Dr. Tatkin wrote a great blog post on how betrayal actually impacts the brain and nervous system the same as trauma would, say for instance a bad car accident or witnessing a shooting.
I wanted to copy it here so that readers of my blog can hear what he has to say. Dr. Tatkin has his own blog in which he addresses issues of couples and relationships and if you have not already visited it I strongly encourage you to do so.
Betrayal Causes Trauma
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.
Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.
PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.
Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.
Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved
I recently published a blog on the "Care and Feeding of your Island/Avoidant Partner". Since one of the main principles of successful relationships is that they are fair and equal it only makes sense to talk about how to take great care of wave-ish partners too. So here goes...
Wave-ish folks, like the rest of us, are subject to becoming more extreme versions of themselves once married. This has to do with breaching that final level of commitment to where our partners are now also family. We all carry around inside of us memories of how we were treated in childhood, and how we observed our family members treating each other. These templates are more flexible and less evident in our relationships with our friends and co-workers. Once someone enters into the realm of true family these templates are often re-activated in powerful ways and they tend to amplify our natural tendencies learned as children.
So as with Islands, once Waves are truly committed you may see the following tendencies emerge more strongly:
Fear abandonment, even in ways that seem more minor. Wave-ish folks experienced inconsistent parenting, such that they were sometimes coddled and given lots of attention but then sometimes unexpectedly rebuffed or pushed away and even shamed for being "too needy" or "too much". They intuitively expect the other shoe to drop and expect to be rejected. This gets worse with commitment for the reasons mentioned above. Your wave-ish partner may start reacting to you leaving, even if you are just running some errands, causing you to feel bewildered and frustrated. Know that departures can be triggering for them and leave with an extra dose of love. Let them know that you are going but will be thinking of them while you are gone and look forward to seeing them when you get back. Give them a hug before you leave. Send them a text (doesn't have to be fancy, a heart or smiley face will do) while you are out. Think of them as a kid who gets nervous when their mom or dad are suddenly unavailable. They need reassurance around both departures and reunions.
Can get prickly when you reunite after being apart. Again this can be VERY confusing for their partners, who have no idea that the separation was stressful. They come home from running some errands to a wave-ish partner picking a fight. Crazy, I know. But remember that they fear you leaving and when you do they may feel a surge of anger at being left. Since they tend to have trouble letting go of the past they may think about this the whole time you are gone. Then when you get back, wham! they let you have it. THEY DON"T DO THIS CONSCIOUSLY OR ON PURPOSE. Please, please, keep this in mind. It is no picnic for them either. No one likes to feel upset, so if your wave-ish partner is being cranky or downright mad remember that what is underneath that is emotional pain. They are hurting. One of the most fool-proof ways to soothe a wave-ish person is to hold them. They usually melt under touch. They also tend to love eye-contact. So hold them, gaze lovingly into their eyes and tell them that they can depend on you to never abandon them.
Can ramp up their emotional intensity, especially if you are island-ish. Remember the opposite styles amplify each other. So if you are island-ish, after marriage or deep commitment you will tend to move away a bit. This is likely to bring about protest behavior from your wave. It may be more clinging or it may be more frustration and accusations about how aloof you are. Or both. Try to remember that a wave-ish person is like a fussy baby. They make a lot of noise and you may be inclined to simply leave rather than deal with the fuss. But just like a crying baby they need your help, love and soothing. They tend to calm down MUCH faster than their partners think. So moving in, using touch, soothing words and eye contact can usually get a wave-ish person to get some emotional equilibrium pretty quickly. Even if you are not an island your wave-ish partner may get extra emotional after the deep commitment. Be prepared for this and don't blame them or tell them they are crazy. They are expressing their fear that you are not going to connect to them. Waves need a lot of connection and get more dramatic and emotionally messy when they don't get sufficient connection. Sadly they often unconsciously drive people away with their "fussiness", depriving themselves of the connection they need to get calm again. So know this and help them. It will pay you back tenfold in that you will not only have a more calm partner but you will have a partner who is eternally grateful to you for knowing what they need and giving it to them. Like islands, waves are often misunderstood. Your job is to not fall into that trap, to know them and take care of them.
