This detailed overview explains how securely attached deal with a break-up, and how so different they are from people with an anxious attachment, fearful avoidant and dismissive avoidants in how they deal with separation, think of break-ups, and transitioning after a break-up.
Someone is said to have a secure attachment because they’re confident about their ability to be close, available and responsive without being needy, smothering, clingy, pushy or demanding. They view relationships as both safe and rewarding and have reasonable expectations that others are available, responsive, dependable and will return their love. They’re consistent, empathetic, have healthy appropriate boundaries, and believe in honest, open, and empathetic communication where both people feel heard, and their needs met; and are willing to negotiate what feels safe and reasonable to both parties.
Most of their relationships are stable and last long; and when they don’t, securely attached exes approach a break-up calmly and in a constructive way.
How does a secure attachment deal with separation or break-up?
According to attachment theory, only two attachment styles experience high levels of anxiety when separated from a loved one. Anxious pre-occupied attachment (also know as anxious attachment) and fearful avoidant attachment (also known as anxious-avoidants or disorganized attachment) have a fear of rejection and abandonment and experience separation anxiety when separated from a loved one.
Individuals with a secure attachment and dismissive avoidants have low levels of anxiety over relationships and separation coping strategies that buffer them from constant worry about separation, repeated attempts to contact a loved one, and general negative feelings about the separation.
These differences in levels of anxiety due to separation was first studied by Dr. Mary Ainsworth, a friend and colleague of John Bowlby, who was also the pioneer of attachment theory.
Dr. Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation experiment is significant not only because it’s the basis of attachment styles; without which there would be no attachment styles but also because it mirrors adult romantic break-ups and attempts to reunite with an ex.
In the strange situation that first introduced the world to “attachment styles”, Dr. Mary Ainsworth did a test to understand how children react to separation and reunion with the attachment figure, in this case the mother. The mother was asked to leave the room briefly and a stranger who had previously interacted with the child in the mother’s presence was re-introduced to the child and tried to interreact with the child in the mother’s absence. The mother then returned and the stranger left.
Anxious attachment: Anxiously attached children were inconsolable when separated from the mother. They cried and attempted to follow her to stop her from leaving and continued crying long after she left the room. They were angry with the mother for leaving when she returned but still sought comfort from her.
This is similar to how exes with an anxious attachment feel and act when a relationship ends. They struggle the most because of poor emotional regulation, hypervigilance/hyperactivation and preoccupation with an ex/relationship/past or obsession with reconnection with their ex. They have the hardest time accepting the break-up, the hardest time transitioning to “starting over in a new relationship with an ex” and the hardest time moving on. They may also go into protest behaviour because of separation anxiety but ultimately feel soothed when an ex reaches out or comes back.
Fearful avoidants: Anxious-avoidant children found separation from the mother distressing and confusing and acted conflicted and fearful when the mother tried to reunite with them. The mistrustful children in effect separated themselves from the mother as part of their attempt to avoid further rejection and and abandonment.
Adult fearful avoidants (a.k.a. anxious-avoidants) act anxious, confused and conflicted when a relationship ends. If they lean more anxious, a fearful avoidant ex may react to separation just like an anxious attachment. If separation continues, fearful avoidants (and some anxious preoccupied) start to pull back, seem disinterested and distant and even engage with other people as part of their self-care/regulation and recovery from the pain of separation. If they lean more avoidant/dismissive , a fearful avoidant ex may at just like a dismissive avoidant ex. They may or may not show an anxiety over the break-up depending on the reason for the break-up.
Dismissive avoidants: Dismissive avoidant children showed little to no separation anxiety and didn’t seem to need any comforting when the mother left or returned. They distracted themselves with play objects and continued to play alone when the mother returned sometimes acting like they barely know the mother.
This same behaviour is seen in adult dismissive avoidants when the relationship ends. A dismissive avoidant ex will notice your absence but not be affected by it the way separation affects someone with an anxious attachment or even fearful avoidant attachment style. They sub-consciously (and consciously) choose to distract or emotionally shut down their emotions to avoid being bothered by the separation experience. Dismissive avoidants also transition after the break-up fast because they shut down all emotions and are very good at compartmentalization.
