Do highly sensitive people experience more difficulty forming healthy romantic relationships? Let’s look at the research on attachment styles to help answer that question.
We unconsciously act the way we do in romantic relationships for a good reason. Human beings have an innate drive to form emotional bonds with people who are precious to us. We suffer when we aren’t able to create secure bonds. The need for secure attachment is part of our inherited survival strategy.
Historically, we survive better in packs than alone. Solitary confinement is one of the most devastating forms of punishment. Even though children in orphanages in war-torn countries have food, clothing and shelter, they get sick and sometimes die without adequate loving attention. That’s how important emotional attachment is to us.
Healthy relationships are the number one predictor of our ability to heal from serious disease and maintain emotional and physical health. We live four years longer when we have healthy bonded relationships. (reference 5)
Psychological research shows that when we’re babies, we develop one of four attachment styles based on the parenting style of our caregivers. According to Dr. Edward’s research, the attachment style of a one-year-old predicts the attachment style of a 25-year-old. (reference 1) We instinctively figure out the best way to survive.
As adults, our childhood attachment style influences all of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors at an unconscious level.
Attachment styles have two categories: (1) secure and (2) insecure.
The insecure styles are divided into two sub-categories: anxious and avoidant. Some people have a third insecure style called anxious-avoidant.
1. Secure attachment style
Fifty percent of us enjoy a secure attachment style. Our parents were emotionally healthy, responsive and physically present. As children, we felt understood and cherished. We felt safe and secure. Our physical needs were met. There was no harsh discipline or emotional neglect or icy distance. Appropriate discipline was coupled with warmth and reassurance that we were loved and liked. We were given the appropriate amount of freedom to explore the world in a safe way, and encouraged to develop our unique personality. As adults, we anticipate that people will like us and we will like them. We develop healthy relationships and set appropriate boundaries for self-care.
Insecure Attachment Styles
2. Anxious Attachment Style
Twenty percent of our population has an anxious attachment style. Our parents were inconsistent in meeting our emotional or physical needs. We became watchful, trying to figure out how to please our parents so they wouldn’t abandon us. As adults, we worry that our partner will leave us if there is conflict. We still try to please people. We might feel jealous.
When we don’t get our needs met, we get angry because anger is easier to feel than the loneliness of separation.
When we feel misunderstood and unloved, we become stressed. We act in a manner that is critical, defensive or contemptuous. We’re trying to get our partner to connect with us, but inadvertently we push our partner away. We’re called “pursuers” in the language of Adult Attachment Theory. An anxious attachment style isn’t right or wrong. Don’t beat yourself up if you have this style. The description helps us understand each other and ourselves. We often mate with avoidant styles who distance from deep emotional connection in the heat of conflict, leaving us feeling more anxious because we feel the pain of being left alone.
3. Avoidant Attachment Style
Twenty-three percent of us have an avoidant attachment style. Our parents were emotionally or physically unavailable, neglectful or downright abusive. Scared and tense in our bodies, we became hyper-vigilant trying to intuit our parents’ unpredictable behavior. We had a big dilemma. How could we protect ourselves from parents who emotionally or physically hurt us, while being dependent on them to meet our basic needs for food, shelter and clothing? Without the much-needed emotional nurturance, our bodies didn’t feel safe, and we braced ourselves for potential threats. We emotionally distanced and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible.
As adults, we may be independent high-achievers, driven to succeed. We hesitate to ask for help. We may experience physical pain, chronic fatigue, addictions and other diseases predictable from a lifetime of physiological hyper-arousal. We may fall into depression, or swing between anxiety and depression. Even when we want to form healthy relationships, we anticipate people won’t like us if they really know us, or we won’t like them. We guard against getting too close. We may assume people will judge us, hurt us or try to control us. We’re called “withdrawers.”
4. Anxious/Avoidant Attachment Style
One percent of us have this combined style. We may jump into relationships quickly, loving the endorphin high of romance, or we may hang back for a long time trying to determine if we’re safe with a potential partner. We’re often attracted to a person who also has an insecure attachment style. When conflicts arise, we try to work it out, but if our partner doesn’t respond positively, we withdraw to protect ourselves. It’s difficult to open our hearts again, even when our partner begs us to connect, unless there’s a strong friendship already established.
The healthiest relationships contain at least one person with a secure attachment style.
When conflicts arise, the secure attachment style partner provides a stable emotional base so the other partner feels loved. To use an analogy, when the couple is dancing, and the insecure partner stumbles, the secure partner is grounded and warm-hearted enough to help the other regain their balance. (reference 4)
With individual and couples therapy, people with insecure attachment styles can learn how to repair attachment injuries and connect in emotionally healthy ways. They can develop “earned secure attachment” so they both feel safe, understood and loved.
The science of Adult Attachment Theory is relatively new. With the development of fMRI machines, neuroscience has been able to understand the interplay between our emotions, our physiological reactions and our behaviors, and what happens to make us feel safe or scared in our relationships. (reference 3)
Highly Sensitive People and Attachment Styles
Let’s circle back and apply attachment theory to highly sensitive people. Research by Dr. Elaine Aron indicates that highly sensitive children raised by parents who meet their emotional and physical needs develop secure attachment styles just like non-highly sensitive children who have healthy parent styles. As these highly sensitive people mature, they thrive in relationships and they reach their life goals even better than many non-highly sensitives. They are creative, conscientious, compassionate, intuitive and innovative.
However, when the emotional and physical needs of highly sensitive children are not met, they react stronger to deprivation or abuse than non-highly sensitive children. Their nervous systems respond with more hyper-arousal (like pressing your foot on the car accelerator, driving at high speeds) and/or hypo-arousal (like having your foot at the brake, or vacillating between the two) than non-highly sensitive people.
Highly sensitive people are more prone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they experience trauma, (reference 6) but with adept psychotherapy the effects of trauma can be healed. It’s best to seek therapy as soon as possible after a troubling incident to return the nervous system to resilience.
Highly sensitive people are no more likely to report insecure attachment styles than non-highly sensitive people. Nothing about highly sensitivity impairs a person’s ability to form a healthy intimate relationship. Highly sensitive people are more attuned to subtle meanings of conversations, and they are able to gain more benefit from loving attention. They’re more empathetic, and better equipped to detect the unmet needs of others and fulfill those needs. They are more adept learners than non-highly sensitive people when healthy relationships skills are modeled for them in therapy. When they receive affirmation and appreciation, they thrive. (reference 8)
It’s challenging to form healthy bonded intimate relationships as an adult if we have an insecure attachment style. However, if we’re fortunate enough to mate with a secure attachment-style person, or we learn how to change our patterns in a course of successful psychotherapy, we can change our style to “earned secure attachment” and enjoy flourishing relationships.
If you would like to inquire about individual or couples counseling or life/spiritual coaching for highly sensitive people, contact the author. Benita A. Esposito, MA is a licensed professional counselor, life coach and spiritual counselor who specializes in helping highly sensitive people. She earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and has four decades professional experience. Complete the Contact Page to schedule a 10-minute complimentary phone interview to see if her services are a good fit for you.
1. Search youtube for Edward Tronick “Still Face Experiment.” See what happens to the nervous system of a baby when her mother no longer attunes to her, and how the mother repairs the attachment injury.
2. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love. Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. 2010
3. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. Sue Johnson, PhD. 2014.
4. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Sue Johnson, PhD. 2014
5. Love and Survival. Dean Ornish, MD. 1999
6. The Highly Sensitive Person. Elaine Aron, PhD. 1997
7. The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. Elaine Aron, PhD. 2001
8. Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. Elaine Aron, PhD. 2010