Shelley J Whitehead

How attachment wounds affect breakups

1 August, 2023

Over the course of the last ten years, I have worked with thousands of individuals going through breakups. My experience has shown me that the vast majority of individuals who experience incredibly painful breakups are those who would be categorised as having an ‘insecure’ attachment style. In this post, I’m going to talk about how different attachment styles experience breakups in different ways.

For those of you that don’t already know me my name is Shelley and I am a specialist relationship coach, helping individuals all over the world to recover from breakups, learn essential relationship skills and better ways to connect with themselves and with others.

Anyone who works with me will learn quickly about their own attachment style as it is one of the most important factors that shapes our experience of relationships. Your own attachment style will have come about from your earliest childhood experiences, in particular the ways in which your primary caregiver related to you and connected with you.

Here’s a quick overview for those of you who are not yet familiar with the term ‘attachment style’…

People who were lucky enough to have been brought up by consistently loving and delightfully reliable parents will find that they are able to form what is called ‘secure’ attachments to others, as they feel that they can trust that they are lovable and that they will be loved. Recent studies show that’s about 65% of the general population. The remaining 35% have what is called an ‘insecure’ attachment style.

Insecure attachment styles fall into three general categories: anxious; avoidant and anxious-avoidant. For the purposes of this particular post I am going to talk about the differences between each of these three styles in how they process a breakup.

So, firstly, let’s talk about how the anxiously attached experience a breakup…

I often refer to this style as ‘over functioning’, as it is the style that works extremely hard in relationships to ‘maintain’ the connection.

The act of breaking up with someone is something that triggers some of the deepest wounds in the anxiously-attached individual. These wounds can include negative thought patterns along the lines of ‘I am rejected, I am not good enough, I am alone, I am abandoned’.

A breakup can therefore feel like a momentous life event that feels utterly devastating. It is a form of their worst nightmare becoming real. In the early stages of a breakup, the anxious individual will be in a highly triggered state and will focus on trying to ‘get back’ what they have lost in order to gain relief from the suffering (regardless of whether or not the relationship was actually a good one for them). When they shift into more acceptance that the relationship is over, they can be overtaken by extreme sadness or depression.

An avoidant, on the other hand, experiences a breakup in a very different way…

As this style is often born as a reaction to claustrophobic early relationships, I often refer to this style as ‘smothered’. (You will also sometimes see it described as ‘dismissive avoidant’).

An avoidant individual’s experience of a breakup often starts with a ‘deactivation’ of feelings, which is a subconscious strategy to protect themselves from feeling the pain of the feelings, often focusing on the flaws of their ex to ‘justify’ why they shouldn’t be feeling sad about it and will repress any feelings of missing their ex. Their experience of sadness and loss often creeps up more slowly over time, with the painful feelings rising in waves until they numb their feelings out again.

The Anxious-Avoidant style experiences elements from both an anxious style and an avoidant style…

This third insecure attachment style (also called ‘fearful-avoidant’) is often referred to as ‘disorganised’… which sounds horribly critical to me! This style has a combination of patterns from both anxious and avoidant styles. I personally use the shorthand of ‘mistrustful’ to describe this style, as it often occurs as a result of inconsistent parenting where the child is not able to rely on the parents to support their emotional needs.

I myself identified as anxious-avoidant until I did some profound therapeutic work to heal my childhood traumas.

When processing a breakup, the anxious-avoidant typically initially shuts down in much the same way as the classic ‘avoidant’ but in a more extreme form. The difference between this style and the ‘avoidant’ is that the shutting down will be interspersed with going in and out of similar extreme emotions to the ‘anxious’. As a coping mechanism, they may often retreat into unhealthy coping habits because they simultaneously feel immense pain but want to repress the pain.

All of these examples give you a bit of a flavour of the complexities of how your earlier experiences in life affect your present-day processing. All of these insecure attachment styles’ coping mechanisms can cause complications in the healing process as there are additional triggers and factors for them to navigate through.

However, whatever your attachment style, know that a full recovery is possible. Whatever your background and whatever your experience, I have never, ever worked with a single soul that has not been able to overcome their pain. With the right tools and good skills for connecting with yourself and with others, everyone has the possibility of being able to transform the pain of a breakup into deeper wisdom and healthy thriving relationships.

Knowledge is your starting place and, from a place of knowledge and self-awareness you can start to deepen your skill set.

I love sharing my tools and tips with you.

Shelley J Whitehead
you may also like…
Signs of a relationship in trouble

Signs of a relationship in trouble

Today, I’d like to talk to you about some crucial signs that may indicate a relationship is heading in the wrong direction. If you’re able to identify these warning signs early on, you can work on addressing and resolving issues and on fostering a stronger and more...

read more
12 months of love and healing meditation series

Meditation Series

Sign up for my newsletter and every month I’ll send you a soul-soothing meditation from my ‘12 months of Love & Healing’ series.

Newsletter Opt-in / 12 Month Meditation Series