Breaking Up is Hard to Do–There’s More Going on Than Meets the Eye with Heartbreak

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

broken heart

Breaking up is always hard, but some people rebound more easily than others.   According to new research, it turns out a person’s ability to recover from a break-up has even more to do about their attachment style than it does with the depth of feeling for the object of one’s unrequited affections.  New research  shows that people with secure attachment styles handle breakups much more efficiently than those with less secure attachment styles.   There are 4 basic attachment styles (Secure, Anxious-Preoccupied,   Anxious-Avoidant, Dismissive-Avoidant) that dictate our basic attitudes and behavior in relationship.   We learn these styles based upon how promptly, consistently, and compassionately our parents responded to our needs as children.   These patterns of engagement between parent and child form our deep-seated attitudes about our relationship for the rest of our lives.

4 Basic Attachment Styles

People who are  Securely Attached tend to be comfortable in relationships and by themselves.   They are capable of being  appropriately vulnerable and setting appropriate standards in relationships.   Securely attached adults tend to experience the most stable and satisfying relationships.   People with secure attachment were raised in homes where parents responded to their needs promptly, consistently, and compassionately.  Those who exhibit an  Anxious-Preoccupied  attachment style tend to be somewhat nervous in relationship.   These folks value their relationships a great deal but tend to be preoccupied by fears that they might do something to alienate the other person or cause the other to want to leave them.   They tend to take the blame for any relationship problems whether they should or not and they often need a lot of reassurance that things are really OK between them and the other.   They often struggle with being alone and can be somewhat dependent or emotionally needy. People with an Anxious-Preoccupied attachment style were raised in homes where there parents tended to ignore initial cries and requests for help. Ultimately, the child’s needs would be met, but only after the child was made to work for it by crying a little harder and longer, or asking one more time.   In this model, the parent was a benevolent god who required some degree of supplication before favors were granted.   These individuals are at higher risk for anxiety disorders.

Those who exhibit an  Anxious-Avoidant  attachment style like the idea of being in a relationship, but tend to have a hard time opening up in relationship.   They can communicate their feelings but they typically don’t do so willingly or without a great deal of effort.   They tend to send mixed messages to the people they are in relationship with insofar as they want the other to be close to them, but they don’t want to return the closeness.   They fear being hurt or left so they often remain aloof even when it would be safe to open up.   People with an Anxious-Avoidant attachment style were raised by parents who only met those needs the parents felt were worth meeting and only when the parents felt it was worth meeting them.   Often, the decision to meet or not meet a child’s needs would be based more on how the parent was feeling in the moment rather than any discernible logic, so the child is left with the impression that relationships are a mystery that they have no direct control over.   These people tend to be suspicious of the motivations of others and often read negative intentions into even unintentional slights.   They have a strong tendency toward depression and substance abuse issues.  Finally, those with a  Dismissive-Avoidant  attachment style are lone wolves.   They can take or leave relationships.   They tend to be fairly out of touch emotionally and don’t do vulnerability. They can be very task oriented and accomplished in their lives because all of the energy other people spend on relationship they save for achievement.   These individuals were raised in homes where needs were largely ignored.   The child learned to rely almost entirely on his or herself and to believe that needing others at all was a weakness not a strength.   Because these individuals are largely unable to get any joy or satisfaction from being close to people, they have a much greater tendency toward substance abuse and other compulsive behaviors (sex, gambling).

Attachment Style and Coping with Break-ups

So, what does all this have to do with ability to recover from romantic breakups?   Quite a bit.  According to new research by Cornell University,  Those with a secure attachment style usually have the healthiest response to break-ups. They are more likely to turn to close friends and family for support as opposed to using drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. They are more open to authentically grieving the loss, and are better able to understand, or empathize with their partner’s reasons for the break-up which allows them to respond in a less hostile manner. And–this is important in regard to future relationships–they are less likely to blame themselves for the relationship ending.

People who have an anxious attachment style are more likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies, such as abusing drugs or alcohol in the wake of an emotionally distressing situation such as a break up. They are prone to jealousy after the end of a relationship, particularly if they are not the ones who ended it, and they will be more likely to try to re-establish the relationship, even if the relationship wasn’t a healthy one. Some research suggests that those with an anxious attachment style would be the most likely to engage in unwanted pursuit behaviours such as stalking, threatening, or even attempting to physically harm their previous partner.  Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to turn less to friends and family after a break-up, and are more likely to use drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. They may avoid the former partner, sometimes going so far as to change jobs or schools, consistent with the inclination to suppress distressing thoughts, or in this case any reminders of their former relationship.  

Read the entire article here.

The Takeaway

The takeaway for those grieving the loss of a relationship is that your reaction may have more to do with what’s going on inside of you than your feelings about the other person.   If you are having difficulties recovering from a breakup that are affecting your well-being, seeking help can empower you to heal a less-than-secure attachment style.   Look for someone trained in Mindfulness Based Therapy which has been shown to be effective at helping to heal damaged attachment styles.   If you’re looking for help, your PaxCare Tele-Coach  can help you find healing.  The takeaway for parents is that attaching to your child by meeting your child’s needs promptly, consistently, and compassionately does more than help your relationship with your child.   It gives your child relationship and coping skills that can last a lifetime.   To learn more about how you can give your   child everything he or she needs to have healthy adult relationships and strong coping skills, check out  Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.


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