You’ve probably heard the term ‘attachment style’ when it comes to romantic relationships – but what about when it comes to our friendships? We asked a relationship expert to explain just how it affects our friendships and how we can use attachment styles to become a better friend.
When it comes to friendships, do you prefer to text every day or favour a long phone call every once in a while? Are you upset when a friend cancels plans last minute or are you secretly glad you can now spend the night on the sofa watching Friends?
Every friendship dynamic is different and, upon closer introspection, certain themes may start to emerge.
One way to understand these feelings and behaviours is through attachment theory. A term you’ve likely heard used in the context of romantic relationships, it was first coined by psychologist John Bowlby in the mid-20th century and describes the idea that how you behave as an adult in both intimate relationships and friendships can be linked to your childhood.
In the book Attached: The New Science Of Adult Attachment And How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love, Dr Amir Levine and Rachel Heller identify the three main attachment styles as secure, anxious and avoidant.
Those with a secure attachment style will trust easily and accept love and intimacy. Markers of an anxious attachment style are a fear of abandonment and perhaps coming across as needy in relationships. On the opposite end of the spectrum, avoidants fear letting people get too close and will likely keep the people in their life at arm’s length.
But what do these attachment styles mean for our friendships? “Attachment styles certainly have an impact on friendships but they are less obvious than the way they affect romantic relationships,” explains Jessica Alderson, relationship expert and co-founder of So Syncd.
“This is because most people have one partner but a number of friends. Therefore, when it comes to friendships, the impact is diluted because people tend to be less reliant on a single person to fulfil their needs. However, if someone has very few friends, attachment styles can show up in a similar way to romantic relationships.”
Every friendship has its own regularities: how often you hangout, activities you like to do together, preferred means of communication and more.
But a mismatch of attachment styles can cause issues in any of our relationships – including our platonic ones. A friend with an anxious attachment style, for example, may be offended by their avoidant friend being noncommittal with plans. On the other hand, an avoidant person may find the constant need for communication with an anxious friend too clingy.
“Securely attached people being friends with other securely attached people is the friendship that tends to be most healthy, although many other factors come into play too, of course,” explains Alderson. “Securely attached people are also easily able to build friendships with those who display anxious and avoidant attachment styles.”
“Two anxiously attached friends often fulfil certain needs related to their attachment style, and they usually have an intense friendship. It’s unlikely to be healthy though,” says Alderson. On the flip side, two avoidantly attached friends will likely have a “low-maintenance, casual friendship that lacks intimacy”.
“Avoidantly attached people often find it hard to form friendships with those who are anxiously attached because they can feel overwhelmed.”
No one attachment style is inherently better than the other, and a mismatch is not necessarily a friendship dealbreaker. Alderson encourages people to be open and honest about their attachment style as it can help friends better understand where each other’s actions are coming from.
“This alone helps to build connection because it enables both of you to feel better understood. Attachment styles can be used as a framework to understand and verbalise issues that you want to smooth out in a friendship.”
Friendships are not to be taken for granted and require just as much time and investment as our romantic relationships. It is also unhealthy to rely on one relationship to fill all our emotional needs, whether romantic or platonic.
“Different friends often bring positivity to your life in different ways, assuming your friendships are healthy,” says Alderson. “For example, you might have one friend who you know will always be up for a good time and they are the person you go to if you fancy an adventure. You then might have another friend who you can count on to give great advice if you’re feeling down. There isn’t a single person in the world who can be everything to everyone.”
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