9 Steps To Healing Your Attachment Issues In Relationships
Kya has an anxious attachment style. She was immersed in upheaval as a child and had little TLC from her emotionally distant parents. The brutal ending of Kya's last relationship left her feeling more anxious and hopeless than ever. Her partner cheated on her, and she just can't get over the betrayal. Kya is tired of feeling clingy and worrying about being abandoned. She wants to feel strong and secure inside herself.
Have you found that your relationship history is filled with one wound-triggering issue after the other? Do your attachment issues keep you from getting close to your partner? Do your partner's attachment issues keep you from getting inside those defensive walls? If so, you're not alone. Here's how you can understand and actually heal your attachment issues in your relationships.
What are attachment issues?
Attachment issues, also called attachment wounds, are challenges that a person has with forming secure attachments in relationships, sometimes referred to as your attachment style. Your attachment style is your mind's template for how safe you are in a relationship.
Whatever attachment style you have—secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, or disorganized avoidant—was formed early in your life. Your attachment style is not a "conscious choice"; it's based on the degree of attunement, loving connection, security, and safety you experienced with your parents or caregivers. And because your attachment style was formed based on your experience with intimate caregiving relationships, your attachment style in adulthood will be most obvious within intimate relationships.
Your attachment wounds are exposed in intimate relationships where vulnerability, trust, and safety are most vital. That's why someone you really care about can deeply trigger your wounds; someone you know peripherally simply doesn't get close enough to know or activate your wounds.
The 4 attachment styles.
To understand your attachment issues, it's important to first understand what your attachment style is. Some people have a well-defined attachment style, and some have a blend of styles. It's common for people to see themselves in more than one attachment, yet one style may feel stronger than the others. It's perfectly acceptable to create a "blended" attachment description to reflect who you are right now. For example, you might feel that your style feels 80% secure attachment and 20% anxious attachment. The goal is to increase your personal awareness rather than to simply label yourself or your partner.
People with a secure attachment style tend to have it a bit easier in relationships. A partner with a secure attachment style tends to have a fairly high level of self-esteem because they were given appropriate attention, love, and TLC as a child. Those with a secure attachment style tend to feel confident in themselves and a healthy relationship; they aren't afraid of intimacy and have the capacity to be both independent and interdependent. Securely attached individuals tend to be emotionally available, grounded, and nonreactive.
As ideal as this sounds, even people with a secure attachment style can get triggered now and again. When two securely attached people are in a relationship, ruptures happen infrequently and are often healed smoothly. However, if one securely attached person partners with someone who is not securely attached, ongoing issues can surely arise. So, if you're a securely attached person in relationship with an insecurely attached person, your overall work is to stay steady and hold your "secure attachment ground."
Those with anxious attachment styles often have a difficult time in relationships due to their often-insatiable need for connection. Individuals with an anxious attachment style often have low self-esteem, yet they tend to idolize their partners. Fantasy bonding—where a partner is put on a pedestal and is seen as the "perfect partner"—is common. A preoccupation with the relationship often results, and obsessive thought patterns are common.
Due to a deep fear of being alone and losing a relationship, the anxiously attached person may be very clingy and highly dependent. Those with anxious attachment can be reactive, emotionally hypersensitive, and prone to accepting less than they deserve in relationships. Although often submissive, the anxiously attached person can become aggressive if triggered. Fears of potential rejection or abandonment often lurk—even if there is no reason to suspect that a partner is unfaithful or uncommitted.
Individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style often have substantial difficulty in romantic relationships; they may initially appear invested and capable of being connected, but they are not able to maintain healthy connection. Due to low self-esteem, they tend to think they are not worthy of love and often have low regard for their partners. Given their inner ambivalence, the fearful-avoidant type tends to create roller-coaster-type relationships filled with unpredictability and dramatic conflict. Their internal world is fear-based and chaotic; this often leads to abusive behaviors directed at others and the self. This type is driven by a constant conflict between a desire to attach and a deep fear of attachment.
Individuals with a dismissive-avoidant style often appear independent and may have high self-esteem. They often think they are superior to others—particularly in romantic relationships. Although those with a dismissive-avoidant style often seem capable of connection, they are often emotionally distant and hyper-independent in intimate relationships. Aloof and self-focused, these often-charismatic individuals prefer superficial connections and often prefer hookups and noncommitted relationships. The ambivalent, dismissive-avoidant type puts up walls and pushes intimacy away.
Why do attachment issues matter?
A person's "worst" attachment issues tend to get triggered during times of stress, so there may be many occasions when unhealthy behaviors related to attachment wounds are more stable. On the other hand, some attachment styles tend to be toxic to each other because attachment wounds are exacerbated by "opposing" wounds. For example, a person with an anxious need to attach and connect will likely be highly triggered by a partner with an avoidant attachment style that is oriented toward pushing others away. Although healing is possible in any conscious relationship, there are certain mixes that make attachment wound healing far more challenging.
The good news is, you can change your attachment style. If you don't have a secure attachment style, you can surely do self-work to shift into healthier relationship dynamics. And, if you're in a relationship, profound positive shifts can occur when both partners consciously invest in healing their attachment wounds.
How to heal your attachment issues.
Feel free to work through the steps on your own or with a trusted partner. If working with a partner, your partner will also complete each step. Afterward, you can mindfully share your thoughts and create actionable goals to move forward in healthy, connective ways.
Get to know your attachment style.
