Breakups Through The Lens Of Attachment Theory

by By Max Jancar | Last Updated: November 11, 2020

Attachment theory talks about how our primary attachment bond represents a model for all our future relationships. In fact, out of that primary attachment, we develop an attachment style that plays a huge role in our relationships and is defined by the many ways we interact and behave with others.

As children, we develop attachment styles based on how we interact with our parents or significant adult role models. And when we grow up, these styles become fundamentally a classification of our behavior within our romantic or platonic relationships.

In its basic definition, attachment is an emotional relationship involving the exchange of comforting, caring, or pleasing feelings between individuals.

The noted psychologist or, more specifically, a psychoanalyst by the name of John Bowlby described attachment as "a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" and put forward the view that early-childhood experiences have a strong influence on our behavior towards others in later life.

Now here's the fun part.

The attachment style we develop affects everything about our relationships - all from the partner we choose, how well it goes, and how we react if it ends. 

Understanding our attachment patterns can also help us identify why our relationship didn't work and the reasons behind its collapse. Hopefully, once you learn these things, you can keep your next relationship secure, healthy, and lasting by not making the same mistakes.

WHY KNOWING YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE IS VITAL

There are three main attachment styles you can find yourself with: secure, anxious, and avoidant. 

In the next few paragraphs, I will discuss each in turn and explain how they can affect your relationship success and profoundly influence how you cope with your breakup.

Side-note: When it comes to the avoidant attachment style, I have split the explanation into two to address the differences between fearful-avoidant (disorganized), and dismissive-avoidant (classic avoidant) as their impact on relationships is different

Secure Attachment

People who are securely attached tend to be more satisfied with their relationships since they generally see their partner as a secure base from which they can navigate the everyday world. They will also find it easier to form and keep longer-lasting relationships because they find it easy to trust others and have little to no fear or anxiety that things will go wrong. 

A secure person will feel safe and connected in his relationship without feeling constrained. His security will promote a sense of freedom of movement for themselves and their partner so they can explore the world without worrying about niggling insecurities.

A secure person will also offer support if their partner feels distressed and will not be afraid to go to them when he feels the same way. The relationship will be open, honest, and equal, allowing both individuals to feel independent while still displaying a loving and affectionate nature towards each other.

When it comes to breakups, a secure person is no demi-god. Don't think that these individuals feel-little-to-no grief or pain. They do. They often feel it in large quantities.

When facing a breakup, the only difference between a securely attached individual and an insecurely attached one is that the former will know how to cope with their emotions in an understanding and healthy way, while the ladder would not. 

anxious ATTACHMENT

Individuals who display an anxious attachment are prone to forming a fantasy bond with their partner. Instead of developing real loving feelings, they develop an emotional hunger, a yearning to be and stay with them instead. This urge isn't based on any real situation or feelings, just an idea of what their relationship is, or in a lot of cases isn't.

An anxiously attached individual frequently needs his partner to emotionally fulfill them and can also cling to them to the point where they actually start pushing them away.

This type of person also needs constant reassurance and validation from their partner that they're still loved to feel secure. The reason why they need these things is because they don't feel good enough to be loved. This lousy worth based belief also makes them succumb to feeling unsafe in relationships. When that happens, an anxiously attached person can become demanding, jealous, and possessive. And things such as excessive texting, calling, or hyper-analyzing every detail of how their relationship progresses becomes their everyday routine.

Once broken up, an anxiously attached person may feel distraught and often goes to do one of two things. They either start obsessively dating other people with the hopes of finding someone new to attach to, or they try to win their ex back. 

In any case, anxiously attached individuals feel their breakup the strongest and have the most challenging time moving past it. Even worse, they are way more likely to hone in on the things that went wrong in their relationship and are way more likely to suffer from depression and lower self-esteem. In fact, they also tend to engage a lot more negative self-talk, self-blaming, and self-loathing than your average secure individual. 

dismissive avoidant ATTACHMENT

The dismissive-avoidant attachment style makes a person suppress their emotion and distance themselves from the people they love. At least, until these people give them sufficient space. When that happens, the avoidants slowly crawl back. 