May "spoil" things you try to do for them. This one is bound to make you feel crazy but remember they are not doing it intentionally. They want to be happy, just like any person does. However, since they have a childhood history of having the other shoe constantly dropped they anticipate being disappointed. So if you do something nice for them they may just turn around and "spoil" it somehow. If you take them out to dinner they may complain about the restaurant. If you buy them a gift they may tell you it's not their style, or the wrong color, or whatever. While the natural reaction to this would be to tell them to take a hike, you need to remember that they are acting from childhood pains. Tell them how much you love them and that you know they have been disappointed in the past. Tell them you don't want to disappoint them and you are open to hearing what they need from you. Don't take it personally when they try to spoil a gift or kindness. I know it's a tall order but you will be healing a deep and very painful wound from their childhood. Which is really, in my opinion, what marriage is all about. And that's a two-way street, so when you heal your wave's painful childhood issues they will do the same in return. And once wounds are healed you will see a lot less of this behavior, so it pays dividends forward.
Tend to respond with a negative a lot of the time. So if you propose a vacation to the beach they are likely to tell you the five reasons that's a bad idea. Don't bite. Just let them know that you know that they tend to find "what's wrong with the picture" before being willing to see what might be right. Tell them you are going to overlook their first response and give them another chance. If your partner is good with humor, you can say something like "OK my beautiful nattering naybob of negativity, now that you have gotten all the no's out of your system, can we revisit the idea?". Then flash them a loving smile. When used with love and kindness humor can be a great way to re-boot an activated wave.
May get really preoccupied with being "too much" or "too needy". Remember that wave-ish folks had childhoods where people alternately showered them with attention and told them they were too much and rebuffed them. So they are naturally afraid of overwhelming people. Paradoxically this leads to a lot of anxiety, which can make them more emotional, more clingy and more negative. Which has the unintended consequence of making their parter get exasperated with them! Be on the lookout for your wave-ish partner feeling judged as too needy or overwhelmig. A wave-ish partner may misinterpret signals like you looking away during a conversation or sighing when they tell you something they need. Be careful to let your wave-ish person know they are NOT too much for you and that you have no intention of leaving them. Help them feel safe and secure and you will find their wave-ishness will actually diminish!
May have trouble ending an argument or letting it go afterwards. Wave-ish folks have trouble with endings, even arguments! They may keep it going because closing up something feels in a way like loss. They may also hold on to hurts from the past to act as a bulkhead against being vulnerable towards you in the future, which they fear will be rewarded with more hurt! Help your wave let go in an argument by reminding them that while there may be a part of them that tends to hang on, their body and mind deserve relief. Hold them tight at the end of a rough conversation and reassure them that if they let go they are not going to be setting themselves up for additional injury.
May not look out well for their partner in social situations. If you go to a party or event your wave-ish partner may wander off to socialize and "drop" you. This is because their parents dropped them (emotionally) as kids. Don't take this personally and remind them before you go out to social events that you would like for them to keep track of you and circle back at predetermined intervals to keep you feeling connected.
Waves are not any more difficult than islands. And like islands they do not do these things "on purpose" or with the intent of making their partner crazy. Learn to love your wave and help them to manage their emotional reactivity. They will greatly appreciate your help in containing some of their intensity and you will feel calmer knowing you are not about to be plowed under by a tsnumami!
Wishing you happiness and health,
First a note on semantics. The "Island" under consideration is a romantic partner who has what would, in research, be called an "avoidant" attachment style. Attachment research goes back many years (to the 1940's) and involves classifying people into different categories based on how the relate to their primary caregiver in early childhood. For more information on attachment see my earlier blog on the subject.
As some of you know when I work with couples I use the PACT model of therapy (the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). The PACT model has re-labelled the attachment styles as follows: Islands (avoidant), Waves (resistant) and Anchors (secures). It would be too complicated to explain the model here but see earlier posts of mine on the classification system and how our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships. Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program, "Your Brain on Love", provides a wonderful explanation of the theory and how to apply it to your relationship.
