Are you struggling with an insecure attachment style? Maybe you always seem to choose the wrong partner, or struggle to navigate conflicts in relationships. Maybe you have issues with trust and fidelity. Either way, you may have found yourself wondering, “Can you change your attachment style?”
At Couples Learn we get this question a lot. Many of our clients experience the impact of childhood hurts on their adult relationships. Many are also just coming to terms with the fact that their attachment style plays a significant role in the way they think and behave in relationships.
If you’re finding it difficult to overcome the impact of your attachment style, you’re not alone. But can attachment style change over time? And if so, what can you do to change your attachment style to secure?
Keep reading for our therapists’ best tips.
What is Attachment Style?
Before we start thinking about changing attachment style, it’s important to understand what attachment style is and how it impacts the way we function in relationships.
The history of attachment styles dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed what is now known as Attachment Theory. This theory identified different styles of attachment, which were based on our childhood relationships – particularly relationships developed with caregivers.
According to Attachment Theory, the way you were cared for as a child plays a significant role in your adult relationships.
Types of Attachment Styles
Bowlby and Ainsworth developed 4 styles of attachment as part of their theory:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Fearful-avoidant attachment
Later, another psychologist, Dr. Stan Tatkin, described attachment styles slightly differently. Dr. Tatkin identified three primary attachment styles that roughly align with Bowlby and Ainsworth’s four. It’s these Tatkin attachment styles we’ll be referencing in today’s post:
- The Anchor (secure)
- The Island (avoidant)
- The Wave (anxious)
If you want to know how to change attachment styles, it’s important to first understand the different attachment styles and how they impact your adult life. Not sure what kind of attachment style you have? Take our attachment style quiz!
The Anchor: Secure Attachment
If you have a secure attachment style, you were likely raised by at least one parent who made your needs a priority. You were probably encouraged to be independent as a child but still knew your parents or caregivers were a safe place to seek help or comfort. You probably grew up to be a well-adjusted adult who tends to be good at building and maintaining relationships – both with friends and romantic partners.
The Island: Avoidant Attachment
If you have an avoidant attachment style, your parents may have stressed performance and appearance. They likely encouraged independence to the extreme, discouraging any dependency on their support. You might not have felt comfortable expressing negative emotions to your parents for fear of punishment. As an adult, you likely need a lot of space in relationships in order to not feel trapped or controlled.
The Wave: Anxious Attachment
If you’re an adult with anxious attachment, you probably had parents who were inconsistent with their care and support. Children of addicts or mentally ill parents often develop anxious attachment, but it can also be the result of experiencing divorced parents or narcissistic parents as a child. As an adult, you probably spend a lot of time worrying about your relationship, require frequent validation and may seem needy.
Can Attachment Style Change Over Time?
So, does attachment style change? The short answer is yes!
Think of it this way: you were not born anxious or avoidant in relationships. Those tendencies changed over time due to the people and experiences in your childhood. Similarly, you can change your attachment style again as an adult, based on individual healing work you do and the people and experiences in your life.
Research on attachment styles backs this up. According to one study, attachment anxiety declined on average with age, particularly during middle age and adulthood. Attachment avoidance also decreased with age. Even more interesting, being in a relationship predicted lower levels of anxiety and avoidance throughout adulthood.
Put simply, it is possible to change attachment style as an adult. And the people and relationships we have in our adult lives can impact our attachment style much like our childhood relationships impacted its development.
Can Trauma Change Your Attachment Style?
It is widely accepted in the psychology field that childhood trauma can impact our lives, and especially our relationships, as adults. But even trauma experienced as an adult can impact your attachment style.
Being in a relationship with someone with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, for example, could potentially impact your own attachment style. If you have an anxious attachment style, being with a partner who has an avoidant attachment style might actually make your anxious attachment style even worse and vice versa.
However, being with someone who has a secure attachment style can help someone with an insecure attachment style heal and become more securely attached. If you experience relationship trauma, such as infidelity, the death of a partner or a narcissistic partner, you might also see shifts in your attachment style.
Can Therapy Change Your Attachment Style?
Therapy can definitely help if you want to change attachment style as an adult. Therapy can help you identify, understand and heal from the childhood experiences that shaped your attachment style in the first place. Working with an attachment-informed therapist can also help you work through current relationship challenges as an individual or a couple.
