People who grew up feeling securely attached to their caregivers tend to replicate that dynamic in their adult romantic relationships. They form secure bonds with partners. They tolerate the ebbs and flows inherent to long-term relationships. They trust that their significant other is not going to get the hell out of dodge after a difference of opinion or a few days’ absence. People who were raised by distant or unreliable caregivers, however, never internalized that sense of object constancy. Because their caregivers were unpredictable, or predictably aloof, they learned to expect the same from romantic partners. From an early age, they were taught that the world was unsafe and now they act out that belief system in one of two ways: by keeping others at a distance or by alternately pursuing and running from those they desire. Attachment disorders can fuel sex and love addiction and perpetuate the emotional cut-offs and chaos of dysfunctional early childhood development. Here is a description of what they are and how they manifest in sexual and romantic relationships.
About Avoidant Attachment
Typically, adults with avoidant attachment styles were raised by aloof, critical or absentee parents, or they had a parent who looked to them to meet emotional needs that were going unmet by the other parent. Either way, the child learned early on that expressing needs was a sign of weakness, so they grow up to appear not to need anyone. Reasonable requests for emotional intimacy overwhelm them. Although they may seem relational, especially if they’re gregarious, they are islands unto themselves. Avoidantly attached adults can “look” like sex addicts. They seek risk and novelty through impersonal, highly charged sexual encounters. Once they feel that someone wants a genuine relationship with them, they lose interest and are off to find their next high.
About Ambivalent Attachment
Adults with ambivalent — or anxious — attachment styles typically were raised by inconsistent caregivers. One or both parents were unpredictable: intrusive and needy at times, unavailable at others. Unlike an avoidantly attached child who knows not to expect any nurturing from his parents, the ambivalently attached child doesn’t know what to expect from day to day. This may happen because of a parent’s mental illness, divorce or other stressor that renders them unable to provide consistent attention and care. Ambivalently attached adults can “look” like love addicts. They seek the same kind of “drama” that was present in their relationships with their caregivers. They push away anyone who’s available and chase after anyone who’s not. They’re not just hooked on sex, they’re hooked on romance, fantasy and intrigue. And what better way to keep your heart rate elevated than to obsess over someone who doesn’t truly want to be with you?
Relationships Between Avoidantly and Ambivalently Attached Adults
Individuals with these different attachment styles are made for each other: They have found the perfect person with whom to re-enact their early childhood trauma. Neither of them experienced secure bonds with their caregivers, so they never learned to tolerate the emotional needs of others and themselves. The love addict will overwhelm the sex addict, who will withdraw — until he feels that he might actually lose the love addict, in which case he’ll make himself available — temporarily.
Recovery From Attachment Disorders
Adults with avoidant attachment are less likely to go to therapy unless they’re dragged in by a partner. Because they’re cut off from their emotions, they often don’t feel pain until they’re faced with a partner’s threats to leave or the dissolution of a family. Adults with ambivalent attachment are much more motivated in therapy because they feel miserable. Their inability to regulate their emotions in relation to romantic partners keeps them in a perpetual state of chaos, both internally and externally. They leapfrog from one unhealthy relationship to the next, desperately trying to get an avoidant person to love them.
How to Heal From an Attachment Disorder
Ideally, people would work through their attachment issues in family therapy. But if caregivers are unwilling or unavailable, people can seek help through individual therapy, 12-step groups, or if need be, residential treatment centers specializing in intimacy disorders. Whichever the treatment method, the goal is the same: Before you can have a healthy relationship with another person, you must first learn to have one with yourself. By Virginia Gilbert, MFT Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT