Attachment Style and Breakup

Attachment Style and Breakup

“Hearts will never be practical until they are made unbreakable.”

There’s clearly an intentional irony to this quote from The Wizard of Oz; hearts weren’t designed to be unbreakable by nature. So in the midst of heartache, many of us behave far from practically.

Breakups often shake us to our core, cause us self-doubt, lower our self-esteem, and create a strong sense of failure or guilt. This reaction is down to the fact that most of us enter into a relationship with “forever” as the ultimate goal, so when a partnership ends, we typically mourn the loss of the person we cared about, as well as what “could have been.”

Yet, how we process our emotions in the aftermath of a breakup, the way we view our past relationships, and our ability to move on from them are dynamically impacted by our attachment styles.

So, how do the different attachment styles affect our ability to reflect on how we acted within a relationship, and move on from them healthily?

To answer this question, we will discuss:

  • Why attachment styles influence how we respond to breakups
  • How the secure attachment style impacts our reaction to breakups
  • The effect of the avoidant attachment style on breakups and getting back together
  • Possible drawbacks and benefits of the anxious attachment style after a breakup
  • The influence of the disorganized attachment style on relationships and breakups

How Your Attachment Style Can Influence Your Breakup

Breakups, like any other stressful life event, can have a major impact on our mental health and well-being. As a result of heartbreak, we may experience issues such as depression, anxiety, sleep imbalances, and even feelings of grief. Of course, there are individual differences in how we cope and emotionally adjust in the aftermath of a breakup.

Many of us are aware of how our attachment styles can influence how we act within a relationship. Yet, not all of us credit them for how we cope with our emotions when relationships end.

What Are Attachment Styles?

There are four attachment styles: one secure and three insecure (avoidant, anxious, and disorganized).

According to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, the attachment styles we personally develop depends on the bond we form with our caregivers in our early years. Essentially, how we connect with our caregivers shapes our understanding of ourselves and others and turns into a template for how we view the world and fit into it. This template (attachment style) influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout our lifespans – including how we behave in (and after) relationships.

If our caregivers make themselves available to us as children and respond to our needs sensitively, then we likely develop a secure attachment. Comparatively, if caregivers are inconsistent, rejecting, or neglecting of our needs, we may develop an insecure attachment style. As adults, these attachment styles impact how we emotionally respond to life stressors – including breakups.

There are four attachment styles: one secure and three insecure (avoidant, anxious, and disorganized).

According to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, the attachment styles we personally develop depends on the bond we form with our caregivers in our early years. Essentially, how we connect with our caregivers shapes our understanding of ourselves and others and turns into a template for how we view the world and fit into it. This template (attachment style) influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout our lifespans – including how we behave in (and after) relationships.

If our caregivers make themselves available to us as children and respond to our needs sensitively, then we likely develop a secure attachment. Comparatively, if caregivers are inconsistent, rejecting, or neglecting of our needs, we may develop an insecure attachment style. As adults, these attachment styles impact how we emotionally respond to life stressors – including breakups.

Secure Attachment and Breakup

Breakups are hard on everyone – regardless of our attachment styles. However, because someone with a secure attachment grew up in an environment in which their needs were met, they felt safe, protected, and valued. Secure attachers have a positive outlook on themselves and others, and are able to manage their intense emotions in balanced, healthy ways.

For these reasons, in the direct aftermath of a breakup, although a secure attacher may be feeling heartache – especially if they weren’t the instigator of the breakup – their pain may be alleviated by their attachment style.

How can secure attachment alleviate
breakup distress?

1. Prevent the breakup

Interestingly, people with the secure attachment style don’t experience as many breakups in general as do the other attachment styles.

This finding could be due to the fact that when a secure attacher senses that their partner may be considering ending the relationship, they typically don’t over or under-react. They have the ability to remain calm and talk through issues in the relationship with their partner. This ability to regulate emotions and demonstrate care and concern to their loved one may potentially even reduce the risk of the breakup in the first place.

2. Reach out for support when heartbroken

Yet, when a secure attacher does experience a breakup, they are typically aware of and able to communicate their feelings openly and honestly. Therefore, they are more likely to reach out to their family and friends for support in their times of need.

For this reason, although they may be feeling heartbroken, their distress is alleviated by their ability to communicate their needs to their support system.

3. Ditch the negative self-talk

Due to their solid foundations in life, secure attachers generally have more confidence in themselves – they believe that they are worthy of love. So, after a relationship ends, they are less likely to spiral into self-blame.

In fact, someone with a secure attachment style may be able to view the breakup objectively and see that there was a reason for it in the first place. Thus, they may be able to learn from why the relationship didn’t work out and apply their new knowledge to future connections.

Avoidant Attachment and Breakup

Someone with an avoidant attachment style in relationships likely grew up with caregivers that they perceived to be rejecting of their need for intimacy and affection. In response to this sense of repeated rejection, the child ultimately shuts down their attachment system. Consequently, adults with an avoidant attachment style can come across as cold and aloof in romantic relationships. This reaction is due to the fact that they have a defensive mode in place which protects them from feeling rebuffed in their adult life.

However, this avoidance of emotional closeness also manifests in avoidant attachment breakup.

How can avoidant attachment affect
breakup distress – Avoidant avoidant breakup stages

1. Initiate the breakup & suppress negative emotions

To begin with, avoidant attachers are more likely to instigate a breakup, as they typically prefer to keep relationships on a surface level and avoid confrontations with their partners.

However, regardless of whether they are the instigator of a breakup or not, avoidant attachers tend to repress or avoid expression of their intense emotions in the aftermath. This response isn’t to suggest that avoidant attachers don’t feel the pain of a breakup – they do. They’re just prone to pushing down their heartbreak and attempting to carry on with life as normal.

2. Avoid self-reflection & hinder personal growth

As a result of turning off their emotions, avoidant attachers are not likely to over-reflect on why a relationship didn’t work out.

Yet, interestingly, this reaction means that avoidant attachers may struggle to move on from previous relationships as quickly as they could if they had dealt with their emotions head-on.

Furthermore, as children, avoidant attachers created a positive self-view as a defense mechanism for their negative environment. As adults, this confident opinion of themselves can inhibit the ability to reflect honestly on personal downfalls within a relationship. Therefore, an avoidant attacher’s positive self-view can deprive them of the opportunity to grow in the aftermath of a breakup.

Do avoidants regret breaking up?

Intriguingly, avoidant attachers may only repress their upset and distress in the direct aftermath of a breakup. In contrast to anxious attachers, who typically brood and focus on why a relationship ended when it initially happens, avoidant attachers may only do so after considerable time has passed. This delayed brooding may impede an avoidant attacher’s willingness to meet new potential partners, as well as experience relationship satisfaction down the line.

Avoidant attachers may also engage in counterfactual thinking after time has passed since the breakup. This type of “if only” thinking may cause someone with this attachment style to wonder what might have been if only they had acted differently. However, for the most part, counterfactual thinking isn’t helpful, because the event has already occurred – therefore, it’s impossible to change it. Instead, it may benefit an avoidant attacher to try and learn from their previous actions and apply their newfound knowledge to current or future relationships.

In spite of the fact that avoidants may regret breaking up, they may regard their ex-partner negatively, and convince themselves that the breakup was their ex’s fault. Thus, they may talk themselves into thinking that the breakup was the best decision they ever made.

However, regardless of whether avoidant attachers regret a breakup or not, they’re still not likely to attempt to reestablish the relationship.

How to get over an avoidant partner

Due to the fact that someone with an avoidant attachment style is more likely to end a relationship because it’s starting to become serious, combined with their reluctance to re-establish a romantic connection, many people may be wondering how to get over an avoidant partner.

If you’re struggling in the aftermath of a breakup with an avoidant partner, the following steps may help you move on from the relationship:

Step #1: Assess your level of satisfaction within the relationship

Oftentimes, we’re prone to sticking with a relationship that isn’t technically working out, because it’s catering to some subconscious desire – such as that of feeling connected or attached to someone. However, if this is the case, then it’s likely that some – or many – of our needs weren’t being fulfilled by the partnership.

