The Fluidity of Attachment and Healing
I receive this question often: “Can my attachment style change?” And the simple answer is yes, definitely.
The more complicated answer is something like “yes, definitely, depending on who you are with, what the relationship feels like, and the work you have done to shift your style(s) and heal yourself."
Because fear, instability, uncertainty, and inconsistency can activate our attachment wounds, the relationship we find ourselves in at the moment can make all the difference as far as which characteristics or tendencies are showing up. And don’t forget: every person has each of the attachment styles to some degree, they are just activated at different times and in different contexts. This isn’t just about romantic partnerships, either. Your attachment style of the moment is present in ALL of your relationships.
I will give some examples and I hope they feel relatable. I am a person who has quite a bit of earned secure attachment, having worked diligently on some of the more anxious aspects of my adaptations. I also recognize the avoidant and disorganized aspects of my style, too, although those don’t show up for me as often in my daily life (although I have witnessed and experienced them become primary during moments of intense interpersonal conflict or trauma).
I have some friends with whom I have super secure relationships. When I reach out to them with something big and important and they don’t respond right away, I feel confident that they aren’t responding because they are busy. I know in my heart it’s not because they don’t love me or they don’t care. Their non-response, even if it’s uncomfortable in the moment because I would prefer a response, is okay.
I also have relationships in my life where, when I reach out and share something and I don’t hear back, I am thrown into my full-blown anxious attachment activation. I check my phone incessantly, I create stories about what is happening (including but not limited to: they hate me, they don’t want me to feel important so they are ignoring me, they are being mean, I did something wrong and they aren’t telling me and now I have to guess to try to figure out what happened or the relationship is over, I didn’t support them well enough the last time they had something exciting going on so now they don’t care, and many other untrue and highly upsetting thoughts, mostly related to me falling into the victim role and/or feeling like I haven’t performed in a relationship and therefore don’t deserve love). As I write this, it feels a little embarrassing to be so direct and clear about what those thought patterns look like for me. But I share this because there is no shame in the ways our patterns show up. The more light we can shed on the pain we experience in relationships, the more likely it is that we are able to increase our awareness of how our attachment patterns have served us previously but now need some tweaking and adjustment. And of course, healing.
What I’ve learned is that the relationships and situations that trigger the hell out of me are teachers. I don’t necessarily enjoy the lessons the relationships provide for me, but they are so illuminating. It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself in the silence, in the void, in the waiting. I am as creative as can be when it comes to making up stories about someone who I haven’t spoken to, who I haven’t been with in weeks, who I know in my heart loves me deeply and is out living their life without any ill intent toward me. I can create many scenarios in which I am not deserving of that which I want most or write the story that ends in me feeling sad, empty, or alone. The part of myself that believes those stories is alive and well and she needs to be reminded regularly that as true as they feel, there is something else available to her. Choosing the alternative is a risk with great rewards.
Our attachment styles shift because all relationships look different. Sometimes our friendships look and feel similar to relationships we’ve had in the past with family members, or people who have harmed us. Sometimes our partnerships feel so much like our relationship with our very first friend. New relationships have a sense of familiarity. I can’t emphasize enough that our relational patterns are based on our very early experiences with our caregivers. Our brains and attachment systems work hard to relate our current experiences to previous ones in order to keep us safe. We have survived this long, so our brains want us to keep doing whatever we have been doing to make sure we continue to survive. This is where we have work to do. We must bridge the gap between our survival system and the parts of us that want to thrive and flourish in relationship with others.
Every single one of us has healing work to do. We have all been hurt at some point. We have all been responded to in less than ideal ways, for many reasons. We have all been pushed away when we needed to be held. We have all been overlooked. We all have an opportunity to choose healing. The patterns we find ourselves playing out repeatedly are bringing attention to the fact that we have healing to do. We have a choice about whether we continue down the well-worn path or create a new one that gives us life.
So here are my questions for you: how are you healing? How are you loving the tender parts of yourself? How are you integrating your experiences and transforming your pain into power?
I’m right here with you. We are doing the work together.
P.S. I want to let you know you will be hearing from me a bit less in March as I prepare the Understanding Avoidant Attachment Online Course and continue to dive in to some of my own healing work. I have to practice what I preach! I am always here if you have questions, concerns, or feedback--and I'm looking forward to continuing to share with you!