Empaths and Attachment Styles in Relationships
Narcissists tend to have an “avoidant” style of attachment when it comes to relationships… But, have you ever wondered how attachment theory relates to being an empath or Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
In my work, I’ve seen that Empaths and HSPs are found in each of the four main attachment styles, and we have particular needs and opportunities when it comes to creating healthy relationships, regardless of our attachment type.
Knowing your attachment style offers helpful insights on how to create a healthy relationship (or to clarify if a relationship needs to end).
The 4 Attachment Styles as an Empath/HSP
Before you can determine how to adjust your attachment style—or if that’s even necessary, you need to know exactly which style you have.
1. Secure Attachment Style
If you were blessed with a relatively healthy childhood, you grew up entrained to a “secure” attachment style. Your parents consistently—if imperfectly—cared about your feelings, met your physical needs, and listened to you.
As a highly sensitive or empath child, you were grounded by a reliably supportive environment at home. Even if things at home weren’t always copacetic (let’s face it, we’re all human), you may have had mentors, teachers, or other devoted adults in your life whose boundaries and caring presence helped you develop into an adult who’s self-assured, emotionally intelligent, and trustworthy.
This means that—even when you make mistakes—as a securely attached empath, you generally feel at ease when taking personal responsibility and owning up to your foibles, especially in partnerships.
In relationships, you’re committed, honest, and available for intimacy. Because of the emotional, physical, and mental stability in your childhood, you’re also able to connect deeply to your own experiences and needs; balancing out your empathic superpowers at connecting with the needs, feelings, and energies of others.
In other words, when you have a secure attachment style, it means that your nervous system is typically self-regulated and rarely dys-regulated or triggered.
On the other end of the spectrum are the insecure attachment styles.
Instability, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and other forms of childhood trauma can result in developing a relationship attachment style that’s rooted in fear rather than trust.
It is shown that a highly sensitive nervous system responds with more hyper (anxious) or hypo (depressive) arousal when exposed to deprivation or abuse than non highly-sensitive children.
This means that—because of our more sensitive nervous systems—Empaths and Highly Sensitive People are more likely than the general population to develop an insecure attachment style as a result of a challenging or traumatic childhood.
Understanding insecure attachment styles becomes very important for those of us on the highly sensitive end of the sensory spectrum; both as it relates to OUR unconscious patterns of relating and the kinds of partners we tend to attract.
Please note that if you find yourself (or a partner) in any of the below, it’s something to be aware of and work with rather than to interpret as something “wrong” with you or a death-toll for the relationship.
There are several types of “insecure” attachment styles:
2. Anxious Insecure Attachment Style
When you have an anxious attachment type, you’ll often feel emotionally “hungry.” Whenever your partner is not by your side, you feel uncertain, lost, and starved for touch. A need for constant security and safety makes you cling onto your partner and you harbor secret fears that they will leave you.
As an anxious-attached person, you’re more likely to blame yourself for the problems in your relationship.
If you’re in a relationship with an anxious partner, you’ll notice that many of their actions stem from insecurities or fears. They may craft elaborate fantasies that either idealize the relationship (such as making it—or you—into an impossible-to-live-up-to fairy tale), OR imagine that you’re thinking of leaving or being unfaithful.
Even when you try to own up to your part in the partnership’s challenges, an anxious partner will probably still feel that—somehow—it’s all their fault.
Whether it’s you or your partner that’s anxious—without awareness, this dynamic can become toxically possessive, jealous, co-dependent, people-pleasing, or controlling.
3. Avoidant (Dismissive) Insecure Attachment Style
When you have an avoidant attachment type, you prefer maintaining emotional—if not physical—distance from others. This often looks like patterns of thinking that say, “I’ll just do it myself,” “I don’t need help,” “I don’t care,” or even “I’m better off alone.”
If you’ve been abandoned, bullied, or harmed repeatedly, it feels much safer to stay far away from the risks and rigors of intimacy. You’re more likely to blame others instead of taking personal responsibility.
In psychology circles, it’s well-known that many Narcissists are avoidant-attached, and that they tend to attract (or seek) anxious-attached partners.
But, I have also observed that many anxious-avoidants are actually empaths and HSPs in disguise; having shut down their senses, hearts, and intuitions as a measure of self-protection.
(In my work, I consider Empaths and Narcissists to be at opposite ends of the same spectrum—so they are intimately related.)
When left unchecked, this tendency to shut down can morph into unhealthy narcissism or full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
If you do the work to safely bring your senses back online, you just might find that you are far more empathic, intuitive, and connected to others than you ever thought!
When it’s your partner that’s avoidant, they will tend to push you away and/or retreat when conflict OR deep connection arise. It may take them a very long time to warm up to you and let you fully in—if they ever let you fully in.
The more you reach for them to connect with you, the farther an avoidant will pull away. They deeply fear being overtaken by co-dependency and would often rather err on the side of isolation than create a true union with another person.
As a highly sensitive person and/or empath, you can often sense their deep, human desire for connection underneath their surface-level avoidance. This can tempt you to keep pushing for more intimacy rather than accepting them as they are in this moment.
Unfortunately, this plays into their exact fears of being judged, misunderstood, and unaccepted and will only serve to push them farther away.
If you love an avoidant-attached person, you must choose to love them for who they are in this moment, not for who they could (or should) be.
4. Anxious-Avoidant Hybrid Insecure Attachment Style
The last of the insecure types of attachment is a smokin’ hot combination of being anxious and avoidant.
When you have an anxious-avoidant attachment type, you may find yourself in a nearly-instantaneous euphoric feeling of romance when you meet a potential partner (hello, fantasy) quickly followed by the utter certainty that it can never last (so you’d better play it cool).
You simultaneously want to be joined at the hip with your special someone AND fight tooth-and-nail for your independence. You may get into cycles of smothering your partner out of a fear that they’ll leave you, and then freaking out and putting on the emotional emergency brake.
As an empath or HSP, being on the receiving end of this dynamic from a partner is unsettling, confusing, and frustrating. The fairy tale moments feel all-too-real because of our ability to see past someone’s surface and connect to their heart. But, if they then pull away, we’re left wondering why (and often asking ourselves what we did “wrong”).
Relationships are dynamic, living entities unto themselves. Understanding our attachment styles helps us call attention to unseen, subconscious patterns that we’ve inherited or assumed as a means of survival.
In many cases, insecurely-attached people are drawn to create relationships with others who also have an insecure attachment style.
Typically this tends to be an anxious paired with an avoidant or a hybrid. As you can imagine, when two (or more) insecure-attached folks attempt to create intimacy, the results can be anywhere from frustrating to neglectful or even abusive.
What seems like “passion” might instead be an ongoing dramaddiction based on the childhood conditioning of both/all partners.
One of the reasons that insecurely-attached people are drawn to each other is that secure-feeling relationships don’t activate their nervous systems in the ways they are used to. Secure relationships don’t seem to be “exciting” enough or have the “right” chemistry.
Security, safety, and true intimacy can feel boring when being dys-regulated, dissociated, hypervigilant, and/or depressed has been normal for most of your life.
It’s believed that at least one partner needs to have a secure attachment style to make a highly-functioning relationship.
But, I’ve also observed that it’s possible for anyone to develop a more secure attachment style; especially self-aware empaths and HSPs!
With radical responsibility, therapy or mentorship, nervous system training, and functioning boundaries, one, both, or all partners can learn to create a more stable & secure form of intimacy.
Want to hear what a healthy—and real—relationship sounds like?
Listen to my podcast episode with my HSP/Empath husband, Tigre, as we discuss our relationship and how we relate to ourselves and each other after almost 8 years of partnership.