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Understanding Attachment Styles in Relationships

We all have different attachment styles in relationships. Do you know what yours is? We’ll break down the four different types and offer some tips.

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There are many ways we can categorize ourselves as humans, and attachment styles are getting a lot of attention. It’s a theory based on scientific studies and can help you understand how people relate to and depend on others. Attachment styles in relationships are formed in infancy and early childhood years, and they are based on our experiences with our primary caregivers, our first real relationship. 

Let’s dive into the background of attachment style theory, the four different types of attachment styles, how they impact relationships, and what to do if you are struggling in relationships because of your attachment style. Relationships require a lot of communication and transparency, so this can be a helpful tool to improve your current relationships or any in the future.

Working on Communication With AFS

Regardless of your particular attachment style in relationships, communication is important. After all, two human beings are coming together to share emotions and experiences in order to truly connect. One of the best ways to improve and strengthen your relationship is to spend time together during a weekly date night. Try new things together, and spend time really listening and communicating. To get the ball rolling, grab a copy of Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition. This great tool comes packed with dozens of unique activities that will help bring you and your partner closer together as you make incredible memories.

Attachment Style Theory Defined

Attachment style theory was originally developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s and was expanded by Mary Ainsworth. They studied the behavior of infants when separated from their caregivers. The theory was developed to outline how your bond with your primary caregivers as a child sets the foundation for the relationships you have in adulthood.

The team worked with a group of infants and observed their behavior. In the 1980s, psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver studied those same adults and made observations about the similarity of their attachment with their partners to their childhood attachments with caregivers. The idea is that children monitor their caregivers to see which strategies work best to allow them to survive and stay close to the person giving them food, warmth, and other necessities. Unconsciously, humans attach to their romantic partners in the same way and form an adult attachment style.

Ultimately, these scientists were able to understand better how early childhood connections impact adult relationships later in life. Children who were well cared for and had their needs met grew up to have a secure attachment style and felt self-sufficient, confident, and trusting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, children who had a difficult upbringing with confusing or frightening experiences during infancy struggled with their emotions and had difficulties caring for the needs of others.

Understanding the Four Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment Style

Secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style. People with a secure attachment style thrive in relationships, but they are also comfortable on their own. Relationships are centered around honesty and emotional closeness. It’s easy for them to depend on their partners and also let their partners rely on them. 

It’s easy for people with this attachment style to form close relationships with others. They have strong and healthy self-esteem and do not require validation or approval from others to find that confidence. Boundaries are important in relationships, and those who have a secure attachment style are able to set strong and clear boundaries and abide by others’ boundaries and comfort levels. 

Typical secure attachment relationships have open communication, lots of mutual support and trust, and emotional balance. Partners are able to lean on each other in hard times and seek comfort within their relationship. 

During early childhood, these people had primary caregivers who were engaged and supportive, which is a secure base to build from. Caregivers were able to calm and soothe these infants and understand their needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone was there and holding them 24 hours a day, but there was a healthy attachment formed, and all the needs of the child were met. 

Anxious Attachment Style

The anxious attachment style, also called ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied, is characterized by a desperate need for closeness and a deep fear of abandonment. These people lack self-esteem and have a huge fear of rejection. There is a lot of self-blame for any problems and a need for constant reassurance from their partners. 

People with an anxious attachment style in relationships may cling to their partners and have codependent tendencies. Jealousy is a common issue. The person can feel unworthy of love. They may also have difficulty trusting their partners and may constantly worry that they will be abandoned.

Partners may become more clingy and dependent if they feel that their partner is not showing them affection and intimacy or if there are any changes in the dynamic. It’s also common when there is a lack of attention to act out and do something to make their partner jealous, or they may threaten to leave. It sounds contradictory, but it’s really an attempt to reestablish connection. 

With the anxious (or ambivalent) attachment style, the person’s caregivers were likely inconsistent. There were times when the caregiver was engaged and present and others when they were distracted or unavailable. It leads to uncertainty and anxiety when forming attachments. Hazan and Shaver estimate about 19% of people fall into this category. 

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

A lack of desire for intimacy and closeness with others defines the avoidant attachment style, also called dismissive-avoidant or dismissive attachment style. It’s the opposite of the anxious attachment style. These people don’t build long-term relationships because they have an inability to engage in either emotional or physical intimacy. They keep people at arm’s length and are often accused of having “commitment issues.” 

