First we’ll look at your attachment type—which will suggest what type of partner will be good for you, and whether you yourself have some attachment issues that might need addressing before you can be a good partner to others.
This online test by R. Chris Fraley is thorough and self-scoring, and it’s part of ongoing research, so please go take it and come right back: Attachment Style Test. (When that test is not working, try this test which asks a smaller number of questions about several important relationships: Relationship Structures. There’s also a shorter, less thorough test here: Experiences in Close Relationships Scale.)
You will notice if you retake this test thinking of a different relationship than your current one, or imagining a relationship with a too-clingy or too-distancing partner, the relationship you are thinking of can strongly influence the attachment type you appear to be. “The idea is that when we’re with a noncommittal person who’s always threatening to leave, we’re prone to feel like a clingy, ambivalent child—regardless of our previous attachment experience. When we’re with an insecure, punishing nag, we’re prone to become somewhat distant and avoidant.”
So, while one tends to have a predominant attachment style from childhood experiences, how you behave in a real relationship may vary as the style of your partner influences you. All of us have secure and insecure moments and can temporarily or under stress exhibit any of the insecure patterns.
Next: Self-Esteem and Attachment Type
Or go directly to your type:
Hello – you seem to know your stuff. I have a question if you don’t mind. I hope I make an interesting case, although this is long…
I recently became aware that I had some kind of attachment difficulty after I shocked myself by plunging into attachment panic and feeling/thinking/acting in a way I found bizarre. At first I felt this had never happened to me before, but then I realised it had – years and year ago – for a couple of weeks after a particularly unpleasant separation from a boyfriend. Oddly, I have lost all memory of the way I behaved (in a preoccupied manner, I’d say) and only know it happened because I read it in an old diary. So I started looking at attachment theory, but now I’m confused…
I originally assumed I must be preoccupied, because of the odd behaviour on separation. But the more I read about it, the more I don’t seem to fit. I don’t prioritise relationships, nor organise my life around them. If anything, I tend to stay single until I bump into someone who intrigues me. My response to this is almost never “this is the one for me”, it’s almost always “this one will do for now but due to flaws a, b and c, they are not a long-term partner”. At first I tend to say things like “I prioritise my career over relationships” (true) or “I don’t want to rush into anything” (true). I tend to approach with caution and want to set expectations (I usually fear they will tell me they love me or something far too soon and I will hurt them or be forced to leave). I even told a boyfriend I’d moved in with that I had a get-out strategy for if we broke up. Again, I didn’t say this to hurt him, but because I feared he would get hurt if he invested too much in the relationship and I didn’t want to feel under pressure.
Despite all of this, I will VERY quickly become dependent on the relationship, confusing the hell out of them since just last week I said I wasn’t even that sure etc. It confuses me too. It’s like my emotions and thoughts are out of step. I think one thing (they’re ok but not really good enough; often I think of them as “boring”); I feel another (don’t leave me). And then I will stay with them for years. YEARS. Even if I’m unhappy. The other thing I’ve noticed is that when triggered by something – like if I think I notice distancing – I will want to control the situation, but not in a manipulative way. For instance, I want to be the one who leaves so that they can’t leave me. Not to hurt or control them (assume they won’t care), but for self-preservation. Other times, I might just ‘put them on a long leash’ and try to busy myself with other things because I don’t like it that they have a (negative) emotional effect on me and feel controlled/manipulated if they do. Again, this is self-preservation and I do not intend to punish them in any way (I assume they won’t notice/don’t care). I’ve even noticed that sometimes the attachment just seems to ‘switch off’. After noticing anything that resembles distancing from a partner I’ve been known to wake up one day and suddenly realise I don’t love them anymore. I will then try to break it off, but on trying will become extremely confused and suddenly not know what I want. Other times, if triggered by something, I just don’t want them back. And the next time they show up, I will be cold and aloof. Not because I want to hurt them, but because I feel a sense of repulsion.
All of this has got much weirder since that really bad break up several years ago. Before then, my behaviour was still a bit odd but not that much. I had a tendency to criticise and look down on boyfriends (as if they were “pathetic”) when I was a teenager…particularly if they tried to impress me (“have some individuality, for God’s sake”) and eventually ended up getting trapped in an abusive relationship with someone with serious preoccupied attachment in my late teens (I did actually leave almost straight away but he stalked me and I ended up getting harassed back into the relationship, too young to realise what was going to happen…)
What is this? Fearful avoidant? Really odd preoccupied? I’m trying to treat it because I think it’s the underlying cause of all of my unhappiness – not just in relationships, which technically haven’t been much of a problem (long, stable, almost completely conflict-free relationships. Remained friends with most exes). I feel uncentred all the time and I tend to dissociate (daydreams, fantasies) and completely avoid reality. I don’t tend to be emotional, people tend to describe me as ‘over-controlled’ or ‘pragmatic’ or ‘composed’ and under stress I just ‘zone out’ and go empty. It’s got worse as I got older, which is extremely annoying because I was previously very successful academically/career wise, but I can’t seem to find a sense of centre in me and often feel empty and alone. I can’t seem to ‘wake up’ anymore and get on with things, I just sink into fantasy or analysis. If it helps, my parents have very definite and extreme attachment problems. My mother has quite extreme ambivalent attachment (very emotional and inconsistent in her affection – I’m either amazing or evil) and my father very extreme avoidant attachment (he can’t read emotions in others at all, is excessively critical, especially when I’ve done well, and frequently crosses boundaries and attempts to control in a very direct manner. He also did not show any physical or emotional affection to me or my brother in childhood).