OK, now on to those islands. For those of you who love someone who is often island-ish it can be confusing to understand them if you are not one yourself. Now of course to be fair, island-ish people don't understand wave-ish people either.
However, human behavior is often predictable if you know what to look for. So if you know that your partner is "island-ish" then you can predict what is going to bug them and what will really make them purr. I am summarizing here points made by Dr. Stan Tatkin in his wonderful audio program Your Brain on Love. If you haven't listened to it I strongly suggest you give it a try! While I have provided a link via Amazon you can also buy it on iTunes, Audible and soundstrue.com.
Now before proceeding I need to make something REALLY clear. What I am about to say may make you think "sheesh, why would I want to commit to an island if it will turn out this way?". So PLEASE understand something-- everyone, regardless of their style (Island or Wave) will get harder to handle after commitment. Dr. Tatkin refers to this as the "marriage monster". It's the unstoppable dynamic that gets activated when we pledge ourself to someone for all eternity. This just naturally turns up the heat and starts to show the cracks in our structure. So if you are wave-ish please realize that commitment also makes you more wave-ish and therefore harder to handle. It's not that island-ish people are worse than you. There is enough bad behavior to go around ;-)
OK so as long as you proceed without judgement, here are a few things that are predictable about people who are island-ish (or avoidantly attached):
Once committed, island-ish folks tend to distance more. Remember that in courtship our brains are on all kinds of love chemicals that make us act like the most perfect version of ourselves. Those things that later will drive us crazy, like how our partner snorts when they laugh, which seemed so cute when we are dating but is now repulsive. Island-ish folks can tolerate a lot more closeness during courtship thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones we are on (for more on this see the Ted Talk by Helen Fisher). However once those hormones and neurotransmitters settle down as a real relationship develops, Islands start to have more trouble with the stress of being close. Islands find close relationships more stressful than waves or anchors so they are more prone to this problem.
Once committed island-ish folks tend to be more secretive. They may feel the need to 'protect' themselves as we become more important to them. Closeness can provoke a sense of danger to an island so they will "beef-up" on their boundaries as the relationship progresses. Remember that this is NOT specific to you (they would do it with any partner) and also they are NOT conscious of it or doing it "on purpose". Reassure them that you accept all of them and that they don't need to keep secrets from you for fear that you will judge them. This should help them feel more comfortable with the closeness and intimacy.
Once committed they are likely to be more protective of their alone-time. Try to let them know that you respect their need to be alone some of the time and that you are committed to letting them have some of that. Don't let them be alone all of the time (which they may think would be good for them). In fact, if left alone too long they tend to neglect themselves! So they truly do "need" us, but they also need to feel separate and autonomous.
Once committed their preference for "auto-regulation" can become more pronounced. Everyone needs some autoregulation skills but don't let your island-ish person over-rely on that strategy. Help them use you for safety and security when they are under stress. They may protest against this at first, saying that they want to "be alone". But remember if under stress an island would to better to seek solace in their partner, they just don't do that instinctively.
Once committed they may start reacting poorly to being approached. This is especially likely if you come unannounced or they do not know you are approaching until you are there. They tend to feel that their independence is being threatened when their partner walks up to them. They tend to expect that you need something from them and this makes them uneasy. Reassure them that you don't "need" anything from them but you just want to be around them because you love them. Let them know you are not using them for anything but rather that you chose them because you love and appreciate them. And try not to call them, especially by name, from another room, that tends to set off their alarm systems and they will likely react with anger or irritation. Instead go to them if you need them.
Once committed island-ish people's fear of engulfment from childhood tends to return. This makes them behave in all of the ways mentioned above. Reassure them that you want them to have their independence and that you also know that even though they want their alone time you also know that they love you. Island-ish folks tend to be afraid that if they ask for what they need for in terms of alone time their partner is going to feel hurt. Let them know this is not the case.
Once committed island-ish folks can be peckish about feeling they are being used, as noted above, so make sure to tell your island-ish partner that you love them just for who they are.
