Which Kind of Porcupine are You?
Picture this: Two prickly porcupines are shivering in their burrow in the midst of a snow storm. The biting cold is scary, overwhelming, and painful. In an effort to get warm, they both move close to the other’s body– to share heat and provide comfort. But what happens? Their sharp quills poke their partner, causing a new type of discomfort and pain; so, they distance themselves once again and move back into the cold. The peculiar and painful dance happens again and again throughout the storm as each partner tries to find the exact spot that feels just right. This is the Porcupine’s Dilemma: how do we get and give comfort in our relationships while also maintaining a healthy sense of separateness and distance. At what point is the closeness painful? When does the distance hurt?
The psychological (and biological) concept behind this dance is attachment – “the deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space” (Bowlby, 1969). You’re probably familiar with this term in reference to babies’ attachment to their caregivers; however, attachment is much more than our newborn responses to the world. While it is true that our early experiences with the people who raised us have an immense impact on our physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development in childhood, they also form the blueprint for how we relate to others in intimate relationships as adults throughout our lives. Bowlby described our relationships with intimate others as “the hub around which a person’s life revolves when he is an infant…and into old age.” Attachment creates that sense of what feels just right to us in our relationships. Think of Goldilocks, but for emotional security or distress.
There are four different “types” or “styles” found in attachment research and clinical practice: Secure; Preoccupied (aka Anxious); Dismissive (aka Avoidant); and Fearful (aka Disorganized). These four comfort set-points, or types, are determined by how positively or negatively a person sees himself or herself in relation to other people. They also correspond to how much anxiety and avoidance the person experiences in intimate relationships. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, architect of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT; one of the most well-researched and effective couples therapy frameworks), “human beings define themselves with others, not from others.” In this sense, who we are is defined by our attachment to others. A couples and family therapist – or even an individual counselor who works from an attachment perspective – will help people understand which style of attachment they have and how it influences their relationships. If you have ever wondered why you keep getting into the same predicaments in your relationships, accused of either not caring or being too needy, attachment science is a good way to understand what’s happening – as well as how you might begin to change it. Below are brief descriptions of each attachment style. As you read, reflect on your important relationships throughout life and think about where you might fit.
Secure Attachment: People with the secure attachment style are flexible in relationships and find comfort in both distance and closeness. They have a well-developed sense of their identity and where they fit in the world. These people can fully enjoy intimacy in relationships because they feel complete and worthy on their own. When their partner creates some distance by leaving for a trip, starting a new friendship, or doing activities without them, they don’t panic or even feel bad. People with secure attachments can trust that others will do what they promise and show up for them when they need it. Similarly, when their partners lean in for closeness and intimacy, they don’t become uncomfortable or turn away. They want to share. There is a sense that they themselves are good/worthy/lovable and their partners are the same. People with a secure attachment style can be present, curious, and open about emotional experiences – their own as well as their partner’s.
Anxious Attachment: People with an anxious attachment style experience discomfort and distress when there is distance between them and their partner. They may respond to anxiety about separations with anger, desperation, panic, or clinging behaviors. These people see their significant others and relationships in a largely positive light, but may view themselves negatively. The phrase “you complete me” is appropriate here; on their own, those with anxious attachment often feel like they are lacking something. They often have a negative self-view, but a positive view of others. Their partners become a stabilizing force, so any distance or moving away in the relationship - whether real or perceived - feels scary, chaotic, and dangerous. An anxious attachment means they aren't sure the other person will be there if they need them, so they are constantly in some state of vigilance, scanning and testing the relationship for problems that could lead to being alone again. From an EFT perspective, these partners are usually the Pursuer in the relationship. They rush towards relationship danger to try to solve problems, preferring their partners' pointy quills to the cold snow.
Avoidant Attachment: People with an avoidant attachment style comprise the opposite side of the attachment coin from the anxious folks. For them, distance in a relationship (physical, emotional, or otherwise) is not only tolerable, it's preferred. They become distressed and uncomfortable with too much closeness. For this group, intimacy is dangerous; it might lead to disapproval, criticism, rejection, or failure. Those with an avoidant attachment style would much rather not risk having problems with their partners, and so when conflicts begin to emerge, they move away from the danger. In the Emotionally Focused Therapy model, these partners are the Withdrawers. Though their partners might grow frustrated with their apparent lack of emotions, calling them "robotic" or "emotionally disconnected," this isn't at all true. People with an avoidant style are typically very responsive to emotional experiences, it's just that they sense the threat and run in the other direction. Closeness hurts, so they would rather brave the cold alone.
Disorganized Attachment: The final attachment style occurs when people have elements of both anxious and avoidant styles. They desire closeness, yet recoil from it. They crave intimacy, but turn away when it's offered. This style is perhaps the most difficult to experience because it is confusing - to their partners and the people themselves. Chaotic childhood circumstances, inconsistent caregiving, and trauma can all contribute to the development of a disorganized attachment style. Sometimes, people may exhibit some style features in one type of relationship, such as with family, but another style with other people, like romantic partners. It can also vary depending on topic, for example, sex versus romance.
If you are interested in completing a self-assessment of your attachment style, you can visit this website https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/ECR.php
to complete the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale, a psychological questionnaire that measures your comfort with closeness and distance in your intimate relationships. In marriage or couples therapy, each partner's attachment style should be a major focus of the work. The couples counselor will ask questions about each partner's childhood experiences with caregivers, abuse or neglect, and romantic relationship history. Did this person learn that they could count on others when they really needed to? Did they discover that trust is hard to come by and easy to lose? Did they learn that they were valuable and worthy of love? These questions and more are constantly at work in our romantic relationships. The good news is that we can learn secure attachment, even if we didn't get it when we were little. No matter what type of porcupine you started out as, you can learn a new way of getting through the snowstorm with your mate.