Have you ever heard of attachment styles? It may sound foreign, but it’s actually something that plays a huge role in how we approach and experience relationships.
Think about your own romantic relationships. Do you feel confident and secure in them, or do you find yourself repeating the same patterns over and over again, leaving you frustrated and unfulfilled?
Perhaps you are constantly seeking validation and find yourself becoming overly dependent or jealous in your relationships. Maybe you desire a deeper connection with someone, but when things start to get emotionally intimate, you find yourself pulling away. Or you might be feeling emotionally distant and disconnected from your partner.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Attachment styles, formed in childhood, play a significant role in how you approach and navigate relationships as an adult.
But what exactly is attachment style, and how does it manifest in our relationships?
In this article, we’ll explore the four different attachment styles, how they’re formed, and most importantly, how they can shape our relationships. By understanding these patterns, you can move towards creating deeper and more fulfilling connections with others.
What Is Attachment? Evolutionary Theory of the Human Need for Connection
Attachment is a strong emotional bond between two people. As social creatures, humans have a natural “need to belong” – a desire to connect and form relationships with others, seeking love, support, and comfort.
According to evolutionary theory, we form attachments as a means of survival. When a caregiver and a child have a deep emotional connection, the caregiver feels a strong drive to protect and keep the child safe, which is essential for human survival. This is especially important for human babies as they are totally dependent on caregivers for basic needs and cannot walk, feed themselves, or protect themselves from danger.
Throughout human evolution, babies who stayed close to their mothers had a higher chance of survival, and they grew up to have babies of their own. As a result, both infants and mothers have evolved to have a biological need to form strong bonds and stay in close contact with each other. We are born with a natural instinct to create attachment bonds and seek connections with others. When we feel scared or insecure, we instinctively seek out connections with others.
If we have a natural instinct to connect and bond, why do we sometimes end up in relationships that leave us feeling insecure or behave in ways that damage our connections with others? The answer lies in our attachment styles, which are ingrained ways of relating to others that drive our emotional responses, behavior patterns, perceptions of self, intimacy, and trust, and our expectations of others in relationships.
So, let’s take a look at how and when these attachment styles are formed.
When and how do attachment styles develop?
Attachment styles develop as a result of various factors in our lives. However, the first and most powerful attachment we experience is with our primary caregiver when we are babies. In many cultures, the primary or initial attachment figure is typically a child’s mother. During our early years, we rely entirely on our caregivers and look to them for protection, comfort, and emotional support.
As we develop the ability to connect thoughts, feelings, and memories, these models become general mental representations of ourselves and those around us. In adulthood, these representations profoundly influence our emotions, thoughts, behavior, and relationships, especially in intimate relationships.
Therefore, the way we perceive our relationship with our primary caregiver shapes our attachment style and our Internal Working Model for future behavior. This system operates outside of our conscious awareness, directing our attention and behaviors in relationships.
Research has shown that for most people, these attachment models acquired during childhood tend to remain consistent throughout their lives. However, we will discuss ways to heal attachment wounds later on.
Secure vs Insecure Attachment Styles
Depending on the type of relationship we had with our primary caregivers, we are said to develop either a secure or insecure attachment. It’s worth noting that the strength of our secure attachment is not solely determined by the level of love or quality of care provided by the parent. Instead, attachment is built upon the nonverbal emotional communication that develops between the caregiver and the infant.
When a parent is highly sensitive and attuned, responding reliably to their child’s needs, they become the secure attachment figure and a secure base for their child.
In this warm and caring environment, children feel safe and confident to explore. They extend into the world, knowing that they can always come back to their secure base. Children who develop a secure attachment style view themselves as worthy and acceptable and tend to have a positive self-image. They generally view their relationships as safe and trustworthy.
In contrast, when a parent is misattuned and fails to provide a nurturing environment, it is likely to result in an insecure attachment in their children.
Children who have an inconsistent or unresponsive attachment figure do not believe their caretaker is accessible for safety and comfort. Their lack of attachment security means they feel anxious and uncertain. They generally view themselves as unacceptable and unworthy, resulting in a negative self-image and low self-esteem. Children with insecure attachments are characterized by feelings of mistrust in their relationships.