Once committed island-ish partners can experience a lessening of their libido/sex drive. A once pretty sexually active partner can seem to lose interest sexually. Be careful not to take this personally. They would be this way with anyone and it has to do with them coming from families where there was not a lot of physical closeness. Now that you have become "deep family" to them they start to unconsciously revert back to the patterns of their childhood attachments, which probably did not include a lot of close physical contact. Of course you can continue to ask for physical contact but be patient with them and try to find ways of approaching that don't provoke a defensive response in your island-ish partner. Also be careful not to trigger a shame response when discussing this with your island-ish partner as they tend to feel ashamed and embarrassed about letting their partner down in this way.
Once committed your island-ish partner may start to doubt that you will really be there for them if they need you (even if you have already proven that you will be there!). This comes from their history of having to take care of themselves emotionally a lot of the time. So now that they have taken you in to their inner level they will expect you to neglect them somehow. Make sure to let them know that you intend to continue to take care of them and don't let them push you away in this area because they "know" you won't measure up.
Remember that all of the above is NOT personal, NOT conscious and NOT immediately under their control. Like any human being island-ish partners can learn about themselves and can learn new behaviors. But this often takes time and some professional coaching.
And one final tip on not triggering your island-ish partner--
Try not to ask them why they did something. Most people probably don't know exactly why they do what they do in a given day because most of our brain processes are automatic. If we had to consciously think of everything we do we couldn't walk and breath at the same time, let alone explain ourselves from moment to moment. And since island-ish folks are not prone to thinking about themselves they feel caught off-guard and put on the spot if you ask them to analyze their own behavior. It's more useful to give them feedback on how their behavior is impacting you (what you like and what you don't like about their behavior) rather than try to have them explain themselves.
I hope these tips have been helpful. Look for my upcoming blog on "The Care and Feeding of Your Wave". Remember, about half of us have "insecure" attachment styles (meaning we are not "anchors" or "secures"). So if you find yourself relating to the Island or Wave types don't feel bad. There are plenty of folks in your company. And if your partner is willing to learn your style they can take great care of you (and vice-versa!).
What exactly is the difference between co-dependency and interdependency?
This is a question that comes up a lot for folks who are familiar with the idea of co-dependency. Many of us have an idea that we are supposed to "love ourselves before we can love others" and "be the source of our own happiness." We may feel that if this is not happening that we are being "dysfunctional" or "co-dependent." One of the interesting things to me about the re-focus on attachment research in the past decade of psychology has been the re-realization that humans are inherently dependent on others. We are born some of the most vulnerable babies of all species, requiring a full decade if not more of intensive parental involvement. Our brains do not actually finish maturing until halfway through our second decade of life. We have always, and continue to, live in groups or "packs". We use solitary confinement as the worst punishment for the worst humans. So how many of us got this idea that depending on others was bad or pathological seems curious indeed.
I recently encountered a podcast with Dr. Stan Tatkin, a prominent couples therapist and author who utilizes attachment theory as a foundation of his work, which addressed just this issue. Among other things in this interview Dr. Tatkin shows how his model is representative of healthy interdependency versus the pathological idea of co-dependency. It would take several pages for me to summarize his theory on this point and he does a perfectly fine job on his own. So for those reasons rather than try to explain his viewpoint to you I suggest that you listen yourself:
He gets to the topic of codependency around 20 minutes in to the podcast. While you are there you may want to check out other topics in this podcast which specializes on relationships. The podcaster has many excellent guests on his shows and seems to cover a lot of important ground.
And if you are interested in learning more about healthy relationships, as always I also recommend Dr. Tatkin's audio program, Your Brain On Love, as well as his books, Wired For Love and Wired For Dating.
Wishing you happiness in your connections,
A thought occurred to me the other day in the midst of counseling a couple. One of them had recently adopted a dog from the animal shelter. She was talking about the history of the dog and why it had certain habits and fears. To all of us in the room it went without saying that since the dog had been mistreated by it's previous owners it came with "issues". I think many of us have had those experiences, like raising your hand to pet a dog and watching it flinch or cower. Our first thought in that situation is "oh dear, I bet this dog has been abused!". We generally don't get mad at the dog for misunderstanding us. Nor do we expect the dog to know that we are not the same person who previously hurt them. We are generally concerned and patient and understand it will take the dog time to trust us. We also would not be surprised if a dog trainer told us that there were some things we could do on our part to not create fear in the dog.
