Do you sometimes wonder why all your relationships seem to follow the same painful pattern? Whether you’re aware of it or not, your attachment style affects how you experience love, how you treat the people you love, and how you attach to the people in your relationships.
This guide will explore the four attachment styles in relationships and what they mean for you. Recognizing your attachment style will help in healing trauma you may not even know you had, and creating the healthy, loving relationships you deserve.
What is Attachment Theory?
Some people may not be aware of attachment theory but it has a fascinating history. First of all, we should define the word “attachment.” Attachment is the emotional bond formed between one person and another.
When a human infant is separated from its mother , the baby will cry, frantically search, cling, and do anything to prevent separation.
Until the 1930s, doctors hypothesized this behavior was simply an immature method of seeking out where to get the next meal. That’s when a British psychoanalyst named John Bowlby came along.
Bowlby’s View of Attachment
Bowlby saw attachment through an evolutionary lens. He was the first theorist who saw attachment as the intense distress babies experience when separated from their mother, or main parental figure.
Bowlby noted that human babies show the behaviors of crying, searching, and clinging when they experience separation – and that there might be a reason for this behavior in the scheme of evolution.
Through his studies, Bowlby found that children feel separation anxiety when separated from their mother, even when they have regular access to food. He proposed that humans are born with a built-in drive to form attachments with their parents.
Why were we born with this behavior? Bowlby suggested that throughout the history of humanity, babies who were able to stay close to a parent figure would be far more likely to grow up to the age when they could reproduce.
Bowlby’s Attachment Behavioral System
Bowlby came up with the “attachment behavioral system,” a system of motivation designed to keep parents close.
This behavioral attachment system works by asking one question: “Is my parent nearby, accessible, and attentive? Babies who feel the answer to this question is “yes” tend to be more secure and confident in exploring the world around them.
However, babies who feel the answer is “no” experience anxiety and show the behaviors of frantically searching or crying. These babies will keep on with those behaviors until their mother returns or until they wear themselves out.
What about babies whose mother did not return? These babies, Bowlby believed, would suffer profound despair and depression.
Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation”
In the 1970s, a colleague of Bowlby’s named Mary Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s theory by creating a groundbreaking study called the “Strange Situation.” For this study, Ainsworth observed children aged 12 – 18 months to see how they would respond when their mother left briefly, but then returned.
Interestingly, there were different reactions from different children, showing that there wasn’t a single, set response to this experience. She asserted that children fell under three different categories or styles:
- Secure children, who get upset when their mother leaves but want to be comforted by her when she returns.
- Anxious resistant children, who experience distress when their mother leaves but push her away when she returns, almost like a punishment.
- Avoidant children, who don’t seem very upset when their mother leaves, avoid her when she returns.
There have been several studies since the 1970s that have supported Ainsworth’s attachment styles. These studies have shown that attachment styles impact how children behave later on in life.
Attachment Styles in Adult Relationships
Until the 1980s, no one had considered that the attachment styles formed in young children could carry right through into adulthood. Then, in 1987, two researchers named Hazan and Shaver started looking into how these early experiences shape people’s romantic relationships.
Hazan and Shaver believed that babies’ behavioral attachment system with their mothers is the same as the bond that adults build with a romantic partner. They pointed out that both types of relationships share the same features:
- Feeling safe when you’re with the other person
- Wanting to be physically close to the other person
- Feeling anxious when the other person isn’t there
- Wishing to share discoveries with the other person
- Playing with the other person’s facial features
- Talking in a baby voice to the other person
What Does Attachment Theory Mean for Adults?
The style of attachment we have can strongly impact what happens in our romantic relationships as adults. It’s a major factor in how we react to situations and try to get our deepest needs met.
Adults tend to find romantic partners who confirm that their attachment model is correct. For example, if a person has had a difficult childhood where they couldn’t meet their needs, they might subconsciously duplicate that experience even though it was hurtful.