There could be all sorts of physiological/medical/psychological reasons why you can’t seem to focus; far from clear it has anything to do with attachment. I have had periods like that, and keeping to an exercise routine (weightlifting and cardio) seems to help with that. But if I get a touch of hay fever, it’s back to cloudy.
As for your attachment type, I think (from your description) that you are a definite fearful-avoidant, with the anxious-preoccupied only showing up as a response to loss. All of us use all of the attachment styles at some point, it’s what predominates that suggests your “type.” Unlike dismissives, who suppress feelings from attachment losses, the fearful-avoidant definitely feel them, and under the stress of loss you can be as anxious as anyone. With your parents exhibiting the extreme dismissive/preoccupied couple type, it’s no wonder you have a variety of coping mechanisms.
You sound like you have a remarkable amount of insight into your issues, and this will help you deal with them better. Finding a groove that motivates you may or may not have anything to do with attachment — lots of people focus on abstract problems and seem happy with that. But it certainly could be part of it that you feel the need for intimacy which is lacking, but at the same time tend to look down on partners and exit relationships. Finding a good attachment-aware therapist might help, but these patterns are deeply entrenched and it’s no easy task.
Cool, thanks. I think you’re right but looking at it now, I think it’s probably not the thing I need to focus on. I have generalised anxiety disorder anyway and that causes two things in me: massive self-analysis (picking apart each and every one of my thoughts), and frequent sleep deprivation, which can eventually send me completely bizarre. I think I’ve overreacted to my own behaviour due to fear. The frightening thing about this for me was not being able to ‘see myself’ in the way I behaved. Not being able to relate at all on a rational level to the way I felt, thought, behaved etc. It’s a pretty scary thing to feel that you’re inconsistent and that you just don’t know what you might do. But having zoomed out a bit and looked at it more rationally, it seems that if I have attachment issues (very likely considering my childhood…) they’re a hell of a lot milder than the ones I read about online and don’t seem to be having any particularly destructive effect on my relationships. I’m going to work on not thinking about it and not shaming myself for it, and try to learn to trust myself again…that was the big issue, suddenly feeling like I couldn’t trust myself anymore, like I didn’t understand myself anymore. But if I assume that I am the person that I am 99% of the time and ignore the 1% (instead of picking myself apart for a bit of weird behaviour now and then over the last 15 years) I think I’ll be ok…
Thanks for your help.
No one behaves well all the time. Don’t expect to never have a flakey moment, especially if you’re under obvious stresses like lack of sleep!
I’d address the sleep issue first. Nothing works well without good sleep. I don’t dispense supplement advice much, but I personally use 3 mg of melatonin under the tongue (which helps put me to sleep) and about 10 mg of GABA in water, which helps deepen and lengthen sleep, both before bedtime.
As for attachments, as you say that’s a second-order problem — first find ways to be happy with yourself and stable alone. Then the relationships that start won’t be distorted by base-level functioning issues. I think you have a good understanding of things.
Hi. I thought the personality test was fairly accurate, but I think the son-mother relationship may be off, at least in my case. I’m 55 and my mother is 81. Obviously I have had many adult years of experience during which I have been able develop close relationships that were at least as dependable as my mother. I have also learned a lot about my mother and given her age, her general health, and her mental health (at least as I perceive it) would be reluctant to depend on her. My mother knows me very well, but doesn’t understand my life nor does she have, in my opinion, the capacity to truly see relationships from my perspective. I would consider my mother somewhat avoidant. But I think a lot of secure males my age would be reluctant to depend on their aged mothers, despite the capacity of their mothers. Thanks. Good article- I learned a lot (I’m an engineer) and I may be back to the site.
Most of this template-making happens before the age of 3 — it produces a general way of dealing with people in your life you are close to and depend on which is hard to overcome. People generally transfer their primary relationship template to a partner after adulthood, and the parents shrink to become less important. At our age we are starting to take care of them! So your feeling is not unusual.
Also, I thought it was pretty funny that someone with the last name “Kinnison” would be inquiring if I had made fun of anyone at work.
There aren’t many famous Kinnisons, so he kind of spoils the image we might have had previously…
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