Before you jump into attempting to reestablish a connection with an ex, perhaps do a cost/benefit analysis of the relationship. Taking such a practical observation may reduce the intense emotions you may be feeling as a result of the breakup. Consider factors such as:

  • How much time your partner was willing to dedicate to you
  • Whether they were willing to be intimate and disclose emotions
  • If they were inclined to commit to you in the long term
  • And practical elements of the relationship such as age, occupation, and location

At the end of the exercise, you may be able to more clearly see how your ex wasn’t satisfying your needs.

Step #2: Avoid contact with your avoidant ex

This isn’t some manipulative strategy designed to get your avoidant ex’s attention. Instead, it’s to bring awareness to how you may manage breakups based on your own attachment style. For example, if you’re high in attachment anxiety, then you’re prone to attempts at reestablishing the relationship. However, doing so may place you in a vicious cycle of reunion and rejection, so it’s best to reflect on why the relationship ended and move on with your life.

Step #3: Process your feelings

Secure attachers process their heartache by discussing their intense feelings with their family and trusted friends. If you wish to get over your avoidant ex, then it may be necessary for you to explore your emotions by discussing them with someone you trust. In some instances, you may find that therapy is the best avenue for you to process how you’re feeling after a breakup.

In case you still decide to give a second chance to you ex, you may find useful our tips on how to date someone with avoidant attachment!

Anxious Attachment and Breakup

Someone with an anxious attachment style likely grew up in an environment where intimacy and affection were given inconsistently. Thus, as an adult, an anxious attacher will do everything in their power to be close and intimate with a romantic partner. They require affection and emotional affinity so as to feel safe and secure in a relationship. In turn, this need also affects anxious attachment breakups.

Anxious attachment breakup stages

1. Sensitivity towards relationship threats

Even before a breakup actually occurs, someone with anxious attachment in relationships may be more sensitive to the fact that it’s impending as they’re prone to any indications of abandonment or rejection from their partner.

Moreover, picking up on these issues in the relationship may create further conflict and drive it towards its end.

2. Intense negative reactions when a relationship ends

After a breakup, someone with the anxious attachment style often feels intense pain and longing for their ex-partner. This reaction is due to their attachment system being activated by feelings of abandonment and rejection. Therefore, it is even more intense in cases where the anxious attacher wasn’t the instigator of the breakup.

This highly negative response may even lead to depressive symptoms and anxiety in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. So, the anxious attacher often responds to breakups by attempting to restore their feelings of safety and security.

3. Urge to get back together with the ex

The anxious attacher may feel like ending the relationship was unwarranted. Therefore, they may try to figure out ways to get back together with their partner and restore the attachment bond. However, doing so often leads to cycles of making up and breaking up.

What’s more, not only might the anxious attacher experience a loss of identity as they may be willing to change who they are in an attempt to coerce their partner into reuniting, but it also reduces their chances of being able to move on with their lives and establish a relationship in which they feel safe and secure.

4. Rumination & jealousy

Anxious attachers are prone to preoccupation with why the breakup occurred in the first place. Although this is quite a common reaction for most people, anxious attachers may struggle to get past this stage and their hypervigilant behaviors and anxious attachment jealousy may even be triggered. As a result, they experience intense distress and may even be prone to jealous and aggressive behavior towards their ex-partner.

The anxious attacher may also overanalyze their own behavior during the relationship, as well as that of their ex-partner, in an attempt to find answers to why the breakup occurred in the first place.

Having said as much, there actually are positives to how an anxious attacher handles breakups…

Three benefits of having an anxious
attachment style in breakups

Many people report the negatives after a breakup with a romantic partner; prolonged feelings of upset, difficulties sleeping, intense emotions such as sadness and anger, taking care of ourselves less, and an overall decline in life satisfaction are common reactions.

However, not many people discuss the potential positives of a relationship ending – but there’s much to suggest that there’s truth to Frederich Nietzsche’s adage: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” as those of us high in attachment anxiety may be able to evolve for the better after a breakup in contrast to those high in attachment avoidance.

