Posted On 06 Apr 2010
The topic here is interpersonal relationship skills and how to improve them by understanding your attachment style.
The foundation for understanding and improving your interpersonal relationship skills is understanding yourself.
I argue in the companion post on secure attachment style that it is the middle way between the two extremes of clinging to others too much and pushing them away. A secure style is a balanced (centered) approach to relating to others.
An insecure style with respect to interpersonal relationship skills is an unbalanced approach to relating to others. Nearly half of all Americans have an insecure style. According to Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence, there are two kinds of insecure attachment styles.
(i) About one-quarter of Americans have an avoidant attachment style with respect to interpersonal relationship skills.
A human child learns and adopts this style when it is routinely ignored by parents (or primary care givers) when young. Such infants learn that their feelings are unimportant and, so, that they themselves are not very valuable.
Such infants grow into adults who have too much difficulty trusting others.
If you have an avoidant style, you feel uncomfortable becoming or being emotionally close with someone else. If someone tries to become emotionally intimate with you, you may feel nervous. You tend to suppress your own distressing emotions.
(ii) About one-fifth of Americans have an anxious attachment style with respect to interpersonal relationship skills.
A human child learns and adopts this style when its parents are often inconsistent or ambivalent. If a child is sometimes treated with tenderness and at other times treated with anger, what else could such a child learn?
Such infants grow into adults who are too uncertain of their own value.
If you have an anxious style, you may cling apprehensively to friends and lovers because you worry that you will be abandoned. You may fear that you are deficient and, once someone discovers the real you, that person will leave. (Your need for incessant reassurance can actually stimulate others to leave you.)
If you have developed either an avoidant or an anxious primary attachment style, you have more difficulty establishing satisfactory, good, or excellent relationships with other people. If so and you naturally want to improve your relationships, what should you do?
I don’t know what you should do. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere several times in print, nobody knows what you should do. Why?
Since acts have consequences and we are unable to foresee all those consequences in advance, it’s always possible that, in the fullness of time, any particular act, even when well intended, proves to be wrong in the sense that it spawns more negative consequences than any alternative.
Furthermore, I don’t myself have an insecure attachment style. All I am able to do is to imagine how I would think and what I would do if I had an insecure attachment style.
Please do not think that having a secure attachment style solves all problems related to interpersonal relationship skills. Even for those who, like me, have been blessed with a secure style have a lot of work to do. In fact, in the third and last post of this series, I make clear the central task for all adults when it comes to interpersonal relationship skills whether or not you happen to have a secure or an insecure style.
Your first reaction upon learning that you have an insecure style may simply be to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally you have an explanation for why the difficulties you have had in interpersonal relationships are greater than those of some other people you know.
Furthermore, you are not to blame! You were not born with an insecure attachment style. You learned it in infancy and childhood. It was the way you coped in order to survive.
This itself provides a rational reason for hope: since it was learned, it is possible to unlearn it.
When it comes to unwinding it, you do not have to do everything at once. With your next friend or lover, you can begin to act as if you had a secure attachment style, as if you were so important and valuable that that person was fortunate to have made your acquaintance. If you act confidently well enough, you yourself will eventually believe it by reinventing yourself.
There’s actually an advantage to remaking yourself in this way, namely, that, if successful, you will have learned a lot about how to work on yourself effectively.
Imagine how you will feel if you make the transition. Yes, you will realize, there was an enormous amount of suffering caused by your initial insecure style. Furthermore, it was very difficult at times to force yourself to transition to a secure style. However, your rewards may be proportional to the obstacles you have overcome.
Success is all about overcoming obstacles. In that sense, learning how to overcome obstacles is a blessing that obstacles provide.
How do you think about obstacles? If you moan and groan and feel sorry for yourself for having to confront them, if you stay stuck, if you play the victim, you will never grow and your life will never flow. If, on the other hand, you welcome obstacles as opportunities to be mastered, you have a winner’s attitude.
This is why, as odd as it may seem initially, having developed an insecure attachment style as a child can actually be better in the long run if you overcome it than having developed a secure attachment style as a child.
There are people who live well. Sages exist. Furthermore, nobody becomes a sage by chance or by magic. Like mastering any other valuable skill, mastering life requires overcoming obstacles by persistently practicing in a right way.
If mastering important interpersonal relationship skills is difficult for you and you nevertheless master them anyway, good for you! You will have grown more than someone for whom they came easily.
What many who enjoy a secure attachment style from childhood fail to realize is that they haven’t really mastered interpersonal relationships skills either. If you had an insecure attachment style from childhood, at least you were under no delusion that you had mastered relationships as a teenager or young adult. The truth is that everyone confronts obstacles. At least you were aware of one of your important ones, which is good because awareness of a problem is a necessary condition for its solution.
What, then, is the attachment style appropriate to interpersonal mastery?
My answer to that important question is in my third of the three posts in this series. Before reading it, challenge yourself: what’s your answer?