Do you ever wonder why your relationships tend to go a certain way? Do you keep dating different versions of the same partner?
Suppose your answer to those questions was “yes,” then it could help you to learn a little about attachment theory and how it applies to adult relationships. In addition, it could help resolve some of the confusion behind why you behave the way you do, what you need in a partner, and how to handle relationship problems.
There Are Four Attachment Styles
How you behave in a romantic relationship can directly correspond with your attachment style developed when you were a child. Researchers believe there are four attachment styles people fall into:
Every person’s attachment style significantly affects how they behave in a relationship. These effects include:
- How they react to intimacy and closeness
- How well they can express their own needs
- How easily they can understand the needs of their partner
- How they behave in moments of conflict
- What they expect to happen in the relationship
- How they wish to be treated by their partner
A significant way attachment styles affect people’s relationships is miscommunication. People unaware of their attachment style will often feel like they’re always on a different wavelength from their partner. It can seem like every message they’re sending to their partner is getting misunderstood.
Understanding which of the four attachment styles match your childhood experience can often uncover fascinating insights into your behavior. Then, suddenly, the strange things that have been happening in your relationships make sense.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “what is my attachment style?” Let’s begin to uncover the answer by looking at the four attachment styles and how they work.
The Secure Attachment Style
The first of the four attachment styles we’ll look at is the secure attachment style. Approximately 60% of adults fall into this category. It’s considered the healthiest attachment style.
What Does Secure Attachment Look Like?
People with secure attachment are naturally supportive of their partner in times of distress, and in turn, they go to their partner for support when times are rough. Their relationship is a healthy one, valuing honesty and equality. Each person is allowed to go off independently and come back to a stronger love than ever before.
What Does Secure Attachment Feel Like?
Securely attached adults tend to feel satisfied and good about their relationships. They have a deep-seated sense of safety and connection when they’re with their partner while still maintaining a healthy level of independence from each other.
These people aren’t frightened by the idea of intimacy. They feel entirely comfortable being close with others and trust their partner to do the right thing. They can communicate what they’re feeling effectively.
How Does Secure Attachment Affect a Relationship?
Securely attached adults tend to have happy relationships, and they expect the best from their relationship and partner. Therefore, the ability to trust, be open, and express themselves positively affects their relationship.
The Ambivalent Attachment Style
This attachment style is sometimes referred to as “anxious-preoccupied,” “ambivalent-anxious,” or “anxious.” They tend to have unhealthy romantic relationships.
What Does Ambivalent Attachment Look Like?
People who have an ambivalent attachment style are often very needy and clingy romantic partners. Because of this, they scare away a lot of potential partners. They overreact to anything they perceive as a threat to their relationship and use guilt and manipulation to keep their partner around.
What Does Ambivalent Attachment Feel Like?
Ambivalently attached adults feel very anxious about their relationship, and this constant worry can be exhausting. They don’t feel good about themselves, and because of that, they feel scared no one will ever truly love them.
These people want intimacy more than anything, but they cannot fully trust or rely on their partners, which pushes partners away.
How Does Ambivalent Attachment Affect a Relationship?
Ambivalently attached people have a constant need for attention and reassurance. Unfortunately, this comes across as clingy, controlling, and potentially manipulative behavior – none of which are part of a healthy romantic relationship.
The Avoidant Attachment Style
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was very emotionally distant and won’t let you in? The chances are you were dating someone with the avoidant attachment style.
What Does Avoidant Attachment Look Like?
The interesting thing about people with an avoidant attachment style is that they appear to be perfectly happy and doing well in life. They’re generally very social people, and they feel fun to be around. But when you try to get close to a person with this attachment style, they’ll shut off completely.
This type of person avoids displays of intimacy at all costs. They often accuse their partner of being too clingy. They’ll let you be around them but never truly close to them.
What Does Avoidant Attachment Feel Like?