I. Personal growth & positive change

People high in attachment anxiety appear to be able to see the silver linings of a breakup and are thus able to grow from the experience. This personal growth may be due to how anxious attachers emotionally respond in the direct aftermath of a breakup:

An anxious attacher’s enhanced distress after a breakup promotes brooding and reflection on the relationship and why it ended, potentially offering them a sense of insight into what went wrong and why. Their tendency towards low self-esteem and negative self-perceptions may cause the anxious attacher to blame themselves for the breakup and potentially motivate them towards positive change. In other words, an anxious attacher’s intense focus on their personal downfalls and how they affected their relationship may help them confront their issues and process them.

II. Moving on & establishing new connections

People high in attachment anxiety may be able to move on from past relationships quicker than those high in attachment avoidance.

After anxious attachers process their distress, they typically feel emotionally capable of rebounding into another relationship. This new experience often allows them to establish a renewed sense of connectedness and security, as well as focus on something other than “pining” over their ex. However, it may take some time before an anxious attacher feels emotionally ready to rebound.

III. Self-development & better future relationships

Anxious attachers are more likely to experience future romantic success after a breakup.
It may also be the case that anxious attachers experience future relationship satisfaction and personal success as a result of the breakup experience. Their fear of subsequent relationship failure may encourage them to develop skills that allow them to maintain future relationships more successfully and, therefore, increase the likelihood that they will experience long, stable, and happy relationships down the line.

Disorganized Attachment and Breakup

A disorganized attachment is rooted in a childhood of perceived fear. In some cases, a child may have experienced neglect, abuse, or trauma or perhaps witnessed their caregiver acting this way towards others. Either way, the disorganized attacher struggled to make sense of their caregiver’s actions – they simultaneously desired love and affection from them, while also fearing what the caregiver was capable of.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style tend to continue to struggle to understand the way other people behave. Consequently, the disorganized attacher lacks a coherent approach to how they act around their romantic partners; they often seek out affection and intimacy, and then push it away as soon as it is offered.

This lack of consistent behavior is also evident in disorganized attachment breakups.

How does disorganized attachment
impact breakups?

By nature, someone with a disorganized attachment typically swaps between the traits of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles depending on their current mood and circumstances, for this reason, it is not always possible to identify the stages of disorganized break up.

1. Mixture of intense affect and emotional inhibition

Thus, someone with a disorganized attachment style may be prone to strong feelings of distress, anxiety, and even depressive symptoms after a breakup. However, they are also capable of bottling up these feelings and closing themselves off from others – but this may be an important defensive strategy for the disorganized attacher. Ultimately, a disorganized attacher may struggle to reflect on what happened within the relationship that led to the breakup, so they may accept the outcome passively.

However, depending on the extent to which a disorganized attacher falls on the dimensions of anxious and avoidant attachment, they may be able to positively grow from a breakup.

2. Potential to learn and grow from the experience

If the disorganized attacher allows themself to brood and reflect on the issues in their previous relationship, they may develop a sense of insight into their actions. If they deem themselves to be responsible for the breakup (which their low self-esteem may cause them to), then they may be able to alter their patterns of behavior for the better in future relationships.

Therefore, the disorganized attacher may be more likely to experience success in future relationships.

3. Need to discover the right approach to healing

When it comes to disorganized attachment, there really isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. Therefore, if someone with a disorganized attachment is struggling with their intense emotions after a breakup, or else feeling strangely “flat,” it’s important that they process their heartbreak in a way that suits them best.

Seeking professional help, talking to a trusted loved one, or engaging in activities that help them to connect with who they truly are at their core may help a disorganized attacher to recognize the patterns in their behavior. Furthermore, doing so may help them create strategies that prevent the past from repeating itself and facilitate healthy, supportive future relationships.

Final Thoughts on Attachment Styles and Breakup

Regardless of whether we are more prone to an anxious- or avoidant-driven response to a breakup, it’s important to recognize our patterns in the aftermath of a relationship ending if we wish to grow from the experience. Self-reflection, as well as allowing ourselves to grieve for the loss of a relationship, may promote positive change in our lives, as well as increase our chances of future relationships and personal satisfaction.

Remember, if you are struggling to get past your negative emotions following a breakup, there are mental health professionals who are trained to help you process your feelings, reflect on the relationship, and even see the potential positives for the future. Our guide on therapies may help you find the form of therapy best suited to you.

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