A person who has this type of insecure attachment style may seek out isolation from their partner, avoid intimacy, and can seem overly focused on their own comforts rather than the needs of others. However, this veneer of independence is an illusion, as everybody wants to make connections in life.

Nevertheless, people who show this type of attachment tend to live more inward lives and may detach themselves from loved ones easily and quickly. They can appear shut down emotionally and will defend themselves from pain by looking to turn off their feelings. Heated emotional situations will bring this out the most, as they may respond to threats and anger with things like, "I don't care." 

When it comes to breakups, avoidants have an easier coping strategy than anxiously attached individuals, yet no less toxic. They often act as if the breakup hasn't affected them, while in reality, it has. In other words, avoidants usually repress their uncomfortable and painful post-heartbreak feelings. The danger is that if they keep doing this repeatedly, they could develop a severe case of trauma later in life.

fearful avoidant ATTACHMENT - disorganized

This attachment style presents itself as ambivalence towards romance but generally stems from a person being afraid to become too close to others or too distant. 

Put differently, fearful-avoidants generally tend to have frequent mood swings. When they feel rejected, they could become desperate for attention and affection, and when they feel trapped or as if someone got emotionally too close to them, they push back and want more space.

People who possess this attachment style will also desperately attempt to keep their feelings at bay even though they're seldom capable of doing so. In fact, they will try to run away from them, but instead of succeeding, they will become overwhelmed by their own reaction and fall into emotional turmoil. 

When it comes to breakups, people with a fearful-avoidant attachment have mixed reactions concerning their loss. They often start by trying to numb or push down their feelings just like dismissive avoidants, but after time these feelings bubble up to the surface of their consciousness, and they are forced to deal with them. At this point, they become desperate for a new relationship - a new person to attach to. Because of this, fearful-avoidants are way more likely to rush into the infamous rebound relationship after their heartbreak.

HOW AND WHEN ATTACHMENT STYLES ARE FORMED

Most attachment styles develop during early childhood by the way children interact with their parents. More specifically, by the quality of care, they received in response to their crying and general yearning for attention.

Psychologists believe that the earliest bonds or attachments formed by children with their caregivers, specifically their mothers, have a tremendous impact on their lives and will continue to do so throughout their lives.

Let's take a closer look at how each distinct attachment style is formed.

secure individuals

These individuals often had parents or caregivers who kept being there for them, meeting their needs, and consistently handling their requests - they became their safety base.

anxious INDIVIDUALS

These individuals were usually taken care of by parents or caregivers who offered inconsistent responses to their cries for attention and affection, and so couldn't be used as a reliable, safe base. 

dismissive avoidant INDIVIDUALS

These individuals were frequently raised by parents or caregivers who spent little to no time with them. In fact, they probably rarely acted upon the child's requested wants and pleads for closeness. As a result, they made the kid numb to any healthy attachments.

fearful AVOIDANT INDIVIDUALS

These individuals are often victims of the most unkind childhood experiences like physical and emotional abuse, utter neglect, and abandonment from the side of their caretakers. In response to this kind of treatment, these children are often traumatized, to a larger degree than most, and as mentioned, cycle back and forth between becoming clingy and overly distant.

WHY KNOWING YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE IS VITAL

If your love life seems to swing from one unsuccessful relationship to the next, then don't always put it down to being unlucky in love. Of course, you could be unlucky, but equally, it could be that your attachment style is getting in the way of you forming a lasting bond with the object of your desire.

Like I said before, not only can understanding your attachment style help identify the root cause of why your relationship had problems and didn't work out, but it can also provide insights that will help you create a lasting relationship in the future.

Ultimately, you're not stuck with the attachment style you've formed. With laborious and consistent work, you can develop a more secure thought process and change for the better. 

