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Attachment Styles and Attunement

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Tune into how your earliest life lessons can cause you ongoing hardship.

When we are hurt, when we are feeling lost, when we feel isolated and depressed, something is missing. Something big. Something old. For some of us, it’s been missing our whole lives.

The way we often describe this need is that we want to feel seen and heard. We want to be acknowledged for who we really are, to be held by a person who can look into our eyes and understand us. It’s the feeling of being got, of being felt by someone who cares about us depthlessly.

When we are lonely, we aren’t just craving company. Loneliness has been a major theme this last year, with many of us grappling with it more than we ever have before. We’ve missed dinner parties, meeting friends for coffee, going to the neighborhood hole in the wall. But loneliness isn’t about being in a crowd. I’ve had some of my loneliest moments at a party I’m throwing, filled with people who are supposed to be my friends. Loneliness is a call from the heart to be seen and loved in that sacred space where you can be your whole self, with truth. Loneliness is a craving for attunement.

The word attunement is often used in the context of attachment theory, a psychological concept that explores how we form relationships and manage stress within them.

When a parent is attuned to a child, she is feeling with the child, able to understand what the child needs and able to meet those needs reason- ably well. When the baby looks for the parent, reaching for the parent, the parent responds. When the child looks away, needing space, the parent stays quiet, allowing the child to take a break. When the child is sad or angry, the parent acknowledges that emotion, staying calm and compassionate while acknowledging the child’s feelings. The parent is present, physically and emotionally, even in the child’s worst moments. This allows the child to feel safe. Someone is with her, watching out for her, listening to her needs before she’s able to name or try to explain them.

Most parents love their children deeply—more than they’ve ever loved anyone before. But attunement is about more than the reflexiveness of love—even unconditional love. True attunement requires a much bigger challenge: loving with and through all emotional states, including negative ones. It’s easy enough to match our infants in joy: When they are smiling and laughing, we want to smile and laugh too. But when children are irrationally afraid, crying incessantly, or throwing a tantrum, it’s much harder to hold them with the complete emotional presence that they really need in that moment. When faced with crying, frustrated, angry, or even simply annoying children, it’s easier to shut them out, ignore them, or yell at them than to meet them on their emotional level while also somehow managing to staying calm and kind.

Many of us spend our lives seeking that person who will tune into our wavelength and be with us in not only our bright moments, but also in our pain.

Attachment styles are fundamentally strategies for managing stress. Some of us reach out for connection, to talk our feelings out or ask for a hug to feel better—that’s secure attachment. Some of us numb out, distract ourselves, or try to get away so we can be by ourselves—that’s avoidant attachment. And some people scream, yell, pick a fight, try to take it out on someone else—that’s anxious attachment. We learned these strategies when we were tiny—usually
less than a year old. Likely, they are the same strategies our parents learned when they were tiny, too.

When we become adults, we tend to stick to the strategies we learned as children when our emotions become overwhelming. We may have learned that it’s unsafe to express our deepest emotions, fearing that we’ll be met with anger, derision, an insistence on cheering up, or a stony silence. Instinctively, we do not feel that it is okay to be ourselves. We do not feel that there is anyone in the world who can really understand us.

Psychotherapist John Welwood wrote:

When we reveal ourselves to our partner and find that this brings healing rather than harm, we make an important discovery—that intimate relationship can provide a sanctuary from the world of facades, a sacred space where we can be ourselves, as we are.

Many of us spend our lives seeking that person who will tune into our wavelength and be with us in not only our bright moments, but also in our pain. The secret about this journey is, of course, that the person we are looking for is a lot closer than we may think: It’s us.

Attachment Styles

Attachment theory began with the work of the psychotherapist John Bowlby, who carefully observed young children with their parents in the 1950s. There is much to explore with attachment theory, but here are a few characteristics of people with the most common attachment styles.

Please note that we can have different relationship styles with different people in our lives—for example, we may have had secure attachment with a father figure and anxious attachment with a mother figure. This plays out in many different ways throughout our lives. Keep in mind that attachment styles aren’t set in stone. We can all learn to manage our most difficult emotions in safe, intimate connection.

SECURE ATTACHMENT

People with secure attachment generally had caregivers who were consistently available (that means most of the time, not 100 percent of the time). They tended to meet the child’s needs and were emotionally attuned to the child. These people tend to:

  • Have good self-esteem

  • Have deep and meaningful relationships

  • Be comfortable being alone and learning new things

  • Know how to express emotions and ask for what they need under stress

AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT

People with avoidant attachment tend to have had caregivers who did not tolerate expressions of emotion, perhaps by teaching their child that they needed to toughen up or perhaps by simply ignoring their children in these moments. In some cases, these children learned to take care of themselves when someone else in the family required a lot of attention (such as a sibling with special needs). People with avoidant attachment tend to:

  • Appear confident and rarely show negative emotions
  • Be very successful at work
  • Be uncomfortable with intimacy and struggle to hold onto deep, meaningful, long-term relationships
  • Under stress, seek alone-ness and try to numb out rather than engage with their emotions
  • Focus on their thoughts and have a harder time naming and expressing their emotions

ANXIOUS/AMBIVALENT ATTACHMENT

People with anxious attachment tend to have had caregivers who were inconsistent—present one moment, not the next. This could be due to substance misuse, abandonment, or the death of a parent. Sometimes these parents used the child to meet their own needs rather than attuning to the child’s needs themselves. People with anxious attachment tend to:

  • Have low self-esteem paired with self-destructive behaviors

  • Have abandonment fear

  • Under stress, panic and seek attention through, for example, picking a fight

  • Overfocus on feelings, assuming that, if they feel some- thing, it must be true (“I feel hurt, so you must have meant to hurt me”)

If you notice some of these patterns in yourself or the people around you, remember that these are strategies to manage stress—they don’t define you, and they can change when people learn better stress management strategies

What we often don’t realize is that whatever dynamics we learned in our first families tends to be mirrored in the way we treat ourselves. If a parent loved us deeply but couldn’t stand when we were hurt or upset, we might also have a really difficult time sitting with our own emotions. No one ever showed us how to do that. How do you treat yourself when you are in emotional pain? Do you try to distract yourself or cheer yourself up? Do you get angry and punish yourself? How is this similar to what your parents did when you were hurting as a child?

We live in a culture that is badly mis-attuned most of the time. We value happiness, joy, gratitude, and comfort. We are collectively very uncomfortable with anger, loneliness, fear, and sadness. We do not know how to express our pain to each other, and when we try, we can’t always recognize what it means to be safely held in our emotions. When that need is not met, we are in our deepest, most abiding loneliness. We crave a much more profound connection that allows us to be seen not only in our beauty and success, but in our ugliness, our weakness, and our fear.

The good news is that whatever is happening in our heart spaces and in those dynamics of love, we can work on them within ourselves first. It’s okay if we weren’t always attuned to as children. It’s okay if we don’t always attune to our own kids or our partners well. It’s even okay if we haven’t yet learned to attune to ourselves. It’s never too late to start the practice of holding the full range of our emotions with kindness and care and meeting ourselves and each other as we are. When we do, we open up a world of deep, meaningful relationships that can fill the deepest need of our hearts.