Attachment Styles and Theory – Understanding Rollercoaster Relationships

By Marcus Neo | Relationships

May 03

Ever felt like you can’t live without a certain relationship, be it a friend or a romantic partner? Or do you find yourself too afraid to be alone or make decisions on yourself? In psychology, the attachment theory can be used as a useful model to explain why your relationships have succeeded or failed in the manner they did. It can also point out repeated patterns of your relationship problems.

Research shows that anxious and avoidant people frequently end up in relationships with one another. The avoidant types are so good at putting others off that oftentimes it’s only the anxious types who are willing to stick around and put in the extra effort to get them to open up.

Think of the man who constantly pushes away a woman’s needs for intimacy. Someone with a secure attachment will simply accept the rejection and move on. However, an anxiously attached woman will be more determined by a man who pushes her away. The avoidant man then is reassured that he can behave independently around her and ultimately avoid emotional intimacy.

When one chases, the other runs, and this goes in circles.

From an emotional needs standpoint, both the anxious and the avoidant have a fundamental belief that their emotional needs aren’t important. Hence one denies their emotional needs by avoiding it, and the other attempts to force it down someone else’s throat.  Ultimately, both end up failing to get their needs met in a relationship.

Psychological research backs it up as well, people with the same level of self esteem end up dating each other.

I experienced this chaser and chase pattern in my first serious relationship with my ex-girlfriend.  Every time I chased, she ran. Every time I got sick of it and threatened to leave, she came back chasing. It was constant, tiring too and fro. It felt exhilarating at times, however, it’s not long before that relationship ended up exploding. 

Someone with insecure attachment who enters a long term relationship and someone with a secure attachment can be “raised up” to the level of secure over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, insecure attachments such as the anxious or avoidant can also “bring down” a secure attachment.

Extreme negative life events such a divorce, death of a child, serious accident, lost of friendships, can cause attachment types to fall into a more insecure attachment.

Secure Attachment

People with secure attachment strategies are comfortable with displaying interest and affection. They are also comfortable being alone and independent. They’re able to prioritise relationships accordingly and are able to draw clear boundaries and stick to them.

They also have a positive perception of others and positive perception of themselves. They make the best romantic partners, family members and friends. They are capable of accepting rejection and moving on despite the pain but are also capable of being loyal, sacrificing when necessary. They have little issue trusting the people they are close to and are trustworthy themselves.

Anxious Attachment

People with an anxious attachment style of attachment value intimacy to such an extent that they become overly dependent on the attachment figure. Compared to securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to have less positive views about themselves.

People with anxious attachment have a positive perception of others and negative perception of themselves. This strategy may be developed in childhood by infants who receive affection and care with unpredictable sufficiency.

Avoidant Attachment

People with avoidant attachment types tend to be independent, self-directed, and often uncomfortable with intimacy. People with avoidant attachment have a positive perception of themselves and negative perception of others. This strategy may be developed in childhood by infants who only get some of their needs met while the rest are neglected.

Anxious-Avoidant Attachment

People with this attachment style are much less comfortable with expressing affection. They frequently deny and suppress their feelings. They commonly have a negative worldview on others and view themselves as unworthy. These mixed feelings are combined with unconscious, negative views about themselves and others. They often have other emotional problems in other areas of their life: substance abuse and depression. This attachment type is commonly developed from abusive or negligent childhoods.

The Narcissist and the Co-dependent

In a dysfunctional relationship, there’s the giver and the taker. The giver is the one that always gives and gives without taking, as he or she feels unworthy of the validation or unworthy unaware of his or her own emotional needs

  • The Narcissist

The taker, the narcissist always takes and takes because he or she is unable to meet their own emotional needs and is attempting to fill a void.

The narcissist only cares about his or her own needs. He’s the overly domineering one in social interactions. This is the annoying individual who is always going on and on about him or herself and is unable to empathize with the people around them. It’s always him, his stories, her failures or her successes. They aren generally unable to listen.

Hanging out with a narcissist equivalent to social waterboarding.

They always require more because external validation is a temporary high, it feels good at the moment but is still an empty victory. I’ll argue narcissists get more results in their dating life than co-dependents, just because of their willingness (and blindness) to assert themselves in spite of negative social feedback.

The taker, the narcissist is unable to generate self-esteem from within and hence strives to generate it from relationships.

  • The Co-dependent

If your life choices, decisions or self esteem is dependent or another person, you may have a co-dependent relationship. This can be your best friend, your parents or your romantic partners.

Co-dependents find themselves in relationships where their primary role is that of the rescuer. Their happiness is reliant on their ability to meet their partner’s emotional needs and not their own. 

Unresolved patterns of co-dependency can lead to other problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, self-destructive and defeating behaviours. Co-dependents also have higher chances to form abusive relationships, stay in stressful jobs or relationships.

The listener, the giver, the co-dependent who listens to the narcissist’s troubles quietly and doesn’t give any input. He or she just takes it in and may seem sympathetic to the narcissist’s sorrows. That’s because the only way the listener can feel loved or accepted in that social situation is to tend to someone else’s emotional needs.

For the Overly Attached: Note on Roller Coaster Relationships

Ultimately, overly attached relationships lack true intimacy, boundaries and both partners’ needs do not get their needs met. They both are unable to accept love and validation, yet at the same time strive for love, recognition and have a desperate need for love and validation from others. 

Psychologists argue that our unconscious is constantly attempting to seek out attention, love and validation that we lack from out parents growing up the from people around you as adults. There’s research suggesting that parents who view their children as an extension of their own self, hence, getting their needs met by the child leads to the child to believe that his or her own needs aren’t important. The child becomes attuned to the parent’s needs and feelings instead of the other round.

This can play out in other areas of their lives other than your relationships. You may overcompensate and seek to meet your unmet needs through sex, achievements, financial pursuit or just about any area of life. Look, everyone needs a pat on the back and validation at some point, the question to ask yourself is this: are you pursuing something to scratch an itch or are you scratching an unresolved need.

The Attachment Theory – Self Esteem Model

The problem with a lot of dating and relationship advice is that they don’t encourage the expression of emotions from a secure standpoint. Instead, they promote insecure strategies such as using of lines, techniques in attempt to manipulate someone into doing something. This way you’re blocking out any genuine real emotional engagement.

You can argue that women that are willing to stay around and be manipulated are probably anxiously attached. The inability of an avoidant attachment styled male to express genuine affection and intimacy triggers her anxious attachment that makes her chase even more that in turns rewards the avoidant style that he adopts.

If you’re wondering if attachment theory has something to do with one’s self esteem. You’re right. Psychologists also hypothesised a model showing one’s attachment strategy corresponding to the self image of yourself and your perception of others. Your attachment style is connected to self esteem, emotional needs and vulnerability. These ideas are interlinked.

Can Your Attachment Style be Changed? 

I was a hard core avoidant throughout my teens up till my early twenties. Since I started therapy, one anxiety uncovered another defence. Okay, if you’re reading this and determined you’re either a hopeless codependent or a raging narcissist. Hear me out. The good news is that attachment styles can be changed. One of the ways is through therapy. The bad news is that it’s slow and difficult. There was a period of time that I was going through a phase of emotional vomit and flipped between anxious and avoidant attachment.

There’s an attachment theory test that you can take to find out your attachment type. If you don’t want to take the test, then rely on the above examples to roughly give you a guess on your style of attachment. 

The Litmus Test

How do you know if you are overly/ underly attached? You can ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you have your own life handled or are you merely using your relationship as an excuse?
  • Flip it around and ask yourself if the person across you has his or her own life going on, or is he or she living vicariously through her relationship?
  • Are you dependent on each other for each other’s happiness, or are both of you already happy as individuals with or without a relationship?

If your happiness is derived from making extreme sacrifices to meet your partner’s needs. Then it’s a red flag. Now, I’m not saying you can’t sacrifice for each other in a relationship. However, there’s a difference between sacrificing for someone and a lack of relationship boundaries.

If you’re the giver or the listener, then you need no more often. It’s time to stop being Mr Nice Guy/ Woman. You’ll need to assert your own needs and get your fair share in your relationships. The point here isn’t to be overly selfish or aggressive. It is to find a fine balance between caring for their own and other’s people’s needs.

Or maybe you’re a raging narcissist and constantly get pushed away by others. You may want to take a step back. 

Unfortunately, I’m not immune. In my life, I had my fair share of stages in my life where I was slightly co-dependent or swerved to my narcissistic side. 

The best forms of relationship are not exactly independent, but interdependent. An interdependent relationship is where two partners support each other unconditionally. They are able to generate self esteem on their own. but aren’t vicariously living through each other. It’s two independent individuals choosing to support each other towards aspirations. All in all, I’m happy to report that today, I’m a lot better at handling my relationships. 

Works Cited

Alan Rappoport, P. (n.d.). Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents.Retrieved from AlanRappoport.Com:

 Hazan C.; Shaver P.R. (March 1987). “Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process”J Pers Soc Psychol52 (3): 511–24.

About the Author

Marcus Neo is an entrepreneur and coach. Enjoys writing about dating, relationship, business, and psychology. Introvert yet extrovert. Likes martial arts and music, but never got around to the latter.

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