Insecure attachment is broken into three categories with specific behavioral patterns that play a role in how we relate to others.
- Anxious attachment (also referred to as Preoccupied)
- Avoidant attachment (also referred to as Dismissive)
- Disorganized attachment (also referred to as Fearful-Avoidant)
4 Attachment Styles in Relationships
The attachment experiences we had as children have a lasting impact on how we relate to others in our adult relationships. They shape our beliefs, expectations, and attitudes about ourselves and others in close relationships, creating an internal guide known as the internal working model.
Let’s take a look at the typical traits and characteristics of each attachment style. Please bear in mind that as you go through the following section, you may not completely fit into a single category.
When we have a secure attachment style, we tend to have a positive view of both ourselves and others. We value emotional intimacy and are comfortable with both giving and receiving in our relationships.
We are confident in ourselves and generally able to trust others and the world around us. In our relationships, we tend to desire closeness and intimacy without fear of abandonment or rejection. We are able to balance independence and intimacy and feel comfortable expressing our emotions to our partners.
Those of us with secure attachments are typically able to communicate effectively and work through conflicts in a healthy and constructive manner. We are also more likely to form long-term, committed relationships.
Overall, we are able to form healthy relationships based on trust, honesty, tolerance, and emotional closeness, and maintain a sense of emotional well-being in our lives.
Anxious / Preoccupied
Those of us with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style often experience feelings of unworthiness while having a positive evaluation of others. This can make it difficult for us to trust ourselves and can result in a constant need for approval, support, reassurance, and validation from others.
We value emotional intimacy and closeness in our relationships but also fear rejection and abandonment. The thought of being without our partner can trigger intense anxiety, and we may become fixated on preventing our worst fears from being realized.
Our relationships are important to us, and we may feel that our partner is not as invested in the relationship as we are. We tend to feel more secure when our partner is attentive and responsive, but if we don’t receive enough attention or feel distant from our partner, we may become more demanding and needy. In some cases, we may even feel desperate for love.
Avoidant / Dismissive
We, who have an avoidant/dismissive attachment style, tend to have high self-esteem and a positive self-view but a negative view of others. We protect ourselves from disappointment by avoiding close relationships and prioritize maintaining a sense of independence and invulnerability. We often believe that we do not need to be in a relationship to feel complete.
We value independence and self-sufficiency over emotional intimacy and may perceive emotional dependence on others as a sign of weakness. Therefore, we may avoid close relationships altogether.
We may have difficulty expressing our emotions and may appear emotionally distant or aloof.
In relationships, our avoidant attachment style can lead to a fear of intimacy and a preference for distance or independence. We may become uncomfortable or feel suffocated when our partner expresses a need for emotional closeness, leading us to withdraw or distance ourselves. This can make it difficult for us to commit to a relationship.
While having an avoidant attachment style can make it challenging to form intimate relationships, we may excel in careers that require independence and self-reliance.
Despite our desire for independence, we can also experience feelings of loneliness and may yearn for emotional connection and intimacy deep down.
Disorganized / Fearful-Avoidant
We, who have a disorganized attachment style, also known as fearful-avoidant, often experience a sense of unworthiness and expect that others will reject us. We frequently have conflicting feelings and behaviors in relationships, resulting in unpredictable behavior and difficulties in forming and maintaining close relationships.
Our fearful-avoidant attachment style makes it difficult for us to trust or depend on others. We may desire close relationships while also feeling too afraid or insecure to pursue them. We may simultaneously desire and fear intimacy, leading to a push-pull pattern in our relationships. This can cause us to struggle with emotional regulation, vacillating between emotional distance and clinginess.
In romantic relationships, a disorganized/fearful-avoidant attachment style can manifest as a fear of both abandonment and intimacy. We may avoid relationships or sabotage them when they become too close. We may also have a tendency to emotionally shut down when faced with conflict or stress.
Despite our fears and struggles, we still crave emotional connection and intimacy.
Intergenerational Continuity of Attachment Styles
Attachment styles can be passed down through families. This can lead to the continuation of attachment patterns throughout multiple generations. For instance, a great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother may all have the same attachment style.
Studies have shown that children who experience secure attachment at a young age tend to have more adaptive interactions with peers and teachers, and are more likely to form secure attachments with their own children when they become parents.