People with an avoidant attachment style have a strong sense of independence. They don’t want to give up their autonomy. It’s common for them to be dismissive of the feelings and emotions of others and also be uncomfortable with their own emotions. 

For people with avoidant attachment styles, relationships feel like a loss of independence. They don’t want to connect with people other than surface-level engagements. Building trust is hard for them, and they tend to withdraw when others get too close. 

The avoidant attachment style comes from caregivers who were unavailable. The child’s needs were never regularly met by someone else, and they were forced to self-soothe. It creates a very strong sense of independence and fear of relying on others when they are adults. The study shows that about 25% of people have this attachment style. 

Disorganized Attachment Style

The disorganized attachment style is really a combination of both the anxious and the avoidant attachments. It’s sometimes called anxious-avoidant. The characteristics can switch back and forth depending on the mood and circumstances of the current moment. It stems from betrayal ultimately. These people have a difficult time regulating emotions and often suffer from anxiety, personality disorders, substance abuse, or other severe problems. 

People with this attachment style may have difficulty trusting and exhibit confusing behaviors while in a relationship. They have a fear of rejection but also desperately want intimacy and connection. Whenever they get involved with someone, they may feel like they’re undeserving of love and self-sabotage the relationship. 

Contradicting behaviors are common with this attachment style. There are often intense emotional extremes, and the person can go back and forth between love and hate. It can be incredibly confusing for people who encounter this style because the person wants a relationship but is afraid to trust others and depend on someone.

The disorganized attachment style is only found in 3-5% of people. It stems from severe trauma, abuse, or neglect. Sometimes, the primary caregivers themselves were struggling with unresolved trauma and weren’t able to care for the child. Children are confused because the caregivers are the source of both comfort and fear. That translates into confusion in relationships as they grow up as well.

How to Find Your Attachment Style

When it comes to understanding your own personal attachment style in relationships, it’s important to know that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Think of each style as more of an orientation. It’s a spectrum. You may recognize features of more than one style, and that’s perfectly normal. 

There are really only two reliable mechanisms available to get a definite answer. The Adult Attachment Interview and the Adult Attachment Projective are both tests that trained research psychologists give. The interview consists of 20 open-ended questions exploring everything from your relationship with your parents to describing the first time you felt rejected. The goal is to surprise the unconscious into revealing itself. The psychologists focus on how people answer the questions. 

These tests require certification and connections to a research facility that offers them. There are some quizzes available online for free that might help you get an initial idea if you’re struggling to place yourself. NPR offers an Attachment Style Quiz with 24 questions, and respondents choose whether they agree or disagree with the statements. The Attachment Project has a five-minute free test on their website that goes a little further in depth. 

Whichever method you use, just remember that your attachment style can change over time with major life events. Aging can also have an impact on people because as we get older, we have less time for relationships that don’t meet our needs and make us happy. Attachment styles are not set in stone. Continue to educate yourself on the signs of each style. Awareness and education can help you seek out the most secure and healthy relationships. You can also explore ways to overcome insecure attachment styles. 

Ways to Overcome Insecure Attachment Styles

Attachment styles can have a significant impact on our relationships. Having a secure attachment style can lead to stronger mental and emotional health because you have strong relationships that build you up and support you. Happy, healthy relationships and community have a huge impact on wellness. On the other hand, insecure attachment styles, which include the other three, may lead to challenges when forming relationships and having intimacy with partners. 

1. Understand your personal attachment style.

The first step when you’re struggling with your attachment style is to understand it. Learn about where it comes from, explore the challenges in your life that have impacted your attachments, and get good at spotting the signs. There are tons of resources in addition to this article that go even deeper into attachment styles. 

Here are a few of the highest-rated books for additional reading:

  • It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End The Cycle by Mark Wolynn
  • Anxiously Attached: Becoming More Secure in Life and Love by Jessica Baum, LMHC
  • How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal From Your Past and Create Your Self by Dr. Nicole LePera
  • When You’re Ready, This is How You Heal by Bianna Wiest 
  • Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson
  • Attachment in Adulthood by Mario Mikulincer

It is also important to be aware of your partner’s attachment style. If you are in a relationship with someone who has a different attachment style than you, you should be understanding and patient. 

