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  • Writer's pictureElfreda Manahan-Vaughan

Attachment Styles are out of date, here's why.

If you ever been coached by me or attended one of my classes you'll know I mention the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation at every opportunity. The reason why? Apart from the fact that it is the most up to date model of attachment theory, it is the only model, after years of studying attachment, that suddenly made sense to me when trying to understand my own attachment pattern.

Full disclosure, I am on a bit of rant this month, mostly because I have seen quite a few celebrity self-help people posting about attachment but also because these posts have really upset many of my students and clients who feel they, the avoidantly attached, are being portrayed badly on social media. I know I have said this before and I will say it again, Developmental Attachment Theory and Personality Attachment theory are not the same. The first looks at the adaptive nature of attachment and how it develops throughout your life cycle and the second one talks about attachment styles in romantic relationships. Many people who post on social media about attachment, don't know this and, quite a few of them don't know that attachment theory has moved on from the old labels. For example, Disorganised or Fearful Avoidant attachment is now called Unresolved Trauma and when the trauma is addressed that person will have one of the insecure or a secure attachment pattern.

Back when I first learned about attachment, as part of my undergraduate degree, I was totally intrigued by how my attachment had shaped the kind of person I was and how it was influencing my close relationships. What didn't make sense to me was why I couldn't seem to fit myself into the boxes that each attachment then, style, described. At first I thought maybe I was Preoccupied (This is the adult label for Anxious that Mary Ainsworth gave. The label for a child is Ambivalent and Personality Psychology simply calls it Anxious, as does the DMM). I assumed this because I had a lot of anxiety and was always worrying about what other people thought, and how they would react to me when I made a mistake. The more I read about it the less I fitted. My anxiety was not visible to others and I didn't use it to manipulate them into doing what I wanted, except in exceptional circumstances.

Next, I assumed I had Disorganised Attachment, this made sense when I thought of my relationship with may father and the fact that I grew up with Domestic Violence in my home. However, it didn't really fit with most of my relationships, because in a lot of the time I behaved securely and sometimes insecurely but not disorganised. I was confused and didn't know what I needed to make my relationships better and flitted from one dysfunctional romantic relationship to the next. Funnily enough, I never thought I had avoidant attachment and that was because most of the things I read said they weren't good in relationships and struggled with commitment. Having had two long-term relationships I just didn't seem to fit with the literature.

Then my epiphany came in the form of the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation, created by Patricia Crittenden. I came across this model by chance, one day, when doing some research and decided, since it was the most up to date research, that I would buy the book. My mind was blown away. All these years I was lead to believe that attachment was a style that was hard-wired in childhood and that it would show up in all my close, intimate, relationships. This is simply not true. Attachment is not only adaptive and continually changes throughout your life-time it is also relationship dependent and you can use different attachment strategies with different people. This was the other aspect that was new, they are strategies we use to create secure bonds in relationships and not a style. There are multiple strategies within each attachment pattern and it depends on the level of danger or threat, safety, or desire to produce progeny (in adulthood) you experience that influences how those strategies continue to develop or reorganise towards a different pattern as you age.

What this model taught me is that my default attachment strategies are avoidant and I regularly use Inhibiting Affect, Socially Facile, Compulsive Caregiving and Compulsive Compliance to get my attachment needs met. I also know that in the past my unresolved childhood trauma would cause me to use Anxious strategies such as Threatening, Feigned Helplessness and Seductive when I felt threatened with abandonment. What was even better was that I could also see that as I got older and learned more, I was also earning secure attachment and this was showing up more and more in my relationship with my husband.

Image by Jean Nomadino from Pixabay

Further, I learned that Avoidant Attachment, Patricia Crittenden has labelled them, Avoidant, Coercive(Anxious) and Balanced (Secure), is not considered the bad guy in the DMM in fact it is the opposite. Coercive is seen as the one who can be most destructive and most often to be narcissistic, unlike the description Personality Psychology uses. This also shows that when personality psychology talks about avoidant attachment they are only describing one or two strategies, Compulsive Promiscuity and Compulsive Self-reliance. These are attachment strategies that develop in some individuals in the teenage years, or adulthood, when they experience threat, danger and a lack of safety at the hands of their caregivers.

I still have default avoidant attachment, and when I feel unsafe this can show up, but more often than not, because I am mindful of my experience I can offset this by giving myself permission to feel my emotions, the very thing a person with avoidant attachment is avoiding. Avoidant attachment is far more common in women that previously thought and it is more often the Inhibiting Affect and Socially Facile patterns that emerge. This is when a child has parents who care for their physical needs but are not very good at supporting their children emotionally.

The next time you see a post on social media that tells you to stay way from a person with avoidant attachment because they will pull away in a relationship and inevitably leave you, remind yourself that for most people with avoidant attachment this is an incorrect description. It is only describing one type of avoidant attachment. Also remind yourself that developmental psychology has move on considerably in the field of attachment theory. If you really want to understand it then you need to check out the DMM. You can find out about it in both of my online courses, From People Pleaser to Boundaries Badass or Mindfulness for Attachment Strategies, available on my website.

Thanks for reading, if you are interested in coaching then book a discovery session.

I hope our paths cross again in future, Elfreda

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