Friends as Attachment Figures
Updated: Apr 20
TW: breakups, abandonment, attachment wounds, childhood painful experiences
Friendship is complicated. Allowing someone to see and know you is a vulnerable act, and depending on your early childhood attachment to caregivers it could be especially painful. In the first year of life, our attachment style or stance is formed based on our primary caregivers’ styles and our experience of having our needs met.
Attachment Theory is a tool used in therapeutic settings and several branches of research. Modern experts in it are really interested in all the layers of attachment to others and the Self.
Secure: "My needs will be met. my caregiver/friend will come back. I am safe to check check-in and go explore the world." - ventral vagal nervous system state.
Anxious-Preoccupied: "My needs will get met if I... cry the loudest, chase after them, perform and earn care. I need to be fixated on winning care from others. I do not trust my caregiver/friend will not leave me because of my needs." - sympathetic nervous system states - fight/flight
Dismissive-Avoidant: "My needs will not be met, so I should stop having needs. Having feelings is needy, so I should shut them down." - dorsal vagal nervous system state - freeze/withdraw
Fearful-Avoidant: "I really want someone to meet my needs, but if that starts to happen I will panic and push them away." - this type shifts between anxious and avoidant
A person’s attachment stance is not fixed, we can heal wounds and gain a more secure style. As adults, you may experience secure attachment to some people in your life and not others, and it's common to have a combination of secure and insecure styles.
The only element of therapy that is proven effective, regardless of modality, is the quality of the attachment/bond between client and therapist.
Secure attachment experiences with others and with yourself are where safety to explore, reflect, and heal are possible. This can happen with a therapist, coach, yogi, colleague, romantic partner, or friend.
Attachment Theory & Friendship
Close friends can feel like family, for better or worse, and budding friendships can trigger fear of abandonment or avoidance. It is nearly impossible to interact with someone without your attachment stance present.
The reasons friendships end are limitless. The end is not always painful but sometimes can mirror any life-altering loss experience triggering grief.
Just because someone was not “that big of a deal” in your life does not mean you will not be impacted if your connection ends. This is especially true for those with anxious-attachment tendencies. The need for acceptance can be a strong driver for these folks in all areas of life.
Friendship experiences for you may have been/are intensely painful, even traumatizing. Between social expectations and our (sometimes) unpredictable ways of being, relationships can feel inexplicably vulnerable.
If you, or your friend, are struggling with feeling held, safe, and seen, you may have a lot of tension in your relationship.
Often, the challenge we face is not in the challenge of the present moment. When we get upset or triggered, we need to honor the new thing and also acknowledge that there could be something in the past our body is remembering.
We can learn to resource ourselves and calm our nervous system. This helps us come back into the present moment and face the current dilemma. It takes practice and sometimes our inner-world and nervous system do not care for the work. That’s okay. Don’t force yourself to stop things, just add to the strategies that you already have.
Define the Relationship?
It's easy to feel like a bad friend. When we can’t follow through, forget, back out, say no, we can feel like we're failing at friendship.
New relationships are particularly challenging when we're more likely to be masking while perceiving if there is safety in the other person. There are no DTR's (Define The Relationship) in friendship, but perhaps there should be. Many of us experienced the care of checking in with others on their preferences for Covid caution. It wasn't hard to want to support one another by seeing if/how expectations were shifting throughout the pandemic. So, why can't we do this more with other expectations in friendship?
Perhaps you never want to go out in the evening. Do you commit to things and then struggle to show up or feel irritated by the cost for you?
What if you told friends from the start that you are not generally available for evening plans -- that you're often exhausted or don't like driving at night?
This kind of vulnerability is usually saved for friends who have already passed all the secret tests.
They've been gracious and non-judgmental at all of our 'bad friend' behaviors, some of them have even acknowledged these patterns and offered reassurance for how they feel about us.
We've also been tested and left by unrealistic expectations. If we're also anxiously attached, then friendships might be a recurring source of stress.
Finally, one important note about friendship -- it is heavily impacted by the systems within which it operates. Our capitalist, patriarchal society places expectations on everyone for social behavior and decorum. This trains us to be harsh critics of one another and to avoid those who do not perform 'correctly.'
If friendships are hard for you - it is not your fault.
We need a new way to view and engage in friendship that encourages people to be themselves and be safe for others to do the same.
Where do you see attachment styles impacting friendship for you?
Share an example of a secure attachment in your life or that you’ve witnessed.
How could you apply the attachment theory to improve relationships?
How could you use it when a relationship needs to end?
"It's Your Friends Who Break Your Heart" by Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic
"What Does Your Attachment Style Say About Your Friendships?" by Nina Fazil, EduAdvisor
"Losing Friends with Grace: Attachment-based guidelines for navigating the travails of friendship." by Hal Shorey, Ph.D., Psychology Today
"Anxious Attachment Causes & Symptoms" by The Attachment Project
Dr. Dan Siegel is one of the modern experts on Attachment Theory
"Friendships Change. Here's How to Deal." by Julia Furlan, NPR's LIFE KIT
"A Friendly Ghost Story" by Andrew Mambo, NPR's INVISIBILIA (TW: episode mentions suicide and depression)