So while all of this is usually pretty obvious to humans in regards to dogs, the corollary to understanding our relationship partners is sadly not all that intuitive. We are often upset to find that our partners, who had previous "owners" (parents/caregivers) have baggage and a host of unconscious expectations that cause them to misunderstand us and sometimes act in ways that don't make sense. By the way, they are seeing the same behaviors in us! It's as if one dog from the pound (with their own history of having been neglected or hurt in the past) adopts another dog from the pound (with their own history also). You can imagine the problems that ensue.
If you have read my blog posts or website you may know that I practice a particular style of couples therapy-- PACT. In that style of therapy we find it useful to look for certain patterns of behavior that arise from particular histories of interactions with our early caregivers. These patterns are called "attachment styles". There are two basic styles that represent the majority of us who end up having relationship problems-- "Avoidant" (which Dr. Stan Tatkin calls "Islands") and "Resistant" (which Dr. Tatkin calls "Waves"). These two predominant patterns can be described in terms of types of dogs you may encounter at your local pound.
The "Avoidant" or "Island" type of partner is like the dog at the pound who, when you approach the cage smiling and holding out a treat, backs up and hopes you will go away. You may feel hurt or rejected, even annoyed. You may think to yourself "hey, I'm the good guy here!", "c'mon buddy, give me a chance!" If you are patient and give the dog a little space in time he or she will likely relax and may even show some interest. If you open the cage and again give the dog space it will, in it's own time, come out. But don't expect this type of dog to jump into your arms in the first few minutes! He or she will need to move past you and walk around a bit, making sure that you do not represent any danger or infringement on their free will. Once the dog has established that you are OK letting it walk about freely it will likely approach you, in it's own time, and perhaps make a gesture of interest. If you move too quickly or with too much enthusiasm this type of dog will back away and then you are back to square one for a bit.
If you try to imagine what kind of history this dog has it's not hard to conjure: This dog was neglected. It had the kind of owner who put out food and water but did not show the dog much affection. The dog is not used to being engaged or approached much. When this owner did approach the dog it was likely for the dog to do something for the owner rather than the owner doing something for the dog. Perhaps it was an older dog who was too tired to run much, but the only time the owner came to it was to drag it out for a run because that's what the owner wanted to do. The owner missed the cues from the poor dog that this was only fun for the human! The owner simply threw a leash on the dog and dragged it around the block, perhaps even chastising the dog for going to slow. Then upon returning home the dog is put back into it's corner and ignored again. This dog will come to see his owner as a task-master who is only really interested in him or herself. The dog will be mistrustful of approach because it only means that the dog is now expected to do something that the dog may have no interest in. The dog has learned that the owner is not sensitive to it's needs or wants and most of the time leaves it alone. So the dog learns to entertain itself and gets pretty good at this. It can stare out the window and watch birds or run around alone in the back yard chasing squirrels. But the dog does not expect the owner to partake of these activities or show any interest in what the dog is doing. In fact, the dog comes to prefer not being noticed by the owner because the owner is only interested in their own needs and the dog finds that unpleasant and unfair.
Notice that this dog is not necessarily abused. It's just emotionally neglected. Therefore when you show a lot of enthusiasm and rush forward to give it a big hug at the pound this dog is not comfortable with that. It will try to avoid that kind of effusive contact and get more space from you. In time, if you are patient, it may become more comfortable with you and the dog may even come to enjoy a certain amount of attention. But it may also never be the kind of dog that you can scoop up and hug and smooch all over. The dog has baggage.
