Attachment theory is important because it’s going to help you to understand your own relationships. Information is power and recognizing yourself in one of these attachment styles could really improve your future. This episode is an interview with Annie Chen.

Attachment Theory & Relationships

Attachment theory is important because it’s going to help you to understand your own relationships. Information is power and recognizing yourself in one of these attachment styles could really improve your future. If your parenting was unpredictable in childhood you might develop into an anxious attacher or also called angry & ambivalent; a clutching to get what you want.

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 I invited Annie Chen, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Oakland, California to join us today, because she is focused on working with couples. She has written a workbook for sale on Amazon, The Attachment Theory Workbook to help people build lasting relationships. 

And lots of people commented, which is why I invited her on how understandable and helpful the workbook was. Thanks so much for agreeing to join me today, Annie.

Annie Chen: Hi Rhoda. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m looking forward to having this conversation with you today.

Rhoda: Great. Let’s begin with you giving a brief explanation of attachment theory and why it’s important for my audience to learn more about it.

Annie Chen: Sure, yeah. So I think the most central premise in attachment theory and the way that I explain it, is that we begin learning about relationships really early in life as infants. And we depend on the caretakers around us to give us what we need. So it was from our very earliest experiences, you know, we’re looking into the eyes of our mothers or fathers or caretakers and we get a sense of safety. We get a sense of security. We get a sense that somebody is there and that when we signal, they’re going to be there or they’re not going to be there. And so we learned things like, will my needs get met when I signal for attention? Are people going to be consistent when they respond to me? And then so these questions have a lot to do with trust and safety and security in these relationships.

And it turns out that, by childhood, there’s already a template for how, what we expect or don’t expect from these relationships. And then that stays fairly consistent as well. And our responses to what those things are and how we respond to these people and what they do, that remains consistent. 

And so when we, upgrade into adult relationships, it turns out that we remember a lot about that stuff and certainly things can change and can evolve, but memory is pretty sticky. And so our responses, in these intimate relationships, tend to mirror the ones in our childhood, in our early life. Because the intimacy is there or the sense of, depending on this person is there.

Rhoda: So the history, what you’re saying is the history leaves an imprint and a pattern that really shapes some of the ways we think about attaching and being intimate with someone else?

Annie Chen: Yeah. I think that’s certainly what I see in my practice, is that something that resonates with you, Rhoda. I know you’ve been practicing with couples for a long time.

Rhoda: Yes. And I think people… I asked them to think about their relationships with their mothers and their fathers or their grandparents or whoever was that important caretaking person, so that they can then really understand a little bit about how they might look. I know I just worked with somebody and we realized that her father hadn’t been there, had left the family, and then she married a man who was emotionally unavailable and then had an affair with a man who was married and therefore unavailable in a different way. 

And I think it’s connected to the original learnings about dad not being there that has continued that pattern and really got her thinking about herself in a new, unique way, which I think was really helpful.

Annie Chen: Yeah, absolutely. Right. So learning about what love should look like, what it feels like, you know, what love feels like and then what we can or should expect from these early experiences.

Rhoda: So tell me more about your anxious attaching people on… and how does that connect to childhood? What did those folks learn in childhood?

Annie Chen: Yeah. So, you know, roughly it’s this, if we had caretaking as a child that was inconsistent when we were young, then we learned that people can sometimes meet our needs, but also sometimes leave us hanging when we really need them. And this can lead us to… in a way, I feel angry, feeling ambivalent. 

And then they’ll also overcompensate in our behaviors to try to kind of get the other person to respond to us, whether this is effective or not. And so this is a style of insecure attachment, we call it… there’s different nomenclatures. So, when we look at the attachment research, this style of attachment or this kind of category of coding is sometimes called angry/ambivalent. But in popular nomenclature, we call it anxious attachment.

Rhoda: So does that mean that people clutch and grasp? That was kind of my imagination when you were talking about anxious attachment.

Annie Chen: Yeah. I think, this kind of grasping needing, this sort of drive to act and do more in order to get what we want. I think that’s pretty common. That’s a pretty common expression of anxious attachment.

Rhoda: Even people who might make 15 phone calls when somebody’s not answering and they just keep calling and calling kind of a demand, you know, that I need something, I want something you’re not paying attention. As opposed to, well, maybe the other person is busy and maybe they can’t answer the phone right now or maybe they lost the charge on their phone. There’s kind of an insistent about now pay attention. Is that fair to say?

Annie Chen: Yeah, I think that can be definitely an expression of an anxious attachment. Yeah. I think that’s something that you see often. And so what happens is that there’s a sense of rejection that gets triggered that oftentimes really relates, not to this instance, not to the missed call, but it relates to the past. It relates to memory of things that have happened in the past to that person. 

And so the rejection spurs with our errors in evaluating and judgment in how to respond to situation. So what you see is people not being able to really tolerate the sense of rejection, whether it’s real or not. And then they try to overcompensate for that, by grasping, like you said, it could be 15 text messages or just kind of an angry or demanding demeanor or a critical tone. 

And so they do it because it feels good or they do it because it’s impulsive, not because it actually makes sense for the relationship or it’s going to get them what they want or need.

Rhoda: Yeah. Because in fact in the old days, we called it pursuer/pursued, where when somebody chases somebody, they tend to back up, the other person tends to back up. And so you want to be able to back yourself up a little bit and get more grounded as opposed to keep chasing. It just doesn’t work very well. 

So for more than 40 years, I’ve been talking to my single dating clients about distancers, which in my mind are people who like to be in charge of relationship connections, when it benefits them in attachment theory. I think these folks are called avoiders or dismissive. Could you tell us what makes them tick and how is it connected to childhood?

Annie Chen: Yeah. So for distancers or avoiders, dismissive style of attachment, it’s roughly this. If we were ignored early in life when we signaled for attention and you know, we were ignored enough or consistently enough, then we learned predominantly that people can’t really meet our needs there. They’re not going to, and then we stop signaling and we just go, “Well, that didn’t work. I cried or I cried my lungs out and then that didn’t work.” So then we depend on ourselves instead and kind of just, learn to sooth ourselves. We learn to sort of kind of contain all of the needs. 

And then in adult relationships, they carry this notion, well, people won’t meet my needs because they can’t. And so I’m better off taking care of myself. I’m better off on my own. Even if they’re in a relationship.

Rhoda: I really can’t count on other people, because that’s what I learned in childhood. 

In your workbook, you chose not to explore the disorganized or anxious and avoidant attachment, that mixture. Could you describe that style and why you made that decision?

Annie Chen: Yeah. So Rhoda, I love that you asked this question. I think this is a question that kind of confuses people a lot, especially if they’re just getting into attachment theory using the popular books that are out there. And then they compare it to the research. And here’s the truth. So my quiz… the structure that I give to exploring attachment theory does actually address both anxious and avoidant, a style that encompasses both. And it’s structured in a way where it measures two axes, the quiz. So, how secure, insecure you are, and then separately, how you express that insecurity in anxious terms or avoidant terms or a combination of both. 

And so you can be highly insecure and then a little bit of both, maybe like the 50% of one and then 50% of the other, or you can be minimally insecure, just have a little bit of insecurity, and then you can also be both, you know, the way that you express that happens in both ways. And so you can do the quiz online for free at www.attachmentquiz.com And so you can explore that and see if it makes sense to you. So that’s one thing. 

But the other part of your question is really important, I think. And it might get a little bit technical. So for your listeners out there, this might be a little jargony, but if you really want to understand this stuff and why, you know, you’re seeing different nomenclature out there, then this might be important. 

So the disorganized style of attachment comes from Mary Main’s research and her experiments. And it’s one of the coding categories that researchers use to describe certain babies that exhibited behaviors that we can interpret as fearful. Fearful. So I believe if a baby got “disorganized”, they would also get a secondary coding of secure, anxious, or avoidant. And so that’s where disorganized comes from. And then, yeah, and so in adult attachment, this has been interpreted in different ways, even though I will say the research team originally warned against interpreting this coding category outside of the specific strange situation research design. 

But yeah, so the interpretation that I think makes the most sense is that this designation disorganized has to do with trauma and that there are various degrees to which it can be present. And so like one of the people I look up to who has written a lot about attachment, Stan Tatkin, calls something like pockets of disorganization, where you’re predominantly, one of the secure or insecure styles of attachment. But then there’s like pockets where somebody will collapse. Like if they hear a certain word or they, you know engage in a certain kind of interaction with their partner. And then that’s something I see often. And then sometimes there’s more disorganization and so that happens more often and then it becomes more what looks like a dominant style. 

So what I see is that that’s trauma and then that’s how I work with it. And it’s not entirely different in origin from insecure attachment, but it requires different pacing and different tools. So that’s how I see it. And then when I wrote the workbook, I decided to limit its scope to the more organized styles of attachment, so secure, anxious, and avoidant. Because after all, it’s a beginning guide and I don’t think that it could responsibly address the issues of trauma. And so for that I recommend people use another resource or work with a therapist, who works with trauma. 

Rhoda: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You know, and trauma is a whole separate impact. So I think that separation really was a good idea. And last but not least, the Holy grail that we all aspire to is secure attachment. What does that look like?

Annie Chen: Yeah. I love that you put the Holy grail. Yeah. So roughly, if we had very available, very consistent and attuned caretaking when we were young, then we learned that our needs will get met and when we signal, and then we just don’t really have to stress it. And so this is very fortunate, because if this is prevalent throughout childhood, then we learned that like, we can count on other people that we can just work together. That, you know, we were not so anxious. We’re not so preoccupied by the stress of leftover from like, okay, you know, do I have somebody or do I not have somebody, that… we can really flourish. And that I think gives a lot of opportunity to figure out, how to navigate more complex relationships, situations. And, and then, yeah, as adults we’re more collaborative. We can deal with things like more complex situations like, Oh, I want something and you want something else and how do we work that out? And we can do that more effectively. And that’s fantastic.

Rhoda: So folks that would be more willing to be a part of a team. That’s something I talk about with my couples a lot, is being able to think as part of a team, how can we meet both our needs and anxious and avoiders might be so filled up with their own needs. It’s hard to think about being a team. Is that fair to say?

Annie Chen: Yeah. And, you know, one of those things where, this is something I emphasized in the workbook is that, you can’t really help because it’s what, it’s sort of the waters that you swam in for so long, that it’s not like your fault that, that kind of development hasn’t happen, it hasn’t happened. You were, preoccupied with some amount of stress that you’ve got to only rely on yourself or the stress of am I going to get this person to do what I need them to do for me? And that can impair certain kinds of relationship development.

Rhoda: Yes, that makes sense. So attachment styles learned in childhood are very definitive as to who we are and how we relate to others. And my thought about my audience learning about this, is that the real beauty of understanding this theory, is that no one’s stuck in any of these patterns permanently. And what’s really important is how we can deal with them now, could you share some of what it takes to move from anxious to secure?

Annie Chen: Yes. and so, I think when we think about this, it makes sense to think about moving from insecure to secure and then certainly within the insecure categories, either anxious or avoidant. There’s slightly different paths, but actually they have more in common. So anxious and avoidant have more in common with one another. Yeah, because they’re both insecure styles. Right?

Rhoda: Sure, right. 

Annie Chen: Yeah. And so I think some of the things I’ll say about this also applied to how to move from avoidant to secure. And so I’ll speak more generally. What I want to say here is the, you know, you want to understand what your patterns are when it comes to relationships. You want to understand what your patterns around boundaries and your responses to things that are stressful for you in relationships and just know what’s working and what’s not working. And if you’re able to really enjoy your relationships and to get what you need from relationships. 

And yeah, find them really satisfying. And then so if something’s not working, then, you know, read more, ask people you love and trust for feedback and input and talk to a professional. So I think for the insecure styles of relating one thing that’s really important is, and I’ll say this more generally and may or may not make sense, but to deal with loss.

You know, this theme that it may not work out, you know, if we’re talking about a real relationship that one of the things that secure individuals do really well is that they have a realistic sense of loss and they do everything that makes sense to make sure that they don’t lose the relationship. That the relationship doesn’t change or end prematurely, but they don’t hold on when it doesn’t make sense. 

They have their boundaries. So I think this is really important. It’s dealing, you know, as if you’re relating these kind of insecure styles to deal with loss and hang ups about loss, whether it happens too soon and get too worked up about it or you don’t seem to care at all or, it seems very abstract.

And then, yeah, and then connected to that is just kind of a healthy sense of boundaries. So that’s one thing. You know, it’s a lot of this is about going through the experiences in life and then learning from your mistakes and trying not to make those mistakes again, learning to communicate more effectively your needs so that you’re dealing with reality so that when you’re both dealing with the same reality of what you need and want. 

And then when it comes to relationships, the other… I think, like really a central thing for both types of insecure is that, you want to create relationships where you are putting in as much as you’re getting, you know, not more, not less. And that if you give a certain amount in a relationship, for you to also expect that, you get that as well, that if you give, you are…

Rhoda: There’s a rhythm of give and take that goes back and forth. It doesn’t have to be even, but it goes back and forth. It’s not lopsided in a huge way.

Annie Chen: Yeah. I think that’s right. That’s correct. And so then when it comes to the different insecure styles, you know, anxious folks, I think generally it’s about like, I think you said before, it’s like stepping back or something. I don’t remember what you said, but something… it’s about the relationship. It’s about don’t just do something because it feels good and it sort of fires off an impulse that, do it because you have a sense of what’s good for the relationship, what’s really going to, propel both of you to get what you want and need. And the sense of reciprocity.

Rhoda: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It really does. And I think I loved what you said about asking for feedback, from people you love and you’re connected to, because they could probably help you understand how do you push people away. I mean, it would take some courage to ask that kind of authenticity, but I think it could really help you grow and learn more about yourself and people love you. They’re not going to bash your head in. Hopefully they’re just going to risk a little bit of feedback, honesty that can really help you grow.

Annie Chen: Yeah. Asking for feedback is so important, because we all have blind spots, you know, I mean, whoever we are and whatever our attachment styles are, we have our blind spots and usually the people that we know and who know us and love us, can see those blind spots. And so, yeah… 

Rhoda: Yeah. So is it true that the anxious attacher often connects with the avoider dismissive?

Annie Chen: I think that’s often, that’s something that is often heard.  I would love to hear your opinion about that. I think that you often, you know, I think that in relationships, you see the dynamic, because if somebody is even just a little bit avoidant or a little bit dismissive, they tend to, you know, push each other in the opposite direction if they’re going with their impulses. And so they, you know, what I mean? So there’s like an effect that is amplified, right?

A little bit of this or a little bit of that, but in general, like it’s important to not, I think, hard label people as “Okay, you know, this is how you show up in this relationship. So you are an avoidant or you are an anxious attacher.” Because I mean, actually in the research, the research says that most people are secure attackers. 

Rhoda: Oh, wow. 

Annie Chen: Yeah. So it’s really about like 30% of people who, really kind of like if you get down to the nitty gritty and the coding that they’re insecure attachers, and so this is why I think, you know, I structured the way I structured my quiz is that there’s still opportunity to explore these patterns. Even if you’re technically like secure, you know, which is like 70% of the population, but if you have like this tension where it’s one person’s a little bit avoidant, one got a little bit of anxious tendencies, they’ll amplify each other and they’ll, it could be fire.

Rhoda: I also think it makes sense in that opposites do attract. And so there’s some energy that each of the person would benefit from the other and give more balance. Because I do think love is often projection of the missing pieces within ourselves. So that’s where it made sense to me. But I like what you said about not locking people into a particular aspect. I think that makes a lot of sense. What final words of wisdom would you like to pass on to my audience about attachment theory and relationships that you haven’t had a chance to share yet?

Annie Chen: Oh, well, you know, this is something that I could go on forever. And so this is, wow. I mean, this is really important work to me. 

Rhoda: Yeah, I think so. 

Annie Chen: Yeah. Because relationships are worth the trouble and this early conditioning and how we experience trust and security and in our own needs and the importance of our own needs in a relationship, is for me so much of that goes into the quality of your relationship. And fundamentally, you know, how we can help each other to heal and be fulfilled. 

And so I think just the, you know, I’ll just share that I think that relationships are worth the trouble and if you’re going through this journey and you’re discovering things about yourself that are less than ideal or that you see patterns that you want to change. It does take some work and does take some effort and stepping outside of your comfort zone, but that it’s all worth it.

Rhoda: Yeah, I would totally agree. I think there’s so many ways to learn more about yourself that can just help you be a different person. And I always remind my audience and my clients that you can’t grow without being a little bit uncomfortable. So, you know, don’t get addicted to comfort like so many of us Americans do. 

Thanks so much for joining me today. And would you again share your website and with the free quiz where people can look at themselves and answer some questions?

Annie Chen: Yes. So if people are interested in taking this free quiz go to attachmentquiz.com and you’ll find it there.

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