At one time or another most of us will experience that gut-wrenching feeling known as insecurity. Perhaps your partner is preoccupied and you don’t know what they are up to. Or the attractive new person at work has been mentioned yet again. Hopefully with little more than a quick check of the facts the feeling passes and relationship life continues. But some people can be dominated by insecurity bringing friction or disaster to their relationships. Others meanwhile appear care-free, seemingly never insecure and looking down on those that are with raised eyebrows.
What makes people react so differently? This article will explain:
- What makes people secure or insecure in their relationships?
- The insecurity dynamic with your partner.
- Can insecurity be changed?
Security begins in childhood: Attachment theory
The terms secure or insecure are in common usage today but they originate from the work of British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. Over half a century ago, Bowlby studied childhood behaviour and recognised how a child’s early experience of their caregivers influences their significant relationships when they become adults. Bowlby observed that the quality of a child’s experience of their parents becomes their lifelong expectation of others. In other words how dependable your parents are (or where) shapes how dependable you expect your partner to be. Bowlby labelled these expectations ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’.
Secure means you tend to have confidence in your significant other. For example, when your partner is preoccupied or unhappy and you have to fill in the gaps, you are more likely to attribute reasonable and favourable assumptions to them. In your mind there is little to worry about.
Insecure means you expect others to be unreliable or undependable. If your partner is absent or unhappy you will tend to assume that they might not come back, or that they have lost interest in you. Fear of being abandoned is never far from the surface.
Insecurity can be subdivided into two types: anxious and avoidant.
When most people think of insecurity they conjure an image of somebody who is clingy and fearful. But not everybody behaves this way, in fact, the other type of insecurity looks almost the opposite. The two subtypes that are commonly observed are anxious insecurity and avoidant insecurity.
Anxious insecurity – When children are repeatedly separated from their parents – either physically or emotionally – they still naturally crave their parents love and attention but they live in fear that it may disappear at any time. They subsequently look for reassurance and get upset or angry when they don’t get it. After their despair passes they become hopeful again, things are good until their fear arises or is triggered and the upset or anger begins again. This is known as anxious attachment.
Avoidant insecurity – If the child’s experience of separation is severe – the parents are consistently unavailable – the child becomes detached. This child has lost hope of reassurance or comfort and withdraws into their own world having learned that the only person they can truly rely on is themselves. This is called avoidant attachment.
Avoidant people can easily be mistaken for securely attached because they show little concern that their partner will leave them. But in reality, their absence of distress is because they fear being let down so much that avoid getting too close in the first place.
- Secure: enjoys being close but can tolerate distance, able to keep hold of the bigger picture and understand their partner in a realistic context.
- Anxious insecure: clingy, demanding, preoccupied with whether or not your partner might leave you.
- Avoidant insecure: distant, guarded, avoids getting close, preoccupied with keeping a safe distance.
These attachment styles tend to be lifelong. Our early experience of significant relationships forms our template for adult significant relationships.
How does this play out in relationships?
As with most personality traits, rather than fit statically into a category we tend to sit somewhere on a continuum with room for a little movement. For instance, you might consider yourself quite secure on the whole, but when relationship stresses come along you shift a little towards an anxious or an avoidant behaviour. Or, when someone who is usually secure pairs with somebody insecure, their partners clinginess can provoke a reaction of avoidance or their avoidance can provoke anxious insecurity.
Attachment styles don’t need to be problematic. This is because a lot depends on context. For example, during the honeymoon period of a new relationship both partners pay attention to the other and treat each other favourably so insecurities do not arise. However, as the stresses of everyday life creep back in and partners begin to refocus on things outside of the relationship, there is an increasing propensity for either person to be triggered into acting out their style of insecurity as they begin to worry where their partners attention went. This is when it can become problematic.
The insecurity dynamic
When one partner gets triggered, they usually trigger the other. For instance, the anxious partner is hypersensitive to being abandoned and seeks safety by moving closer. The avoidant partner sees this as intrusion which is threatening so they move away. To the anxious partner this confirms there is a problem so they move closer still. The avoidant partner eventually leaves. Both are scared of being hurt but react in different ways. Ironically, both trigger fear and alarm in the other by their efforts to make everything OK.
Can our attachment style be changed?
As previously mentioned, attachment styles persist over time. But, context and environment play a major part in how secure someone feels.
So, by understanding your own and your partners attachment style you can create a safe relationship environment where you both understand and consider each other. Instead of trying not to react to a trigger, it is more realistic to remove the trigger. Sometimes this is easier said than done because the conversation needed to understand each others history and attachment can trigger the insecure behaviour that you are trying to avoid.
If insecurity is a problem for you, individual or couples therapy can help you gain insight and have more control over yourself and your relationship.