By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
“I dated her for a while, but she got way too clingy.”
“I was interested in him at first, but then he became needy and controlling.”
“I love my husband, but sometimes he’s so distant that I don’t know what’s going on with him.”
“I want things to work out with my girlfriend, but whenever I get too close, she withdraws.”
Do any of these statements sound familiar? In the psychotherapy world, they are all signs of unhealthy attachments. In the first two examples, the complaint is about someone getting overly attached while the latter two signify distancing or under-attachment.
We all learn how to form attachments in early childhood, which then lays the foundation for the types of attachments we will form in adulthood. If our caregivers were safe, present and reliable, we can explore the world, knowing we have a safe harbor to come back to. If our caregivers were unsafe or unreliable, we are much less likely to form healthy attachments with others.
For example, if we had a parent who was unavailable and distant, we might have a hard time getting close to people. On the other hand, we might react in the opposite extreme and become clingy and afraid of being abandoned by others. It’s also possible we might choose people who are as distant as our parent was.
Since we are complex human beings, there is no cut-and-dried formula for the attachment pattern we adopt. Having an overprotective parent may lead us to repeat their style and become overly dependent in our significant relationships. Or we might feel suffocated by our partner and react by becoming distant.
Essentially, we either parrot our parent’s style of attachment or respond in the opposite direction. But either way, if we did not have healthy and secure attachments as a child, we are less likely to form them as adults.
The good news is that we can unlearn unhealthy patterns and learn how to form healthy attachments. Not only is a healthy attachment much more satisfying, it can also help us heal from the wounds that our unhealthy attachments inflicted.
There are a number of different styles of attachment, but these are how I refer to the basic three:
Barnacled — I use this term to describe relationships that fall on the clingy side of the attachment spectrum. These are the relationships that country songs thrive on — the “I’m nothing without him,” “I’ll die without her” kind of stuff. In real life, it’s the “he hasn’t texted me back and it’s been an hour and I am going crazy” kind of attachment. Someone with a barnacled attachment cannot feel at peace unless their relationship is going absolutely smoothly. Unfortunately, people who are overly needy rarely feel peaceful because their partners tend to feel uncomfortable with their clinginess and react by distancing themselves.
Barnacled attachments are often created when a person’s early attachments to their parents were distant, avoidant, or inconsistent. As an adult, these individuals are terrified of being abandoned, rejected, or forgotten. So even though a person may logically acknowledge that their partner is probably just running late at work, the scenario running through their mind is usually of the “worst case” variety: I’m being left behind, cheated on, forgotten or lied to.
Boundaried — A boundaried attachment style is seen in the person who appears to be detached, cool, or evasive. People with boundaried attachments are hard to get close to and have difficulty sharing their thoughts and feelings with a partner. This style is often the result of a childhood in which one’s parent is overly dependent or overly controlling, but not always. Sometimes having a boundaried parent will create an adult who also has difficulty getting close to others. Boundaried individuals are usually terrified of being engulfed, swallowed up or controlled.
Balanced — This is a healthy form of attachment in which partners are able to be close and loving while at the same time maintain a sense of self. There is no need for either partner to be clingy or distant because each knows that they are okay with or without the other person’s approval. And each can tolerate difficult times without falling apart emotionally. A key component to having this type of relationship is being able to express one’s feelings and needs and to allow the other person to express theirs. Both people are able to find a balance between their own needs and their partner’s, between time for themselves and togetherness as a couple.
When two people are aware of their attachment styles and what triggers their emotional responses, they can then work toward healing from past wounds and creating a more healthy attachment.
Tips for Creating Balanced Attachments:
Awareness — The first step is identifying your attachment style and being open to change and growth. We cannot change any unconscious pattern until we first become conscious of it. So begin by asking yourself which attachment style you most often see yourself expressing. Start noticing what triggers your responses, and become aware of those times when you are acting out from a wounded place.
Healthy Detachment — If you are more of a Barnacled Attacher, see if you can give yourself the reassurance that you seek from others. Try writing yourself a letter containing exactly what you wish your partner or others would say to you and read it to yourself every day. Become aware of how you feel when you are anxious or lonely. Learn to put words to those feelings and write about them or talk to someone you feel safe with.
Healthy Connecting — If you are a Boundaried Attacher, see if you can take an occasional risk and share what you are feeling or needing from your loved one. Learn to identify what you are feeling when you have the need to distance yourself, and try saying it out loud, rather than just reacting and silently pulling away.
Most of us have been taught that our partner is supposed to meet all of our needs, but in truth our parents were supposed to do that so that we could then come to an adult relationship whole and healthy. Since many of our parents were raised in wounded attachments, many of us are learning from scratch how to create a healthy one. With awareness, maturity, guidance, and a willingness to change, we can grow beyond a legacy of overly distant or overly clingy attachments. We can learn to create and enjoy respectful, open and loving relationships.