Whether you take several attachment style quizzes online, work with a psychotherapist, or invest in reading about attachment, become nonjudgmentally familiar with your attachment style. If you have more of a blended style of attachment, focus on which elements of each style seem to be most "you." Being aware of your attachment style is one of the biggest keys to healing your attachment wounds.
Discover your partner's attachment style.
Whether or not your partner is interested in self-work, it's important for you to understand how your partner's attachment style affects you and your relationship. If your partner is interested in diving into this area, you can definitely engage in mindful, co-healing work. If your partner isn't interested in self-development, just knowing your partner's attachment style can help you be more aware and understanding when relationship challenges arise.
Self-reflective journaling can be one of the most powerful self-growth tools. It's important to be compassionate and nonjudgmental as you work. Set aside time to journal about 10 upsides of your attachment style. Take a break, and then focus on 10 downsides of your attachment style. For example, a person with a dismissive-avoidant style may journal and realize that one upside is feeling self-sufficient. Later journaling may reveal that one downside to the dismissive-avoidant style is the tendency to feel isolated.
Get to notice when your attachment wounds get triggered. Keep a journal where you can make nonjudgmental notes about attachment issues. If you're currently in a relationship, just make simple, noncritical notes when you feel triggered. If you're not in a relationship, you can make notes about old relationship patterns.
The goal is not to judge or blame anyone (including yourself); the goal is simply to increase your awareness about your own attachment wounds. For example, you might write:
- "I feel triggered when my partner isn't affectionate."
- "I feel irritable when my partner gets clingy."
- "I get angry when my partner wants sex even when we're not emotionally connected."
- "I feel sad when my partner doesn't seem to care about my needs."
The more you notice your triggers, the more you'll be able to focus on healing the sensitive inner wounds.
Find your wounds.
Reflect on the themes in your triggers. As you investigate the various themes, you see several clear patterns arise. These patterns will lead you into identifying your core attachment wounds—such as fearing intimacy, feeling unloved, or worrying about rejection.
For example, you might notice a theme of feeling triggered when your partner does not show you enough attention; this would tell you that one of your core wounds is not receiving sufficient, loving connection. As another example, you might realize that you often criticize your partner and set off conflicts; this might tell you that one of your core wounds is not knowing how to connect in loving, intimate ways. The goal is to compassionately identify your wounds to increase your self-awareness.
Know your needs.
Investigate your attachment wounds through journaling. You may be able to trace each wound back to a specific incident or pattern in childhood. Explore each wound's theme through journaling about how the wound affected you in childhood. Then progress to journaling about how these patterns manifest in your current relationship or prior romantic relationships. As always, take a compassionate, nonjudgmental approach that supports personal growth.
This increased awareness will help you to appreciate your wounds and share them with your partner. For example, you may recall that one or both of your parents were rarely attentive and often distracted with work issues. You may then realize that your partner's habit of multitasking during discussions makes you feel ignored and rejected. This connection will help you appreciate that it's important for you to have a partner who is willing to give you focused, considerate attention.
Practice stating your needs.
As you explore your wounds, you'll come to realize that you can become empowered by acknowledging and stating your needs. Rather than getting reactive or shutting down, you can state your needs to your partner in clear, healthy ways. By using "I" messages and communicating clearly, your partner will become more aware of your wounds and your needs.
For example, you might say to a partner, "I feel hurt when you multitask while I'm talking to you. I feel loved and connected when you focus on me during our conversations." This clear and mindful "I-feel-I-need" template gives your partner the opportunity to care for your attachment wounds intentionally in the present moment.
Hold your boundaries.
Ideally, your partner understands the importance of your request and works diligently to meet your needs; the more your partner attends to your wounds in this conscientious, caring way, the closer you both will feel. And when you treat your partner in this same caring, intentional way, your partner's wounds will also heal.
Sometimes, however, partners don't respond in healthy ways and may even purposefully provoke wounds. As well, even well-intentioned partners unconsciously revert to old habits. If a partner triggers an old wound even after you've explained the issue, it's important to restate your needs and hold your boundaries. Sadly, there are times that a partner won't want to engage in new, healthy dynamics; in such cases, it's often wise to move forward with self-love.
Discuss conscious "wound repairs."
As you and your partner progress, talk more deeply about the issues behind your wounds. Explore childhood patterns and family issues so that you each understand and appreciate the other's attachment wounds. Reactivity, blame, and defensiveness will decrease as each partner brings greater awareness to their own wounds and needs. Conscious, loving attachment wound repair can be very cathartic and bonding in relationships. It's important to note that both partners must be committed to supporting each other's healing in compassionate, mindful ways.
Remember that your attachment style is important because it forms the basis for how you feel and interact in your most intimate relationships. The good news is that you can change your attachment style with focused self-development efforts. Attachment issues run very deep, so remember to reach out to a trained psychotherapist if you need further support. You deserve to be safe, secure, and loved.
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. With a holistic, body-mind-spirit approach, Manly specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University. Manly is also the author of several books, including Joy From Fear, Aging Joyfully, and her latest book Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly.
Blending traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices, Manly knows the importance of creating healthy balance, awareness, and positivity in life. Recognizing the need for greater somatic awareness in society, Dr. Manly has integrated components of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga into her private psychotherapy practice and public course offerings. Her psychotherapeutic model offers a highly personalized approach that focuses on discovering and understanding each individual’s unique needs and life-path goals.