Attachment theory tells us that there are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant. However, some people will insist that they have been more than one “style” in their lifetime. Is that possible? If yes, what is happening in that situation? Is there hope to move from an insecure attachment style to secure?
In our latest podcast, Rebecca and I discuss these questions and more with Dr. Phil Shaver, “the father of adult attachment theory.”
If the player does not show, you can click here to listen: 003 – Changeable Attachment Styles featuring Dr. Phil Shaver
(Please note: The audio is transcribed “as is,” spoken grammar glitches and all.)
Today we are talking with relationship expert Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen and special guest, researcher, Dr. Phil Shaver.
G: Hi Becca.
R: Hey Greg, how are you doing?
G: Really good today, thanks. Today’s short clip from Dr. Shaver’s interview has mostly to do with changeability of adult attachment styles. And this is something that I know we’ve talked about in the past and, frankly, I didn’t understand it. I had read the book, “Attached” and really loved that book actually, and out of that context I was under the persuasion that adult attachment was something that we were born with or at least we got initially when we were younger, and then that is where we were stuck and that we had to deal with the consequences of that and adapt to that. What I’m getting from the interview with Dr. Shaver is that, no, there is some flexibility there. Can you talk a little about that before we get to the interview?
R: Yeah, it’s so good. I mean it’s so hopeful isn’t it? That our brains, our neuropsychology, our brains are plastic you know. We grow and change and we do adapt. And so I think it’s just such a hopeful thing that if we were raised in a situation where it wasn’t, you know, the best or it was the best at the time, but it left us with insecurities; maybe even with some major insecurities or maybe even was a very traumatic situation, that we’re not stuck with that. Whatever situation we were born into or what happened to us in our early development that we can, as adults, actually make conscious choices and learn and adapt and change. And that even sometimes even unconsciously just being in different relationships brings out different aspects of us and new experience changes us. We grow and we change. The brain is plastic and we’re able to, across our life span, have different kinds of relationships and take relationships that are very important to us but may have places that are difficult for us and resolve and heal and change. It’s just such a hopeful message.
G: Awesome. Okay, well let’s listen to what Dr. Shaver had to say about that.
G: The other big skeptical thing I hear from people is, “I’ve been both anxious and avoidant in my life, how does that work?”
Dr. Shaver: Yeah, this is why I think it’s good to have the primary concept be a strategy for achieving what you need in relationships and the idea of the theory itself was, in infancy, that kid could have been anything. And if the parents were different, the kid is different with them. This has already been demonstrated in, “A Strange Situation”. So, the kid is capable of adopting a strategy to fit the parental environment, or whatever that caregiver could be a daycare person if they are with one of those for a long time. So all of us have a capacity to be moved around. I think of this in a two-dimensional space, then it can be moved around in that space. I don’t think they can be moved from one extreme region of of it to another. But everybody moves around. There are some interesting social psych studies now showing that at the beginning of the relationship when people aren’t sure, they look more anxious. Because they’re…
R: It’s insecure. The relationship itself is inherently insecure.
Dr. Shaver: Yeah, that’s right, and so they have a high desire for it to go well but a fear that it won’t and that’s what the anxious pattern is more generally. And anyone who is pursued by somebody with an anxious strategy is going to feel more avoidant. They’re going to be trying to hold this person out. So I do think everyone has experienced it to some extent. But then you have to look at all the findings we have linking this to… – the ones who are avoidant have more extramarital sexual experiences, they have a different style of leadership in the Israeli army, and things like that. So you have to maintain both of these things in mind. There is a tendency that they have… the scores on the measure are as consistent as any personality measure over years, but nothing like perfectly consistent.
Another way of saying what I was saying about behaviors that you’d probably be interested in saying on tape, we have a dog, Bishon-very smart- and he knows that I will feed him under the table, especially if he is really insistent about it. And my wife absolutely will not do that. She tried to explain dogs to me, when we first got him, ‘cause I didn’t have them as a kid. And so anyway, with me, he shows a bunch of eager excited behavior. If Gail stands up like this, he lies down on the floor and he can apparently wait a long time. And so he has the capacity to be sort of anxious or avoidant about these interactions that I think all of us do.
G: So I’m still trying to grab the whole thing. So is it like we have something that we are raised with initially, so our tendency, but then we have relationship specific attachment styles potentially?
Dr. Shaver: Yeah, yeah, I mean since it is being reactive partly, it is a strategy that is adjusting to what the other person is doing. It’s interactive. Another kind of analogy is, a couple…one of them is that you learn to speak English when you are 0-5 or something and then you move to France. And you have an accent. Not everyone does, but almost everyone has an English accent after years of practicing the other. So, if you learn one language, could you learn another? Yes. You know are some people better at making the transition? Yeah. All of that.
Another example of that is this year I’ve been trying to improve my golf skills. I played competitively in high school and then not a lot during my adult life until this year. And golf is one of those things that looks easy but it’s actually very difficult. And one of the reasons it is difficult for people who play baseball; because in baseball you have your elbow up like this and you are hitting it with your arms and with golf you need to have that elbow close to your body and you’re not hitting it with your arm, you are trying to hit it by turning your body. And so what you see there is a huge number of people hitting it wrong and practicing it wrong. Sort of strengthening all the habits they have that aren’t right. But with the right coaching and the right practice and everything, people can change. A lot of times even if they lay off for awhile – I think probably if they are nervous – I don’t know if that’s been tested, but they will then revert somewhat to the wrong old thing. And I think the same thing happens… you could feel secure in a relationship where the other person is providing this security, but if you’ve got, you know, like Tiger Woods’ wife, you find that he has sexual partners on his cell phone, I think that’s going to be a jolt to that system. So it is like the brain is the same brain in all these things. It has patterns and the more they are practiced, the more automatic and unconscious they become. And they are changeable but it is difficult a lot of times to change them. And a sermon doesn’t change them, but I can tell you for sure that telling someone not to have their elbow up in the air like that baseball bat swing doesn’t do much at all to get them to hit it correctly, because the verbal part of your brain is not what is controlling the swing; not when it is happening in fractions of a second.
If you are going to change, you need someone who understands where you are, how you probably got that way, and how you could change.