For instance, I originally formed a rigid anxious attachment, then got into a soul-crushing breakup due to it. After that traumatic event, I became a total avoidant and spent years being afraid to start any new relationships. And only after months of self-work and therapy was I able to revert all my past emotional damage and become secure. It was like swimming across the ocean with cinderblocks in my stomach, but hell, I managed to do it. And so can you.

HOW TO identify YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE

Before you can start working on changing your insecure attachment style to a more secure variant, you must identify which one you even possess. 

To do this, think about how you reacted to the things your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend said and done and be honest with yourself. For example, let's say that when you were still with them, they at some point mentioned that they would call you in an hour, yet that never happened. 

How would you react to that scenario? (Or how did you react, if that ever happened?) Here are three options:

Option number one: You would sit patiently and realize that your ex just might have been busy and forgot about the phone call.

Option number two: You would become overwhelmed with fear, worry, anger, and frustration. You would feel abandoned, and your mind would run through 100 different scenarios of why your ex hasn't called. You would also most likely assume that they cheated or stopped loving you.

Option number three: You would become fearful if they actually did call you. In fact, you would probably avoid answering their call at that point. Maybe you would even desperately avoid any meaningful conversation or intimacy with them in general. 

If you reacted in a way similar to option number one, you just might have a secure attachment type. 

Congrats, you lucky fucker. 

But if you reacted in a way that's comparable to option two, you might possess some degree of an anxious attachment type. And if you acted out similarly as described in option three, you probably have more of an avoidant attachment style.

If you're interested in nailing down your attachment style even further, be sure to take a peek at some of the free online quizzes on the topic. Here are my top two choices.

CHANGING YOUR ATTACHMENt STYLE

It's easy to see insecure attachment styles negatively, and it is true that outside a secure attachment, your love life can yield several difficulties. However, that doesn't mean that those with an insecure attachment style are stuck like that forever. It's never too late to change and adapt your ways.

Yes, your attachment style has been with you from childhood, and it's ingrained into your very emotions. But as I said, with effort on your part, moving towards a secure attachment style is possible.

Look, I don't want you to rush into a relationship until you genuinely feel that dating could be an exciting feat, but I have to mention that one of the best ways to obtaining a secure attachment is to attract someone who already has it. So when you feel like going out and finding someone new, think about this little nugget of wisdom.

Apart from this tip, what you need to cultivate for any change to transpire is brutal honesty with yourself. Many people that I work with fail to admit that they have a problem, yet this truly is the first step towards recovery. If you can't acknowledge your anxious or avoidant nature, then how can you address the issues it presents? 

So again, be honest with yourself. Look at your behavior patterns and scrutinize the emotions you feel. Do you display anxious or avoidant tendencies? If so, what can you do to combat or learn to manage them?
Remember: digging deep within your psyche and understanding your emotions is the first step to retraining your mind to a more secure attachment style. But that's just the first step. Let's look at how you can move from each negative attachment style to a secure one in turn.

from anxious to secure

If you display an anxious attachment style, a few things can be done to combat its adverse side effects.

The first thing I would do is research how you can soothe your feelings. Put differently, commit to understanding what triggers your anxiety, and find ways to manage the negative feelings that come with it.

Also, don't forget to look out for overreactions to certain situations. Try to see them for what they are, an overreaction. You do this by simply cultivating self-awareness and asking yourself, "is it reasonable to feel so anxious in this situation, or is my attachment style playing tricks on me?"

And as mentioned before, look for a partner that already displays a secure attachment style. By bringing a secure individual into your life, you can dilute your anxious behavior. These types of partners or dates will also be less likely to feel impacted and repulsed by your anxiousness.

In contrast, starting a relationship with another anxious individual can lead to a vicious circle where you feed on each other's insecurities and cause collective drama. 

One last thing you can try out is replacing your negative self-talk with a more realistic variant.

