Attachment Styles and Adjustment to Breakups
You may already be familiar with how your attachment style can influence your behaviour in romantic relationships and your choices in romantic partners, but have you ever considered its role in how you react to breakups?
Attachment styles, rooted in attachment theory, are based on our history of interactions with our caregivers, which develop over time into internal working models of who we are in relation to others and the world around us; and which permeate and shape our affect, cognition, and behaviour throughout the lifespan.
When our caregivers are consistently responsive and available in our formative years, we are likely to develop a secure attachment style. In comparison, individuals who are insecurely attached generally had experiences of caregivers who were inconsistently available and responsive (attachment-anxious) or who were consistently unavailable and unresponsive (attachment-avoidant). In adulthood, highly anxious individuals will often experience extreme fear of rejection, seek excessive reassurance, approval, and closeness, and question their own worth and lovability. Conversely, highly avoidant adults tend to be more distrustful of others, closed-off, and uncomfortable with intimacy.
How do these attachment patterns translate to breakups?
John Bowlby found that reactions to the loss of relationships typically follow a trajectory of three stages: (1) protest, which may include disbelief, crying, anger, and attempts to re-establish contact and proximity with the lost partner; (2) sadness and despair; and, finally, (3) the reorganization of one’s “attachment hierarchy” and detachment. He also found that secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment styles have different implications for the emotional adjustment to breakups. Namely, it was found that securely attached individuals usually face relationship breakups with more resilience, acceptance, and emotional recovery than insecure individuals. Those who are more highly anxious, compared to those who are less anxious, tend to respond to breakups with more extreme emotional and physiological distress, preoccupation with their ex, alcohol and drug abuse, and a lost sense of individual identity. Individuals who are more highly avoidant generally show less distress and less grief following a relationship loss with minimal protest and despair and a quick progression to the reorganization and detachment phase.
While it may appear that anxiously attached individuals tend to fare worse than their secure and avoidant counterparts in their adjustment to breakups, research shows that they may have the upper hand in one domain. Research has found that anxious individuals’ heightened breakup distress may act as a catalyst for personal growth by encouraging the cognitive processing of breakup-related thoughts and emotions, whereas avoidant individuals’ lack of distress may stall personal growth by inhibiting this necessary cognitive work.
Regardless of your attachment style, therapy can be a helpful aid in adjusting to a breakup. Therapy can provide a space to discuss and process any emotions or difficulties experienced and explore ways to cope with difficult emotions. A therapist can also help address any guilt or self-blame that you may be feeling and help you come to terms with the end of the relationship.