Adult Attachment: Building & Maintaining Close Bonds as Adults
adult attachment

The Female Brain & Attachment: Building & Maintaining Close Bonds as Adults

If it is totally normal and human to want closeness, love, and care from others, then why is it so hard to admit as an adult?

“MOST PEOPLE ARE ONLY AS NEEDY AS THEIR UNMET NEEDS.”

Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

In the practice of dating or building close bonds with another person as an adult, we can find ourselves feeling anxious, fearful, or overwhelmed, as well as hopeful, grateful, and excited as we navigate closeness and autonomy.

The balance of closeness and autonomy can be hard to navigate. Some things to ask ourselves: Are affection and appreciation easy to show? Is it difficult to show up for another person when they need you to? Is it challenging to express what your needs are? Is it comfortable to disagree or have conflict or is it threatening? Is it easy to depend on others? When it comes to feeling close to someone and/or building intimacy with a friend or loved one, there will almost certainly come a time in the relationship where distancing or preoccupation becomes part of the dynamic. Is love a feeling? A behavior? Or something else?

at·tach·ment

/əˈtaCHmənt/

noun

  1. an extra part or extension that is or can be attached to something to perform a particular function.

  2. the condition of being attached to something or someone, in particular.

As adults, it becomes very important to understand what is happening in our brains to better make sense of what makes a relationship work and what makes a relationship challenging. Relating could arguably be the most complex process of our human existence. Whether it is our partner, a family member, a coworker or a close friend, most people would agree that being around other humans, developing close bonds with other humans, and loving and being loved by other humans might be some of the most difficult things we experience as human beings. It is both complex and nuanced and incredibly varied. At large, navigating relationships requires us to be emotionally and socially intelligent. This very thing—relating—has expanded the evolution of human brain development.

Science and Attachment

Psychology and Neuroscience have a lot to offer us when it comes to understanding attachment and how we form close relationships. Through Attachment Theory and modern neuroscience research, we have a pretty solid base for understanding our origins and how they affect us as adults.

Our primary relationships are responsible for building the brain structures we use to relate to others for our entire lives. At as early as 12 to 18 months, an accumulation of our experiences of these primary relationships structure the neural circuitry of our brains. This is occurring entirely in our implicit memory or, in other words, outside of our awareness. Therefore, these occurrences from our patterns of attachment become our “rules.” We could also think of these as our “templates,” or our “way of being.” As we develop, we uses these “rules” and “templates” to navigate how we will most likely relate to others for our lives.

Of course, when these experiences are less than ideal, unconscious patterns of attachment may continue to inform both the perceptions and responses of the brain in new relational experiences. We can imagine that less than ideal experiences yield structures that could be limited and limiting. In these cases, we can find ourselves getting stuck. It also means we might have trouble adapting or growing from new relational experiences.

How Can We Understand Adult Attachment?

We can rely on science to tell us about relationships and maybe find a scientific explanation for why some people seem to navigate relationships with ease while others are deeply challenged. The authors of the book Attached—Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller—reveal how best to understand adult attachment by referencing the most advanced relationship science with the hope of helping us find and sustain love in adult relationships.

This research was pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s and researchers Ainsworth and Wittig (1969) and has expanded the field of attachment, suggesting that our behaviors and relationships are a result of one of three distinct attachment styles. In their book Attached, Levine and Heller encourage readers to determine what attachment style they are as well as offer a roadmap for building stronger, more fulfilling connections with the people they love.

What are the 3 attachment styles?

Secure, anxious, and avoidant are the three main attachment styles found in adults that parallel those found in children. As adults, these different styles affect the ways in which people view intimacy and togetherness, attitudes toward sex, the capacity, ability, and likelihood to communicate needs and desires, communication around expectations and boundary setting, and ultimately, how we deal with conflict.

Secure people are comfortable with intimacy and present as warm and loving. Anxious people crave intimacy and are preoccupied, obsessive, and worried about their relationships and their ability to receive love back. Avoidant people associate intimacy with the loss of freedom and are constantly trying to decrease the closeness of others.

How do we become more secure?

Simply: Honest communication.

“We can honestly say that everyone we’ve known who has used effective communication has been grateful for it in the long run. Often, effective communication brings about huge relief by showing you just how strongly your partner feels about you—and by strengthening the bond between you two. And even though in some instances the response may not be what you hoped for and you’ll be convinced that you’ve ruined everything, we’ve never heard anyone say in retrospect that they regretted raising an important issue in a dating or relationship setting. In fact, they overwhelmingly express gratitude that effective communication got them that one step closer to their long-term goal of either finding the right person or strengthening their existing bond.”

Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

While honest and effective communication sounds simple, it is not always easy. One of the things that is helpful to remember in times of challenge is our basic humanity. With that, a key to building intimate relationships as an adult is to first fully acknowledge your need for intimacy, availability, and security in any relationship. It is also so important to believe that your needs are legitimate. They aren’t good or bad, they simply are your needs. It is just as important to notice when feelings of shame or incompleteness come up around closeness and relationships. It is totally normal and human to want closeness, love, and care from others.

Featured image by Artem Bali
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