as incomplete without that bond.
Avoidant people value independence and autonomy above closeness, and though many want to be close to people, they have a way of keeping people at arm’s length. They don’t open up easily (or at all) to their partners and can come off as quite emotionally distant. They can easily feel smothered by too much intimacy.
Some other research paradigms have gone on to subdivide avoidant attachment down further into two categories: dismissive avoidant and fearful avoidant, depending on the person’s internal motivations and emotional state.
I Presumed I Had Anxious Attachment Based on Partner Feedback
Without being tested, I’d presumed for years that my attachment style was anxious. Just going by feedback I’d received from a number of past partners. That I was clingy. Insecure. Needed excessive emotional validation.
I heard this particularly often from partners who I actually provided a lot of emotional validation and reassurance to as a matter of course. They’d say they were strong and that I was the needy one the moment I asked for some reassurance as well — even if it felt like to me that 90% of our relationship the dynamic were the other way and I was actually the one actively soothing them.
I doubted my own assessment of the situation, easy to do because I grew up in a very emotionally abusive environment. I was conditioned during my most formative years to consider a loved one’s perspective when we were in conflict to be more correct than my own. To give the other person the benefit of countless doubts. Because when I was little, this relentless other-bias benefited my abusive parent, someone I still nonetheless longed to please, no matter how many times they hurt me.
And besides, I knew that a history of childhood abuse probably screwed up my attachment, right? So it would follow that I would have anxious attachment. That I’d be clingy AF, emotionally high maintenance, insecure to the extreme, a real handful.
Apparently I Have a Secure Attachment Style
So it was quite surprising when after all of these years of assuming that I was anxiously attached to finally take the test and find that it told me that in fact I have secure attachment.
In some ways, this makes a lot of sense in hindsight. Particularly looking back at my dating history, I have multiple relationships that lasted for quite a long time. A relationship with an ex-girlfriend that spanned six years. Another that lasted 10 years. I’ve been with my current husband for eight years. And I’ve had multiple other relationships that lasted a year or two (being polyamorous — or at least ambiamorous — makes it sound like I’m much older than I am when I start talking about how many relationships I’ve had and how long they’ve lasted, especially when people try to force it into a monogamous framework).
And most remarkably, all of these longer lasting relationships were with people who were very different from one another and most certainly had a range of attachment styles.
This would actually point at my having secure attachment, since it’s basically the universal solvent of relationships. Securely attached individuals can have relationships fairly easily with any of the three types (another secure, an avoidant, an anxious).
Those are the “good” fits. Basically Any Type plus Secure.
The “okay” fits are Avoidant plus Avoidant or Anxious plus Anxious.
The worst pairing (although still possible with a lot of work) is Avoidant plus Anxious. Please note:If this is your relationship, this book is pretty darn good and has been helpful to couples in that situation.
Apparently It’s Possible to Be Convinced You’re Overly Insecure By People Who Have a Vested Interest in You Telling Yourself That Story
But yeah. I definitely wasn’t expecting that result. Some readers will note that I’ve referred to myself over the years many times as being anxiously or insecurely attached.
Apparently this wasn’t the case. And it’s possible I was just convinced of it by others I was close to who likely had a vested interest in getting me to tell that story to myself.
Moving the Goalposts and the Hedonic Treadmill as Risk Factors
I think it also doesn’t help that when it comes to mental health and self-improvement, I have a tendency to “move the goalposts” on myself. Basically, I’m always trying to do better at things, to be happier, and strive more. While this can be a good thing, it also means that I sometimes can’t see the progress I’ve made. I’m always setting new goals without giving myself credit for the work I’ve done and done well.
Loved ones have pointed this out to me in the past. Sometimes I think maybe I should do a better job in patting myself on the back — but then I worry if I do that too much I’ll get complacent.
It’s a balance, you see, and I’m not always sure I’m on the right side of it.
And it’s especially easy for me to move the goalposts because of a little thing called the hedonic treadmill. It’s also called the happiness set point, and it basically means that no matter how happy you are about something (or unhappy about something) that eventually given enough time you’ll trend back down to your normal mood.
So if my default self-story/mode is to feel like a giant mess in need of some serious self-improvement? It’s all too easy to not give myself enough credit for the progress I’ve made.
Wonder How Many of Us There Are Out There
But yeah. Apparently I’m securely attached and didn’t get the memo.
Now, it’s possible that my attachment style changed over time as I found a better support system. More supportive friends and partners. And I’m sure that there’s been some movement there.
But then again, I’m not sure that I’m all that different in the ways that count than I used to be. And there’s plenty of evidence looking back that I was securely attached even then.
Wonder how many of us there are out there who were told we were overly needy and clingy by romantic partners and believed it — but are actually doing just fine and relating in a stable way to others.