Four Attachment Styles and How They Impact Your Relationships
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Have you ever wondered why you act the way you do in relationships? Maybe you label yourself as being super "clingy" or "needy" or find that you are always craving space from your partner and don't want to talk. Or maybe you want love and affection but when you get a taste of it, you self-sabotage and push them away. The way we relate to others is called our "Attachment Style", and in this article we will explore the various types of attachments as well as how attachment styles impact relationships.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory suggests that the emotional bond we form with our primary caregiver(s) during childhood influences the relationships we form in our adulthood. This bond (aka attachment) is established before 2 years of age and is stable throughout our lives. Romantic relationships are particularly affected by the attachment style we develop as children, but other close relationships like friendships can be affected as well.
A Brief History on Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was first developed by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. His work began when he worked with hospitalized and delinquent children. He observed that these children’s symptoms were linked to their histories of maternal deprivation and separation. According to Bowlby, in order for a person to grow up mentally healthy...
"...the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment."
In other words, good mental health in adulthood depends largely on our experiences as children; growing up in an environment with a loving, consistent, and nurturing parent is essential for forming secure, happy relationships as an adult.
If you have ever taken a first year psychology course, you may have learned about Mary Ainsworth's The Strange Situation test, in which children are introduced to a stranger, separated from their mother, left with the stranger and then reunited with their mother. Based on the behaviours of the children during the test, four child-parent attachments were established: secure, avoidant, resistant (i.e., anxious), and disorganized attachment.
Many studies have since supported Bowlby's and Ainsworth’s findings and have shown evidence that the attachment style developed in childhood influences our behaviour later in life. Therefore, it is important to determine what your attachment style is so that you can learn more about yourself in the context of others, work through any attachment disturbances or wounds, and ultimately form happier and healthier relationships.
What Are The 4 Attachment Styles?
Our attachment styles influence how we relate to others, our needs in a relationship, and how we try to get our needs met. According to psychologists, we develop one of four attachment styles in our childhood that tend to stay with us throughout adulthood. Attachment styles are divided into two categories: secure and insecure. Insecure attachment styles include anxious, avoidant, and a combination style called disorganized. Here is a closer look at each one:
1. Secure Attachment Style
Children with a secure attachment tend to be well-adjusted, resilient, and get along well with others their age. From the age of six months to two years, these children develop a close emotional bond with their primary caregiver, who is responsive and attuned to their needs. These children treat their attachment figure as a secure base from which they can explore the world and as a safe haven to which they can return for reassurance. As adults too, people with secure attachment are more satisfied in their relationships and feel connected to their partners. According to research, over 50% of adults have a secure attachment style.
Signs of secure attachment in adult relationships:
They feel confident in their relationships
They have high self-esteem and a positive view of themselves
They are comfortable with displays of affection
They can easily communicate their needs
They are trusting of their partners and other people
They offer support to their partner in times of distress and also seek the support of their partners
They don’t face a lot of trouble regulating their emotions
They do not become anxious when their partner asks for space
They are comfortable being alone
They’re resilient in the face of setbacks
2. Anxious Attachment Style
Anxious attachment style, also called the ambivalent or preoccupied attachment style, develops in childhood when the primary caregiver is inconsistent or unpredictable with their attentiveness to the child. The caregiver is sometimes attuned to the child's needs, but other times unavailable. This makes the child uncertain about their needs being met and creates a lot of stress and feelings of instability and insecurity.
Research shows that these children become extremely upset if their caregiver leaves. When the caregiver returns, they initially might become happy but resist being comforted.
As adults, people with an anxious attachment style can have a strong fear of abandonment or rejection, and may become overly dependent (or codependent) on their partner’s approval and validation.