In contrast, children who experience insecure attachment, particularly if they have experienced maltreatment, are more likely to form insecure attachments themselves and become abusive parents, perpetuating the cycle of insecure attachment across generations.
However, intergenerational continuity is not always inevitable. Some parents, especially if they heal from their attachment wounds, are able to provide better care for their children than their own parents were able to provide, breaking the cycle of insecure attachment.
This is why it is so important to work on our own healing as a parent.
What Causes Insecure Attachment?
While there is no single type of childhood experience that directly leads to a specific insecure attachment pattern, research has identified some recurring patterns in how parenting styles can affect our attachment styles in adulthood.
Avoidant / Dismissive
For those with an avoidant attachment, their childhood may have involved caregivers who were emotionally unavailable and made them feel unloved or rejected. These caregivers may have also been distant, closed off, or dismissive during times when the child needed comfort and care the most, like when they were scared, sick, or hurt.
There are certain actions of parents or caregivers that can contribute to the development of an avoidant attachment in children:
- Making the child feel ashamed for showing emotional
- Ignoring a child’s cries, fear, or distress
- Telling a child to “toughen up” when they are sad
- Distancing the child when they express emotional distress (Timeout etc)
On the other hand, an anxious attachment style may develop when a caregiver’s emotional response to a child’s needs is inconsistent. Sometimes the caregiver may be emotionally available, while other times they may be cold and distant. This inconsistency can leave the child feeling fearful that they won’t receive the emotional support and love they need when they need it.
Disorganized attachment can develop when a caregiver consistently neglects a child’s needs or uses fear and intimidation tactics to suppress their emotions.
In some cases, disorganized attachment may result from verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. In this case, even though the child may still feel a connection to their caregiver and long for their love and attention, they also fear them, leading to a constant oscillation between wanting love and fearing for their safety.
Which Attachment Style Am I?
Now that you have familiarized yourself with the four adult attachment styles, you may have a better understanding of which one resonates with you.
However, determining your attachment style is not always straightforward. It’s worth remembering that attachment styles can be fluid, changing over time as a result of personal experiences. Additionally, you may not fit neatly into one category; instead, you might notice that you have traits from various attachment patterns.
Also, it’s common to see aspects of different attachment styles in your past intimate relationships. Major life events or different partners can also shift the way you relate to others over time.
Ultimately, it’s not necessary to fit neatly into a specific profile.
The key is to notice repetitive patterns in your behavior and relationships and reflect on how you might be able to develop a more secure way to relate to yourself and others.
Can attachment styles change over time?
Yes, life events and trauma can impact attachment styles. Experiencing loss, struggles, or trauma can make a person develop an insecure attachment.
On the other hand, even if you currently have an insecure attachment, it’s possible to develop a more secure attachment with the help of a secure partner or self-awareness and personal growth work, such as holistic trauma therapy or embodied healing.
Are you tired of:
- Struggling with or ruining relationship after relationship?
- Feeling anxious in your relationship?
- Feeling overly dependent or too clingy?
- Desperate for love and attention?
Ready to learn how to create trust and healthy emotional intimacy in your relationship?
You can book a free discovery call to explore how you can heal your attachment wounds.
How Attachment Style Affects Relationships
When it comes to relationships, our attachment styles can have a significant impact on various aspects of our interactions with others. Here are some examples of how these patterns can affect our relationships:
Trust and intimacy:
Attachment styles impact our ability to establish and maintain trust and intimacy with our partner. Those with a secure attachment style tend to have more trusting and intimate relationships, while those with an insecure attachment style may have more difficulty trusting their partner and building a deep emotional connection.
Our attachment styles can influence how we communicate with our partner. For example, those with an avoidant attachment may struggle to express their emotions, while those with an anxious attachment may communicate in a more dramatic or intense way.
Our attachment style can also play a role in how we handle conflicts with our partner. People with a secure attachment tend to be more effective in resolving conflicts, while those with an insecure attachment may struggle to find common ground and reach a resolution.
Our attachment style can affect how we regulate our emotions in relationships. The avoidant types may suppress their emotions or withdraw from their partner, while the anxious types may struggle with controlling their emotions and become overwhelmed.