Now compare that to a different kind of pound pooch. This dog has been intermittently abused and praised by its owner. Confusing, right? This owner was a bit moody and wrapped up in their own dramas. On a good day they would lavish the dog with treats and hugs and then on bad days might yell at the dog or even give it a kick. The dog was not able to know from day to day what was coming. So the dog also learns to be guarded. Only when you approach this dog at the pound they don't necessarily want you to go away. Part of them is thinking "well, this could be good...you may have a treat for me". But the other part of the poor dog is thinking "yeah, but this could be bad!". So the dog may approach but with ears back and a slightly open jaw, ready to bite if things turn ugly. When you see the dog approaching you in this way you might think "geez! Here I am trying to be nice and it looks as if you may bite me!" This type of dog may even approach you and growl, only to then lick your outstretched hand. Their behavior is likely to be a confusing mix of pleasure at your attention and fear and even anger at what they perceive is potential backlash. Even more confusing is that this dog, right after growling at you, will likely follow you into the next room. The dog does not seem to want to be alone, even though half the time when you try to engage it the dog may snarl or bark at you! And even more frustrating this dog may tear up your furniture in protest if you leave it alone for too long. This dog is certainly a confusing fellow! But, if treated with love and patience, this dog will eventually growl less and lick more. However it may always be quick to curl it's lip and look like it's about to bite. It's up to you to know how to help the dog feel safe and loved and to not take it too personally when the dog seems scared or testy. This dog would, if it were human, correspond to the attachment type of "Resistant" or in Tatkin's terms, a "Wave." This dog too has baggage.
When we meet our life partners they are not newly birthed puppies. They are middle-aged dogs with histories of having been, much of the time, mistreated in some way or another by someone in their formative years. It may not have been out and out abuse (although that is certainly possible), it may have been mild emotional neglect or moderate mis-attunement or confusion behaviors from distressed or overwhelmed parents. Whatever the case, they have baggage (as do we!). We need to come to expect this and not take it personally. We need to try to learn about our partner's histories and figure out how we can offer corrective experiences that will, over time and with patience, reduce their problematic behaviors. And we need to be reasonable about our expectations, knowing that while you can teach old dogs new tricks, you may have to use some pretty persuasive treats and even engage your friendly (PACT certified!) "dog trainer".
Wishing you the best in your loving connections (both human canine),
If you have read my website you will know that I am very interested in attachment styles. Research done by Dr. John Bowlby and his associate Mary Main in the 1940's showed us that infants have a potential of 4 different styles of relating to their primary caregivers: Secure (the ideal, healthy pattern), Anxious-Ambivalent (sometimes called Angry-Resistant), Anxious-Avoidant and Disorganized (sometimes called "Cannot Classify"). These 4 patterns have proven to be extremely useful in predicting adult behaviors in romantic relationships as well as parenting behaviors.
If you are interested to find out what your attachment style is there are several ways to go about this. The "gold standard" has always been to have the Adult Attachment Interview administered by a trained researcher. This is the instrument used in research to identify attachment patterns in adults. However finding a therapist who is trained to administer this instrument can be difficult! Another adult attachment test that has been developed is the Adult Attachment Projective. However, this also needs to be done by a trained professional and not all cities (and certainly most rural areas) have anyone who has this type of training.
In an effort to find a method for people to determine their adult attachment classification I have tried various self-administered tests. The one that I have found to be most useful is on the website of psychologist Diane Poole Heller. Her self-administered test can be done online and gives you results immediately. Rather than being fully categorical (meaning you can only have one classification), her test creates a pie chart showing you what percent of your responses line up with a particular style. This is much more in keeping with what I see as a clinician-- that in some situations a person will look anxious-ambivalent, but in other situations they may look more anxious-avoidant for example. I think her approach makes sense clinically and is also easy for a lay person to understand.
For a really great understanding of how your attachment style impacts your romantic relationships I strongly recommend listening to Dr. Stan Tatkin's MP3 download, "Your Brain On Love". It explains in plain English how your childhood attachment style influences your romantic relationships in adulthood.
Remember, even those of us who came into adulthood with insecure attachment styles can learn new ways of being. With the help of a good therapist we can learn to re-pattern our ways of relating to mimic those of secure functioning couples. This can bring increased harmony, enjoyment, intimacy and stability to our relationships. Thanks to neuroplasticity we all have a chance at the benefits of a secure attachment to that special person.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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