Couples who understand how their attachment styles impact their relationship can develop healthier strategies for a closer, more secure bond. Our attachment style affects a variety of areas in our relationship, including how we see things, what we look for, what we need, and especially how we manage emotional distress. In fact, each attachment style leans towards a particular method of regulating emotion. Let’s take a closer look at the connection between attachment style and method of emotion regulation together!
Let’s start with a quick review of attachment styles. Attachment is a framework of relationships, that is based on our early relationship history, usually with a parent or caregiver. This emotional bond forms out of the quality of the bond between the caregiver and child, especially when it comes to responsiveness to needs, closeness, separation, and soothing.
Attachment Theory suggests that the style of the emotional bond that we develop in childhood tends to surface in our adult relationships as well. The four primary attachment styles are anxious, avoidant, secure, and disorganized.
Each is associated with a particular method of regulating emotions. These default regulation methods include external regulation, auto regulation, self-regulation, and co-regulation. Couples who have an awareness of how attachment styles affect emotion regulation can better collaborate, plan, and make agreements toward more secure interactions within their relationship.
Folks with an anxious attachment style tend to struggle with a fear of being left behind, forgotten, or abandoned. Because of this, separating from their partners or moving from interaction into aloneness can activate emotional dysregulation.
At the root, anxiously attached people learned early on that they only feel “okay” when someone else can soothe them. This has led to an over-reliance on external resources to create an internal sense of safety. This can look like depending on reassurance or validation from partners, friends, or family members in order to feel “okay” within oneself.
It is important for anxious individuals to develop an internal compass – a way to soothe their needs from within – so that they can feel secure on their own and within a relationship. This can be done by strengthening methods of self-regulation, which promote a sense of, “I am okay exactly as I am,” to soothe the fears of the anxious attachment.
Folks with an avoidant attachment style tend to struggle with feelings of overwhelm or engulfment, trust, and fear of rejection. In childhood, avoidantly attached children may have learned that the only reliable person around is themselves and that relationship risks pain, hurt, and disappointment.
“I can figure this out on my own,” becomes the motto of an avoidantly attached individual. Naturally, regulating challenging emotions in the presence of another person may feel incredibly risky for someone with an avoidant attachment style, so they adapt towards auto regulation as an alternative that feels safer.
Auto regulation is dissociative by nature – it’s a method of soothing that disconnects the person from themselves and other people. An example of auto regulation is compulsive substance abuse, or even something as simple as “zoning out” for several hours with a book.
The bottom line is that avoidantly attached folks tend to over-rely on returning to calmness in any way that doesn’t involve other people and maintains their internal sense of privacy. Note that this is often “born out of a space of emotional neglect” (Tatkin, 2018) in childhood, where the child learns that it is not safe to express their emotions or seek comfort from others.
Folks with an avoidant attachment style may benefit from learning how to move into interaction safely in order to function more securely in the relationship.
A secure attachment style is formed through consistent and reliable care, repair, and connection. Folks with a secure attachment style have had the chance to develop healthy self-regulation skills early on through the example and support of their caregivers.
Secure individuals have established their own internal sense of safety by limiting impulses and thinking errors, establishing self-care, checking their reality, and reaching for support when needed. They feel secure in their relationships and are comfortable with emotional intimacy as well as with being alone.
As you can imagine, not many folks are granted the conditions in which a secure attachment style is developed. This kind of attachment is what couples in therapy pursue with each other as a corrective experience in a close relationship.
A secure attachment promotes a sense of safety within the relationship, which allows for either partner to feel good on their own and when they are together. This safety makes room for both partners to use self-regulatory methods when experiencing distress. This way, both partners can maintain their autonomy while minimizing threat responses in themselves and each other, thereby keeping the relationship intact.
Unfortunately, without a sense of calmness or neutrality, human beings don’t tend to have the capacity to form healthy connections. We don’t tend to be relational when we feel threatened or unsafe, so the challenge for a person with disorganization is to learn what safety looks and feels like, both personally and in the context of a relationship.
Co-regulation involves an interaction between two people, where one person provides support and validation to the other in a way that also regulates them. This is not one-directional; it is a “good for me, good for you, good for both of us,” situation. Early examples of this include a mother feeling eased as her baby’s cry is soothed with her attention.
In adult relationships, we establish co-regulation through mutual support and care toward one another. Both partners need to benefit. This can be as simple as holding hands when going into a situation that is stressful for one or both partners.
Safety and security are found within the relationship because of a commitment to mutual support. Co-regulation is often utilized in secure-functioning relationships, even if neither partner has a secure attachment style.
This regulation method is a practice, one that takes diligent learning of each other to show up in the most connected way possible. Co-regulation is one of the most powerful and effective ways that couples can regulate their personal and relational distress.
Now that we know how each attachment style tends to manage distress, we can start practicing regulation methods that will promote appropriate levels of dependency and connection based on your attachment style. Folks who lean anxious might benefit from strengthening self-regulation skills, while folks who lean avoidant may benefit from moving towards co-regulation.
Folks within a pocket of disorganization, or those who have a disorganized attachment style, may benefit from resourcing both self and co-regulation to establish a baseline of safety internally and in relationships. If we want to be more relational and connected, emotion regulation needs to be a choice, not something that we default to automatically.
If we don’t work on resourcing more relational methods of regulating distress, some of our default methods might actually work against our relational goals. For example, auto regulation reinforces emotional disconnection. It would be difficult to establish an emotional connection with methods that are, by nature, disconnecting.
Attachment is a framework of relationships that takes root in a person’s brain and body. It is only expected that one’s attachment style will impact how the body regulates stress. Just as attachment styles come with a set of behavioral tendencies, so do the regulation methods that they are associated with.
Folks may feel like they don’t have the option to shift these regulation tendencies; however, I’d like for you to consider what might be different if you did. Would you feel calmer when your partner comes into the room? Would you trust your partner more or give them the benefit of the doubt when they come home later than expected?
Maybe, for the first time in your life, you might feel safe in a relationship or feel like you are in a relationship that is not one-sided? It is possible to adjust the way you regulate your emotion to reflect a more relational stance.
The beauty behind this is that, as you move towards security in how you manage distress, you will also move towards security in your attachment to your partner. This is part of the process of couple therapy, where we work towards building a healthier, more secure relationship so that you and your partner can lead a happier, more fulfilling life.
Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern.
Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention, 1, 121-160.
Tatkin, S. (2018). We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. Sounds True.