For example, instead of saying to yourself, "I'm a failure," you can say, " I'm ok. Everyone failed at some point." Or instead of telling yourself, "I'm unlovable and stupid," you can tell yourself things like, " I'm not perfect, but I'm lovable and enough," and "I made a mistake/acted like a dumbass, but everyone does that at some point.

Just be careful not to fall into the habit of replacing your negative talk with an overly positive variant since that's just the other toxic extreme, and you'll probably turn out a narcissist if you keep indulging in it.

FROM avoidant TO SECURE

The best thing you can do as an avoidant who wants to become secure is to practice vulnerability with yourself and others. More specifically, you need to practice opening up about your feelings or views and letting yourself attach to other people even when it feels painful. In fact, it's probably good if it scares or pains you in some way.

You can start simple. For instance, try to be actively curious about the feelings and the internal world of others. For example, call up a good friend or invite them on a drink and start a conversation with them. After conversing for a few minutes, find the courage to reciprocate. That is, to share some of your own deeper thoughts and emotions with them. Something you haven't shared yet.

It may seem arbitrary, but try to develop a regimented curiosity and sharing pattern to build this into an emotional routine. Do this slowly at first to allow your mind to retrain without undue stress.

One more thing you can do to cultivate a secure attachment is to practice self-awareness around your avoidant tendencies and embrace the emotional connection you have with others instead of dismissing it or pushing it away. 

Here's how this could look like.

Let's pretend you're hanging out with a date who is awfully close to falling in love with you. While you're talking to them, you begin to feel alarmed that things are getting too serious between the two of you. And this tension makes you want to end the date and quickly run away. 

Don't do it. 

Instead, force yourself to become aware of the indicators that you're trying to distance yourself, or in our case, end the date and run away. You can do this by simply asking yourself a simple set of questions like:

  • "Am I behaving in a way that fosters connection, or that pushes it away?" 
  • "Am I distracting myself from connecting with my date right now?" 
  • "Am I withholding any part of myself, or do I feel free to share what I think/feel with my date?" 

However, noticing the indicators that you're trying to pull away is just the first step. Next, you want to accept your new-found avoidant tendencies, then quickly refocus and force yourself to stay connected to the person you're hanging out with, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. 

Do this exercise repeatedly until it becomes a habit, and I can guarantee you're going to become more secure. And the real beauty of this method is that you can perform it with anyone you care for.

conclusion

In the end, no matter what attachment style you possess, the formula for getting over a breakup and becoming a better person is the same. Stay clear of trying to repair things with your ex and focus on self-improvement.

Now, sometimes anxious individuals will reach out to their ex even though they know they shouldn't. And other times avoidants will go on a bed crushing, cum-on-the-wall/pussy-juice in the sheets rampage with a stranger, only to push their grief away. It's ok. Let yourself fuck up a few times, and don't beat yourself up about it. We all have our moments of weakness.

The most important thing is to make yourself steer your proverbial lifeboat in the right direction despite your occasional failures. In the end, that's all that matters. 

Now, I hate to push my own shit in articles, but when it comes to identifying and changing your attachment style, I can't help but recommend an online consultation with me. It truly gives you insights into why your relationship failed and how to make your future one last.

Footnotes

Judith A. Crowell & Everett Waters (1994) Bowlby's Theory Grown Up: The Role of Attachment in Adult Love Relationships, Psychological Inquiry, 5:1, 31-34, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0501_4

Bretherton I (1992). "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth". Developmental Psychology28(5): 759–775. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759

Hazan C, Shaver P (March 1987). "Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology52 (3): 511–24. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511PMID 3572722S2CID 2280613.

McCarthy G, Taylor A (1999). "Avoidant/ambivalent attachment style as a mediator between abusive childhood experiences and adult relationship difficulties". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry40 (3). pp. 465–477. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00463

Cassidy J (1999). "The Nature of a Child's Ties". In Cassidy J, Shaver PR (eds.). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 3–20ISBN 1572300876.