Insecure Attachment Behaviour Styles in Adults
Each of the styles of insecure attachment in adults were survival strategies for them as an infant. For adult clients, they obviously worked well enough to that end. Likely now as adults they create limitations, and unconsciously driven feelings and behaviours in the domain of relationship. These different developmental behaviours are a manifestation of the way the child had mentally encoded its experience relevant to attachment and relationship. You can read an overview of attachment theory here.
According to Mary Main these early attachment experiences form an internal model that organizes and directs not only feelings and behaviour but also attention, memory and cognition, in relationship to attachment. Consequently, our different attachment histories manifest externally in different patterns of behaviour, but also internally as different linguistic patterns and structures of mind. Main believed that these internal models stay with us for life as a force in our psyches, showing up in different ways at different stages of life.
A significant contribution of Main to the development of attachment theory was her creation of the Adult Attachment Interview which revealed the persons attachment style. This in turn revealed the predictive nature of an adult’s attachment style on the attachment style of their own children. In adults, the avoidant attachment style is referred to as dismissing, the ambivalent as preoccupied and the disorganized as unresolved. On the spectrum of rigid to chaotic, dismissing tend to the rigidity end and the preoccupied toward the chaotic. Read an introduction to attachment theory here.
Avoidant / Dismissing Attachment
The insecure attachment style of avoidant/dismissing adults, in broad terms tends toward emotional restriction, and can appear aloof, even controlling. As children, they often had premature autonomy, who may have been practical, or emotional caretakers for their carers. Attachment trauma often left them avoiding the conditions for needing others. According to Dan Siegel, this leads to a left-brain hemisphere dominance due to a limited tolerance for such needs, and the pain and longing of missed connections, cutting the avoidant/dismissing off from the social-emotional right brain. In other words avoidant/dismissing insecure attachment adults tend to live in their heads and find emotional relating difficult.
The central theme for the avoidant/dismissing insecure attachment adult’s model is, being alone and not needing others. Such an attitude easily folds into itself an emotional cutoff that disguises or denies preverbal hurt and anger and the unmet needs beneath. This denial also extends to the possibility of the past influencing the present, for the avoidant/dismissing, what’s done is done, water under the bridge. Yet of course the infant’s needs remain intact, buried deep inside exerting their hidden influences.
The dismissing response also suggests a similar sense of rejection as chronic in early attachment relationships along with accompanying feelings of shame. In adults, this remains as an expectation of rejection, and an interpretive lens for assessing others behaviour. Dismissing adult’s defensive strategies cut them off from parts of their own feeling world, attempting to prevent the pain and shame of the rejection or the longing for love that is essential to them, because such feelings absorb so much of their interpersonal energy. Strategies of avoiding feelings of shame are, according to Robert Karen, a common legacy of avoidant attachment, as is disassociation, or in common parlance, being checked out.
Ambivalent / Preoccupied Attachment
For those with a predominantly ambivalent/preoccupied insecure attachment orientation, core feelings of shame have a more literal effect on consciousness, and the feelings of separation from relationships is fueled by the sense of being unworthy of love. A dominant narrative theme for the ambivalent/preoccupied is about needing others while being unable to depend on them. There is also a strong tendency of emotional entanglement and enmeshing, an inability to become differentiated, to hold a distinct emotional life or identity. This can lead to a propensity to addictive tendencies toward potential attachment figures, rooted in the preoccupied person’s belief that they don’t have the ability to get their needs met by another person.
The great fear that lies beneath all these insecure attachment strategies is the fear of abandonment. In the reverse of the avoidant/dismissing, the ambivalent/preoccupied are more right brain dominant and lack integration with the rationally and linguistically oriented left brain to make sense of their emotional chaos. Studies have also shown that the preoccupied are more sensitive to negative feedback, David Wallin goes as far as saying they are hyper vigilant for real or imagined indications of disapproval, withdrawal or rejection by attachment partners by keeping the attachment system chronically activated and scanning not only for external threats, but also internal, as thoughts, feelings and bodily sensation. Ambivalent/preoccupied insecure attachment adults often speak as if the hurt and anger feelings from childhood remain just as fresh and alive now.
Disorganized / Unresolved Attachment
The disorganized/unresolved client according to the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), are in the main from either an avoidant or ambivalent insecure attachment style, but can also be from the securely attached in instances of isolated shock trauma. In all cases the lack of resolution is around trauma. The usual symptoms of unresolved trauma will present, such as lapses in coherence of personal narrative, emotional detachment and or disassociation when recalling the traumatic event as well as slipping into present tense when narrating historical events. Because they suffered trauma from their immediate primary carers, those with disorganized/unresolved attachment, have great difficulty trusting in the possibility of a safe intimate relationship. They are also more prone to challenges with their mental and physical health.
Healing Insecure Attachment in Adults
The principle difference between securely and insecurely attached individuals is a reflective stance towards experience, as opposed to, in the insecurely attached, the tendencies ranging between minimizing and denying the effect of their experiences (in the dismissing state of mind) or to be flooded by them (in the preoccupied state of mind). Generally, the greater our capacity to take up a reflective stance the greater our resilience.
Through the findings of neuroscience, we now know something about how our earliest life experiences influence our neurobiology. We also now know that our brains have plasticity, which means they change depending on how we use them. Because of this we know that it is possible for insecure attachment to be healed. This is known as an ‘earned security’. A therapeutic relationship with a relational based therapist is an excellent place to achieve this. This is because the therapist, in accepting and empathizing, remaining present and regulated with the client offers a new and secure experience of relationship. At the same time this new model of relationship is meeting the unmet needs of recognition, acknowledgement and unconditional acceptance that we all share as babies and which weren’t met for those with insecure attachment.
Each individual’s response to their attachment experience becomes a weaving between its observably consistent defensive patterns, and their inherent personality qualities. I think it is also worth noting that with every challenging aspect of our personality, there can be a gift, and with every positive quality a challenge. Our mental, emotional and spiritual health comes from our capacity to be open to them and integrate them into a fluid and responsive personality, rather than being confined in their reactivity and orientation toward rigidity or chaos.
The therapeutic relationship can offer a new experiential model of relationship. With the therapist serving as a ‘secure base’ around and through which it is possible for someone with insecure attachment to incrementally internalize and integrate this new, secure model of relating to another, and oneself. With time this new model of relationship slowly begins to offset and potentially replace the original insecure model. This change is both emotional and neurological.