Signs of anxious attachment in adult relationships:
They need constant reassurance from their partners
They worry that their partner may leave them
They might put up with abusive behaviour to save the relationship
They second-guess themselves and often rely on their partner’s opinions
They seek safety and security from their partners but may behave in a way that pushes them away
They struggle to fully trust their partner
They tend to have low self-worth
They may engage in manipulative or controlling behaviour to keep their partner from leaving
They have a lack of boundaries
They can be emotionally sensitive and take things too personally
3. Avoidant Attachment Style
Avoidant attachment style, often called dismissive-avoidant attachment, is often the result of emotionally cold, neglectful, or dismissive behaviour on part of the primary caregiver. As a result, children who become avoidants show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. In fact, these children may even intentionally avoid their primary caregiver, especially after a period of absence.
When the needs of the child aren’t regularly or predictably met, they are forced to deal with things independently and self-soothe. This pattern is continued in adulthood where people with an avoidant attachment style face difficulty forming intimate relationships and trusting others or relying on others for support. Instead, they develop a stance in relationships like "I don't need anyone; I can rely on myself" and are more likely to gaslight or "ghost" others.
Signs of avoidant attachment in adult relationships:
They consider relationships and emotions less important than other things, like careers or hobbies
They withdraw when their partner seems to become needier
They are extremely independent and try to retain control over situations
They do not seek out their partners for emotional support or reassurance
They might disregard their partner’s feelings
They generally have high self-esteem and are confident
They are very private and don’t open up easily
They are distrustful of other people and prefer to rely on themselves
They tend to not react even in heated or emotionally charged situations
They maintain clear boundaries and do not tolerate people overstepping
4. Disorganized Attachment Style
Disorganized attachment style, also referred to as fearful-avoidant, has its roots in childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. It characterizes a mix of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Due to hot-and-cold, inconsistent parenting, the caregiver becomes both a source of fear and comfort for the child. This leaves the child feeling confused and inherently fearful of their primary caregiver.
In some cases, the child seeks the comfort of the caregiver but then immediately withdraws or even hits the parent. Evidence shows that caregivers who engage in atypical parenting behaviours may themselves suffer from unresolved trauma. This warrants the need for trauma-informed parenting techniques to break the cycle of intergenerational childhood trauma.
Adults with this attachment style crave closeness, yet push people away. It is a rollercoaster of confusing emotions and is considered the most difficult insecure attachment style to treat. Research has shown that disorganized attachment in childhood can be a powerful predictor for mental health concerns later in life.
Signs of disorganized attachment in adult relationships:
They are reluctant in forming intimate relationships but seem to want to be loved
They fear that their loved ones may hurt them
They avoid closeness
They struggle with emotional dysregulation
They behave inconsistently with their partners
They often feel a lack of agency–feeling like they have little control over their lives
They alternate between being emotionally close and aloof
They often feel unworthy of love and affection
They are less likely to communicate their needs
They tend to have outbursts of anger or aggression
Can My Attachment Style Change?
Short answer- yes! The general consensus among researchers is that the attachment style formed in childhood influences how you relate to others in adulthood, but that doesn’t mean all your relationships will be defined by it and there is hope to change insecure attachments through counselling and therapeutic work. As well, we can attach differently to various people in our lives; you might display more secure tendencies in a romantic relationship, but be more anxiously attached to your friends (and vice versa).
Over time, you can learn to have a more secure attachment. By diving into the “why” behind your behaviour and forming supportive relationships with secure people, you can change the way you think and behave.
It’s not easy to rewrite your old patterns, but it’s certainly possible.
How to Improve Your Relationships
You might be facing difficulties in your relationships that are hard to navigate alone. Working with a therapist can help you identify unhelpful attachment patterns and develop new ways of connecting with others.
The first step in working on your attachment style is determining where you fall on the attachment style dimensions of anxious and avoidant. Here is a great Attachment Styles quiz to help you figure out your style. We also recommend the book Attached by Amir Levine which dives deeper into how attachment styles are formed and provides insight into how you can establish better relationships while also considering your current attachment, and striving towards security.
Want to talk about your relationship issues? Book a complimentary 15-minute consultation call with a licensed mental health therapist and start healing your attachment wounds and work towards a more secure attachment with those that matter most.