While they may look like they’re perfectly in control, people with an avoidant attachment style are hurting inside. They struggle with fear, essentially the fear that if they get too close to someone, they’ll get hurt. This fear leads to them not being able to open up and have a meaningful relationship.
How Does Avoidant Attachment Affect a Relationship?
The moment things get serious in a relationship, people with an avoidant attachment will completely close themselves off from their partner. They’ll look for a reason to end the relationship, even if it’s a minute thing. They’ll become annoyed by and critical of their partner and refuse to accept help.
The Disorganized Attachment Style
The final of the four attachment styles is the disorganized attachment style. This attachment style is much rarer, so it often gets overlooked. It’s an acutely distressing attachment style and is usually caused by being abused as a child.
What Does Disorganized Attachment Look Like?
Adults with a disorganized attachment style behave unpredictably and are seen by others as highly volatile. They have conflicting emotions. The disorganized person wants a close connection with a partner but is terrified of getting hurt.
To a partner, this emotional conflict comes across as chaotic. Disorganized adults can be very hard to understand. They may profess affection but show aggression towards their partner.
What Does Disorganized Attachment Feel Like?
A person with disorganized attachment wishes for love but has trouble believing anyone could ever love them. As a result, they often have an extremely negative self-image and don’t trust people around them, including their romantic partners. They live in expectation of the hurt and rejection, confident it will inevitably come.
How Does Disorganized Attachment Affect a Relationship?
In romantic relationships, the disorganized individual will often self-sabotage by pushing their partner away. This person will think they’re about to be rejected, but it is often an illusion they’ve created in their mind. Sometimes they’ll be convinced they’ve embarrassed themselves by getting too emotionally intimate, and they’ll break the relationship off to avoid embarrassing themselves even more.
How Attachment Styles Are Formed
Attachment styles come into being at a very early age – many researchers believe within the first year of life. They are based on an infant’s relationship with its primary caregiver, specifically, how the caregiver responds to the infant’s needs in times of distress.
Whether that relationship is stable and loving, inconsistent, or even completely absent, it impacts the child’s brain development. In addition, it will likely influence the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for the rest of their life.
Let’s look at the causes behind each of the four attachment styles.
How Secure Attachment Is Formed
Securely attached adults had a primary caregiver in the first 18 months of their life who was there for them – both emotionally and physically. When the child was distressed, the caregiver would attend to their needs. At other times, the caregiver would step back and let the child explore the world around them.
The primary caregivers, in this situation, took care of the child and didn’t do anything to break the child’s trust in them. This security results in a child and then an adult who is self-confident, empathetic towards others, and safe.
How Anxious Attachment Is Formed
People who have the anxious attachment style probably had parents who were inconsistent in how they provided care to the child. Sometimes they would be there to help when the child was distressed, while they would be unresponsive at other times.
This kind of inconsistency leads a young child to feel confused about who their parent is in their life. In addition, the mixed signals make it hard for the child to predict what’s going to happen next.
Some adults who have the anxious attachment style were raised by a parent who wanted them to fulfill an “emotional hunger” of their own. The primary parent would be emotionally close but to satisfy themselves.
How Ambivalent Attachment Is Formed
Similar to the parents of anxiously attached children, the primary parent of an ambivalently attached child was inconsistent. They didn’t necessarily neglect the child, but they didn’t respond to the child’s distress in the same way every time. Again, this makes the parent figure seem unreliable in the child’s eyes.
In a desperate plea for attention, children who have the ambivalent attachment style often throw tantrums or act out. They want their parent to be close to them, but are also very angry at their parent for not being responsive to their needs.
How Disorganized Attachment Is Formed
Adults with a disorganized attachment style are often those who had a traumatic childhood. Whether their parent figure abused them or if they saw them acting dangerously, the disorganized child becomes fearful of their parent.
Things become very confusing for the child – they need their parent for safety, but at the same time feel afraid to be near them. They want closeness, but often stay emotionally distant in fear of being hurt.