2. Be reflective.

Once you know what attachment style you fall into, it’s important to spend some time practicing awareness and self-reflection. Start a journal, and track your emotions and write down observations about your relationships. Learn if you have any triggers by reviewing similar situations that might have triggered some unhealthy responses. 

In your relationships, remind yourself to pause and reflect often. Slow down your reaction time in situations to understand your behavior better. Consider your choice of partner as well. If you are constantly choosing people who have insecure attachment styles, it can be really hard to have a successful relationship. 

Increasing your own self-awareness can help you make changes to your own reactions and emotions. Now that you understand where you fall, you can watch for some of the signs that you are reacting in a way that isn’t healthy, and you can take some time to dig into those feelings.

3. Improve your non-verbal communication skills.

The attachment theory is based on those developing years with your primary caregiver when you learned about eye contact, physical comfort, and how different cues are responded to. If that was a challenging time for you, you might need to work now to improve those skills. It can be done at any age. 

Work on interactions with others, and focus on things like eye contact, body language, and active listening. How you respond without words is just as important as words themselves. Your emotional intimacy will improve if you have strong nonverbal skills.

4. Continue working on self-development and emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions and deal with conflict in a healthy manner. Discussing feelings and emotions doesn’t come naturally for some people, but practicing can feel more natural and help boost your relationships. 

If you are in a relationship currently, work on open communication, and let them know what changes you’re trying to make. If they understand the journey you’re on for self-improvement, they can support you in that journey and allow you the space to figure some things out on your own as well. Try to work on meeting your partner’s emotional needs as well. 

5. Surround yourself with secure relationships.

The relationships you maintain with people who have a secure attachment style will provide you with strong examples of healthy behaviors. You can build up your sense of security. This works for friendships and intimate relationships. If all of your previous romantic partners have had insecure attachment patterns, it can be hard to build healthy habits and find the appropriate emotional support.

Being around others in secure relationships allows you to witness behaviors and interactions you can mimic and better understand. Having your own secure partner will help you feel comfortable and loved, and soon, you’ll be able to return those same emotions. 

6. Work with a therapist.

Therapy is an incredible tool when it comes to rewiring your brain and caring for your mental health. Therapy can help resolve childhood trauma, much of which can be the driving force behind your attachment style. It’s so valuable to be able to connect with someone outside of your social circle and discuss childhood memories and challenges. 

Find a therapist you connect with, and check with your insurance provider to see what is covered to help with the cost. There are many types of therapy, so you can try more than one option over time if you need it. Therapists will give you tools and things to practice and work on in between sessions to help you heal. They are trained experts in mental and emotional well-being and can help with a wide range of struggles.

Final Thoughts on Attachment Styles in Relationships

People have some misconceptions about attachment styles in relationships. You may not fit perfectly into these styles and match every single descriptor. Anxious people are not always needy, and avoidant people are not all narcissistic. Attachment style theories are part of our biology. There are advantages to being fiercely independent, and there are advantages to being incredibly sensitive to threats. A secure attachment style is beneficial when it comes to relationships, but others can have benefits in other areas of life. 

You have some control over your emotions and relationships. Having an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean you’ll be that way forever; it just means you have some trauma and childhood fears that you need to process. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that everyone is different. The most important thing is to find a partner who you are compatible with and who makes you happy. Communicate with your partner, and continue your own self-development to have fulfilling romantic relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the four main attachment styles?

The main attachment styles in relationships are secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. The style can shift throughout life, but it’s based on the attachment security felt in infancy.

Do attachment styles impact relationships in adults?

The experience with your primary caregiver can have a lasting impact on all future relationships. Attachment styles in relationships impact how you communicate and show emotions.

How do I find out my own personal attachment style in relationships?

Learning about the attachment styles in relationships is the first step. You may easily place yourself in one category. There are reliable tests online, or you can meet with a licensed professional.

How can I strengthen my relationship?

Understanding your partner’s attachment style can give you tools to communicate better and show love. Spending time together is also very important. Try Adventures From Scratch to start!

Are there many securely attached people in the population?

Over half of the adult population has secure attachment styles in relationships, between 50-60%. People are not stuck in one style for life, so the number is constantly changing.

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