How to Overcome Insecure Attachment
Developing a secure attachment is possible with intentional effort and self-awareness. Here are some steps you can take:
Recognizing your attachment style
The first step in developing a healthy attachment style is to recognize your behavior patterns. Take some time to reflect on your past relationships and think about how you tend to behave, react, and feel in those relationships. This can help you identify your attachment style and any problematic patterns that may arise.
Understanding your triggers and patterns
Once you’ve identified your attachment style, it’s important to understand your triggers and patterns. What situations or behaviors tend to activate your attachment system and lead to anxious or avoidant behaviors? Understanding these triggers can help you better manage your reactions and respond in a healthier way.
Challenging negative self-talk and beliefs
Negative self-talk and beliefs can fuel anxious or avoidant behaviors in relationships. It’s important to challenge these negative thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more positive and realistic ones. This can help you develop a more secure sense of self and improve your relationships.
Seeking therapy or counseling
Working with a therapist or counselor can be a helpful way to develop healthy attachment patterns. A therapist can help you process past traumas, challenge negative beliefs, and develop more effective communication and relationship skills.
Building healthy relationships
Finally, building healthy relationships is key to developing healthy attachment patterns. Seek out relationships with people who are supportive, caring, and understanding. Practice open and honest communication, build trust and intimacy gradually, and work together to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. With time and effort, you can develop a more secure and fulfilling attachment style.
Cultural Differences in Attachment Styles
It’s important to consider how cultural differences influence attachment styles.
In Western cultures, there tends to be a focus on a single attachment to the primary caregiver, usually the mother. However, research has shown that having multiple caregivers can also lead to secure attachment and even enhanced perspectives.
In hunter-gatherer communities, for example, mothers are still the primary caregivers but they share the responsibility with others in the community, including relatives and non-relatives. This communal approach to parenting has been practiced throughout history and has significant implications for the evolution of multiple attachments.
In non-metropolis areas of India, where three generations of family members often live together, children have multiple caregivers to choose from, including their grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
While there may be some differences across cultures, research has shown that the basic aspects of attachment theory are universal to some degree. Secure attachment is generally considered the most desirable state and maternal sensitivity can influence attachment patterns.
How Traumas Affect Our Attachment Styles
Trauma can be incredibly challenging when it comes to developing healthy attachment patterns.
Unfortunately, experiencing traumatic events can lead to the development of insecure attachment. People who have experienced trauma often feel unsafe and struggle with trust, which can lead to a fear of forming close relationships or an over-reliance on others for a sense of security.
For example, if someone has experienced childhood abuse or neglect, they may develop an anxious attachment. They may crave emotional closeness and intimacy but also fear rejection or abandonment due to their past experiences. This can lead to clingy behavior and a constant need for reassurance from their partner.
On the other hand, trauma can also lead to avoidant attachment. A person who has experienced trauma may develop a fear of emotional intimacy and a tendency to withdraw from close relationships as a way to protect themselves from further harm. This can result in emotional distance and a reluctance to commit to a relationship.
Where Does Attachment Theory Come From?
Attachment theory was first introduced by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. Bowlby believed that the relationship between a child and their caregiver is critical to the child’s development and emotional well-being.
Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby, conducted research on attachment that further expanded his theory. Ainsworth’s famous “Strange Situation” experiment revealed three primary attachment styles: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious attachment.
The Take Away Message
Understanding our attachment styles can be a crucial step toward building healthier and more fulfilling relationships.
Remember, whether we’re anxiously attached, avoidant, disorganized, or somewhere in between, these patterns can change and transform with time and personal experiences. If you are struggling with your relationships, recognizing your patterns and triggers can help us heal and develop a more secure way of relating to others.
But this work isn’t always easy, and we may need to challenge our own thought patterns and seek support from a trained therapist to help us along the way. Remember, developing healthy attachment patterns is a process.
So, let’s commit to doing the personal growth work necessary to improve our relationships and our overall well-being. And let’s remember to extend kindness and compassion to ourselves and those around us as we navigate this journey.
Can therapy help with attachment issues?
Yes, therapy can help you recognize and shift your attachment patterns, by healing the original wounds which caused the insecure attachment.