Secure attachment: Securely attached children experienced distress but were able to quickly regulate their emotions and feelings because they were confident of the mother’s love and care; and believed that the mother would return. They also accepted comforting from the stranger and played until the mother returned; and ran to meet the mother for comfort.
This is how exes with a secure attachment deal with a break-up. They experience the pain of the break-up but transition smoothly and fast after the break-up (even the next day) because they have healthy emotional regulation tools and a secure attachment mindset and approach to relationships and break-ups.
How individuals with a secure attachment view a break-up
What helps securely attached transition smoothly and fast after the break-up is their beliefs about break-ups. They accept and understand that break-ups happen, and an ex has a right to walk away from a relationship they don’t want to be in anymore. They may not agree with an ex’s reasons for breaking up or the manner in which they did it, but they accept the break-up as something the other person felt was necessary for them – or for the relationship.
A securely attached ex may wish an ex is open to working things out instead of breaking up but they also don’t want to keep an unhappy person in a relationship they don’t want to be in and would rather see an ex happier with someone else than be miserable in a relationship with them. They don’t get upset, think of themselves a ‘victim” of a break-up/an ex, and don’t become needy, lash out or obsess about the break-up. Instead, securely attached individuals use the experience to self reflect, re-center, change if they need to and decide their next action. They may even see the break-up as something that needed to happen.
Research also shows that individuals with a secure attachment report less preference or need for cognitive closure (find an answer to ambiguous situations or total picture and how all pieces of it fit together) and are more likely to rely on new information in making decisions. This means that a break-up doesn’t have to “make sense” for someone with a secure attachment to transition or move on after a break-up. They fill in the missing information and pieces as new information comes in and choose their actions based on new information rather than be stuck in self-destructive rumination like exes with an anxious attachment and fearful avoidants (and some dismissive avoidants) do.
Does no contact work on secure attachment?
The answer is no. No contact does not work on securely attached in the way the “no contact” is designed to work to get back an ex.
No contact as a strategy to attract back an ex is designed to trigger separation anxiety or fear of rejection and abandonment. But because people with a secure attachment experience low to no separation anxiety, no contact does not trigger excessive and constant worry about losing an ex or not hearing/getting a response from them.
An ex with a secure attachment will not choose to go no contact or ignore you unless they feel that your emotions are getting the better of you and affecting them in some type of way, and they need to distance from you for their own emotional well-being. But they’ll not just ignore you because they “need to protect themselves” or ignore you with the hope that you’ll miss them and want them back. They are much more secure than that.
If someone with a secure attachment needs some space after the break-up for things to cool off, they will honestly and directly communicate that they need space, why they need space, for how long and how they’ll reconnect with you. But if you ask for space or decide to ignore them or go no contact, securely attached exes will see it as something you need and respect your wish not to be contacted. When you reach out, they’ll decide how they feel at the time whether they want to reopen the lines of communication or leave things as they are – and will communicate their decision with you and not just ignore you.
Secure attachment exes are least likely to go no contact because secure attachment don’t see a break-up as an end to any kind of possible relationship. They see no need to disconnect or distance from someone who they may still care about even though the romantic relationship has ended.
Securely attached are available, responsive and consistent even after a break-up
Available, responsive and consistent care and love from a caregiver is what created a secure attachment. People with a secure attachment carry this into their relationships and are available, responsive and consistent when things are good and consistent when things are bad. Even after a break-up, securely attached continue to be available, responsive and consistent. This is how they were raised, and this is how they know how to relate with others. You can expect a securely attached ex to treat you the same way after the break-up as they did when you were together; until you give them reason to distance themselves from you.
When you cut off all contact and block all access to communication, a securely attached ex sees it as your inability to negotiate your needs whether it be need for closeness or need for space in a healthy and constructive way.
They also see cutting off contact as you being purposefully hurtful, especially if they asked you to stay in contact. You dumped them, they’ve accepted the break-up. They are in control of their emotions; and if you want space after the break-up, they will give it to you. So what’s the purpose of ‘no contact’ other than an attempt to inflict emotional pain or emotionally manipulate them. People with a secure attachment style really don’t like emotional manipulation. They’ll distance themselves from you to avoid an unhealthy or toxic connection.