A big part of changing your attachment style is learning what secure attachment looks like and how securely functioning couples treat each other. Once you understand what is healthy and what is not healthy in a relationship, you can start working towards a more secure attachment style.
How to Change Your Attachment Style
If you’ve read this far, then you probably already have a good idea what attachment style you have. While you may not be happy with your style of attachment, this is actually good news, because acknowledging and understanding your attachment is the first step toward changing attachment style.
So what comes next? It doesn’t matter if you’re living with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, how to change it comes down to seeking help from a professional therapist.
There are many ways therapy can help you learn how to change your attachment style to secure. At Couples Learn, our therapists use attachment-focused EMDR online therapy to help clients get to secure attachment.
EMDR Therapy for Attachment Issues
One of the best types of individual therapy for changing your attachment style is Attachment-Focused EMDR. In this type of therapy, you will identify and reprocess the core memories that helped create your insecure attachment style. Through this, you can start feeling more safe, secure and healthy in relationships.
During trauma, our brain processes and stores memories incorrectly, which can make memories of traumatic experiences feel emotionally charged. To heal, we have to help the brain re-process these experiences so they lose their emotional charge and have less of an impact on our present day lives.
EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a method proven to be effective for patients who have experienced trauma. Traditional EMDR therapy is especially effective for one-time big T traumas like a car accident or an assault. However, it’s less effective for small t traumas which are relational traumas that happen repeatedly over time.
Examples of this are the emotional injuries that come from having a narcissistic parent or partner, being raised by someone with addiction issues, or experiencing racism, homophobia, and bullying. These traumas take longer to heal and require a slightly different approach than the Big T traumas.
How Attachment-Focused EMDR Helps
Attachment-Focused EMDR focuses on healing the attachment deficits that occured from the mis-attuned or traumatic experiences you had during childhood and sometimes even in your adult life.
In attachment focused EMDR sessions, your therapist will incorporate additional talk therapy into traditional EMDR sessions. This will help you address the impact of those negative attachment experiences on your brain, body and attachment style.
You will learn to recognize what healthy attachment looks and feels like and what deficits were present in your early attachment experiences. And you will reprocess memories of experiences where relationships felt unsafe or unsupportive.
An attachment-informed therapist can also work with you to better understand your attachment style and develop new ways of communicating in relationships. This work might include:
- Exploring your attachment style in-depth and learn more about how it impacts your relationships
- Uncovering how your childhood influences your attachment style, how you show up in relationships and the types of people you’re attracted to
- Learning how a secure functioning relationship should look and feel and how to engage in secure attachment behaviors
- Learning how to communicate more openly, assertively and non-defensively in relationships
- Communicating your needs in a healthy way even during conflict
- Learning what boundaries are, how to identify them for yourself and how to express them without offending or alienating others.
- Exploring ways to build trust, intimacy and emotional safety – first with yourself and then with others
How Long Does It Take to Change Your Attachment Style?
The path to changing attachment style is not a short one. After all, it took your entire childhood to develop your current attachment style. Similarly, learning how to change attachment style can be a long process – and it’s certainly not a straight path.
Timeframes for treatment vary widely. Healing will depend on how much trauma you experienced as a child, how much insight and awareness you already have, and your ability to feel and tolerate big emotions without feeling too overwhelmed. That said, most people will feel complete with their work after 1-2 years of weekly therapy to change your attachment style.
Even after therapy, you will likely need to work to understand and adjust your behaviors in relationships throughout your lifetime. This is because new experiences, people and events impact your attachment style. The work you do with an attachment-based therapist will make navigating these changes easier over time.
Ready to Change Attachment Styles?
If you’re ready to learn more about how your attachment style impacts your relationships and work toward changing your attachment style, contact Couples Learn today. We can connect you with one of our attachment-focused therapists online or in person.
Or, if you’re eager to start changing your attachment style as quickly as possible, check out our attachment-focused course, “Getting to Secure Attachment.”
Through this course, you’ll gain more understanding of your attachment style and a partner’s attachment style. And you’ll also gain the knowledge and skills you need to start changing your attachment style.