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How Does Attachment Style Impact Romantic Relationships

Imagine this: You’ve been dating someone for a few months and things are going great. You feel connected, you have a similar sense of humour, you enjoy being around their friends, and you haven’t seen any glaring red flags. You both haven’t been seeing anyone else for a while now.

One night, they’re hanging out at your place and mention the idea of becoming exclusive and officially being coined a couple. What’s your reaction?

  • Sure, let’s give it a shot! I’m enjoying spending time with you, so let’s see where this goes.

  • Whoa, whoa—slow down! That much commitment this soon is too much for me. Maybe we should take a step back.

  • Wait, what? My toothbrush is already permanently installed in your bathroom, you've met my parents, and you know all my secrets. We’re way past “exclusive.”

  • Yes. No. I don’t know. Are you mad? I like you. I don’t know.

How you respond largely depends on your attachment style—your patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in the way you bond with others. They generally fall into four different styles.

  • Secure

  • Dismissive-avoidant

  • Anxious-preoccupied

  • Fearful-avoidant (a.k.a., disorganized)

Every relationship is affected by a ton of different circumstances. Your response to commitment will depend on a lot of factors. But think of all the romantic or close relationships you’ve had or attempted. Do you see a pattern? What about other aspects of relationships, like intimacy? Trust? Jealousy? These are affected by your attachment style, too.

Let’s take a look at a few different aspects of relationships that often determine how they start, flourish (or wither), and, perhaps, end.

1. Commitment

Choosing to commit to a relationship can be a rational, economical process of weighing the pros and cons. But it’s not hard to imagine that there are less rational processes—like the attachment—at work, too. It’s no surprise that, out of all the attachment styles, people with dismissive-avoidant attachment styles feel the least committed to their romantic relationship. On the flip side, securely attached people feel the most committed. Unsurprisingly, researchers who followed the activity of people with avoidant styles for a few months found they were most likely to have a breakup.

This, of course, makes sense—those with avoidant attachment styles feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness and believe they don’t need or want intimacy. Sometimes, they even pride themselves on their lack of needs. So the first sign of conflict or a moment that lacks excitement can be enough to make them end it. Ironically, their lack of wanting to commit and get close might push their partner to make the decision.

2. Jealousy and trust

Many of us feel jealous from time to time in close relationships, and that’s natural. Jealousy helps us identify threats to the relationship. It’s understandable to get jealous if you see your romantic partner flirting with someone else or receiving a lot of attention from a potential rival. But if your jealousy is out of proportion to reality or leads to unhealthy behaviours, like checking your partner’s phone or restricting their independence, it can lead to serious problems.

Researchers have found that those with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style are the most likely to engage in surveillance of their partners. They also feel worse when they're experiencing jealousy than people without this attachment style.

On the other hand, those who are dismissive-avoidant don’t feel as fearful or sad when they experience jealousy. But, because both anxious and avoidant people have difficulty trusting others, both styles are associated with more irrational beliefs in a relationship when compared to people with secure attachment.

Insecurely attached people not only feel more jealous, but they can be more prone to making their partners jealous on purpose. Specifically, having an anxious-preoccupied or fearful-avoidant style makes a person more likely to induce jealousy. Anxious-preoccupied people use more aggressive communication while fearful-avoidant people tend to be passive-aggressive.

3. Emotional intimacy

One attachment researcher has described four prerequisites for being able to have intimacy in a relationship:

  • Ability to seek care

  • Ability to give care

  • Ability to feel comfortable with an autonomous self

  • Ability to negotiate

These abilities are—you guessed it—affected by attachment style. Securely attached people are more connected to their romantic partners, with more engagement in the relationship, more communication, and more joint friendships. They are also more authentic in the way they express themselves in the relationship.

Don’t forget that intimacy applies to platonic friendships, too! Another study specifically brought friends into the lab to observe them interacting with each other. The researchers, as “flies on the wall,” did not observe any differences between friend pairs of different attachment types, but the securely attached participants themselves felt that their conversations involved more sharing and were more supportive.

Sexual enjoyment

Those with a secure attachment style also have greater sexual intimacy with their romantic partners, as well as more communication about sex and an overall higher rate of sexual satisfaction. Insecurely attached people were more likely to have anxiety or inhibitions about communicating about sex with their partners.

In men, having both anxious and avoidant attachment styles are associated with a higher chance of experiencing sexual compulsivity. In women, insecure attachment can be the reason for aggressive behaviours, which allows them to provoke other people to engage with them without having to be vulnerable.

In a diverse group that included gay, straight, cisgender and genderqueer participants, attachment style was a big predictor of sexual desire and satisfaction. Interestingly, a person’s attachment style was a better predictor of sexual satisfaction than sexual desire. When it comes to enjoying your sex life, having a healthy attachment style may even be more than physical desire.

Having a secure attachment style has its benefits—people with this attachment style are more likely to have more stable and long-lasting intimate relationships that are both healthy and satisfying.

But just because you have an insecure attachment style (through no fault of your own), doesn’t mean you’ll struggle with intimacy forever. Here are a few things that, coupled with a bit of luck, can help you alter the way you interact in relationships:

  • Finding a partner who has a secure attachment style

  • Purposefully practising being emotionally intimate and vulnerable

  • Working on emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills through therapy

With a little bit of hard work and openness, you can overcome an insecure attachment style and have healthier, happier relationships.


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