What Is Your Attachment Style?
After reading about the four attachment styles, you probably wonder, “what attachment style am I?” Here are the main signs to look out for in each attachment style.
Signs of a Secure Attachment Style
- You have high self-esteem
- You can regulate your emotions
- It’s easy for others to connect with you
- You are comfortable being alone
- You find it easy to trust others
- You are good at communicating
- You are comfortable in intimate relationships
- You are good at managing conflict
Signs of an Anxious Attachment Style
- You tend to be clingy in relationships
- You have low self-esteem
- You get jealous easily and often
- You need approval from others
- You find it difficult to be alone
- You are terrified of being rejected
- You find it difficult to trust others
Signs of an Avoidant Attachment Style
- You believe you don’t need other people
- You avoid getting emotionally close to others
- You feel uncomfortable expressing your feelings
- You spend more alone time than time with friends
- You find it difficult to trust others
- You find it easy to dismiss others’ points of view
- You get suspicious if someone tries to get close to you
- You like being independent
Signs of a Disorganized Attachment Style
- You’re afraid of being rejected
- You find it difficult to control your emotions
- You are anxious a lot
- You don’t trust others easily
If you don’t recognize yourself in one of the four attachment styles we’ve explained, you can take this quiz to find out which style you fit into.
Knowing your attachment style is an important step in uncovering truths about yourself, your relationships, and your behavior towards your partner.
Can Your Attachment Style Change?
For many people, the attachment style they developed when they were children sticks with them throughout their life. People who felt secure and loved in childhood will typically feel safe and loved in adult relationships.
A shift does happen, however, when we reach adulthood. Our romantic partners and the people around us start to take over the role our primary parents used to play. They become our source of safety and stability, or in the case of unhealthy relationships, our source of anxiety and low self-esteem.
With a lot of inner reflection and a desire to change, it is possible to shift your attachment style from an insecure one to a secure one.
Here are some areas you can work on to change your attachment style:
1. Journal Your Emotions
Next time you feel extremely emotional about your relationship, take a step back and don’t react. Instead, try writing down how you feel. Keeping track of your emotional moments can help to distinguish patterns.
2. Create a Secure Support System
Surrounding yourself with secure people can help make a shift in your attachment style. You can learn from their behaviors and also have the support of a group of people who believe in you.
3. Put Yourself in Your Partner’s Place
Don’t focus on your own needs. Instead, take time to think about your partner’s feelings. For example, have you been overly distant or clingy? How does this feel?
4. Ask Yourself for Evidence
For people with insecure attachment styles, their feelings are often a habit. Look at the evidence. What has your partner said or done? Could they mean something else? What evidence do you have that this is negative?
When To Seek Help From a Therapist
Anyone who wants to grow beyond the attachment style they formed during childhood can benefit from working with a therapist. A good therapist can help you figure out the issues holding you back from connecting with others.
Your therapist will guide you to learn new ways of loving yourself unconditionally, effectively replacing the negative experiences from childhood.
After some time in therapy, you’ll find that you have a fresh confidence that you can look after yourself. You won’t feel like you have to rely on others to make you feel safe or valued. You’ll be able to connect with people around you more satisfyingly and, finally, attract healthier romantic relationships into your life.
On top of those benefits, you’ll gain a lot of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love. That makes working with a therapist a valuable, life-changing choice.
Change Your Attachment Style and Heal Your Life
The Center • A Place for HOPE is an award-winning mental health treatment facility with 37 years of leadership treating childhood trauma and abusive relationships. We take the time to get to know you personally, then tailor a personalized treatment program to your needs.
We offer Whole Person Care, treating the entire you – your mind, body, and spirit. As a result, we help create longer-lasting change and complete recovery.
Reach out to us today and let us guide you on your journey towards self-love, self-confidence, and more satisfying relationships.