Published on January 5, 2021 Updated on September 12, 2022
Attachment theory: not only is it fascinating to read, but it also gives us hope that we will get to understand ourselves at least a little bit better. Since everyone has relationship issues – be it with our partners, family, or friends – we are very likely to relate to John Bowlby’s attachment theory.
Once we discover it, we get excited and assume that our attachment styles will explain all about why we are how we are, why we do what we do, and why we face certain challenges in social situations.
Even though attachment theory can, to a large extent, explain our behavioral patterns – especially in intimate relationships – we have to be careful how we interpret it and how we apply it. This article is meant to give you a heads-up about the most common traps you might fall into when you first discover attachment theory and the four attachment styles.
If you’re already familiar with Bowlby’s work, feel free to use this post to check whether you’re on the right track. You can also take a step back and reflect on whether you fell into any of these traps in the past.
First off, everyone has problems in their relationships. Nobody is perfect. Nobody’s life circumstances are perfect either. There comes a point in every relationship when you fight with your partner. There’ll be times when you feel misunderstood, under-appreciated, frustrated, or unhappy.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an attachment disorder or an attachment issue. Approximately one in every three people is insecurely attached. Don’t jump straight to the assumption that you are that one person.
Remember that no relationship is perfect. Experiencing problems with or within relationships does not necessarily mean that you have an attachment problem.
Now, even if you do have some mild attachment issues, don’t rush into blaming your parents. Keep in mind that attachment styles are created in the first year and a half of your life. If you’re looking back on your childhood trying to figure out how your parents neglected or rejected you when you were a toddler, you’re not going to get what you’re searching for.
It’s wrong to say that parents are bad or guilty. Parents want the best for their children. And they do what they can do. The child’s attachment style is not about the mom or the dad, but rather about the quality of their relationships with the child. And the quality of these relationships is based on what the parents are giving and, more importantly, on whether the child feels what the parent is giving.
Another important factor to consider is that, if your mom or dad were anxious or dismissive, you’re likely to have picked up on that. Poodles make poodles, right? So, it might be a learned behavior, which – on the bright side – can be unlearned.
Having a tendency to be preoccupied or dismissive doesn’t necessarily mean that your parents didn’t take good care of you, and that your childhood was bad.
Attachment styles are dimensional, especially when it comes to preoccupied and dismissive attachment. Let’s look at how an attachment specialist would rate your attachment style.
Hold one of your hands up and straighten your fingers. Now, this hand represents the zone of secure attachment. Your middle finger indicates the absolute level of secure attachment: no traits of preoccupied or dismissive attachment in that category.
If you move in the directions of your pinkie and your thumb, you move away from secure attachment, but you’re still in the secure zone. This means that you can have preoccupied or dismissive traits and still be securely attached.
If we add three more fingers on each side of the secure zone hand, we enter the two insecure styles: preoccupied and dismissive. There are still different levels of severity for each insecure style.
What we are trying to show you here is that, when it comes to preoccupied and dismissive attachment, you don’t just have it or not have it. You can be a bit preoccupied. You can be a bit dismissive. You can be securely attached and still have some traits of these insecure styles.
It’s not all or nothing. You might have noticed that, even though it’s in the picture, we didn’t mention disorganized attachment. Later in this post, you’ll understand why.
It’s essential to understand that attachment is pre-cognitive: it’s set before a child is able to think. It’s a felt sense. Anything after three years of age is cognitive, or thought-based. Anything before that is what you feel inside.
A person who is highly preoccupied or dismissive would act on the basis of feelings that they don’t even know they have.
So, if your anxiety – which you anticipate to be preoccupied attachment – is based on a flow of thoughts, rather than on a sensation you are not able to explain or understand, then it’s likely that you don’t have a preoccupied attachment style. There might be other factors – like Early Maladaptive Schemas, for example – that account for the anxiety you exhibit.
At first, it might seem like the whole point of attachment theory is to group people in four categories – one for each attachment style. This, of course, is far from true. Keep in mind that the classification of attachment styles was created in a clinical, therapeutic setting. Outside the lab, and when it comes to treatment, the goal of therapy is not to give people labels.
The goal is to identify the cluster of behaviors that need to be worked on. And it doesn’t really matter how you call it: you’d still have to work on whatever is going on
A style is, after all, just a style. You can think of your attachment style as you think of your zodiac sign. Both have certain characteristics, but that doesn’t mean that you need to have all of them. Capricorn is not a label, just like dismissive attachment is not a label.
It’s crucial to also understand that attachment work is not a negative; it’s a positive. There are positive characteristics about being dismissive or preoccupied. Those positive characteristics, though, can sometimes get in your way and start being problematic.
Someone with preoccupied attachment, for example, is very caring and nurturing; and these are positive qualities. An issue may arise, however, if they are too much of that: they might go as far as to forget about themselves.
You can think of the characteristics of insecure attachment as the extremes of positive qualities, instead of as negative qualities.
If you’re looking through the typical characteristics of anxious / preoccupied and avoidant / dismissive attachment, you might find that some aspects of both fit you pretty well. So, what do you do? You think, “Oh, I must have a disorganized attachment style because it’s sort of a mixture of preoccupied and dismissive traits.”
But chances are that you don’t have a disorganized attachment style. Disorganized attachment is a combination of the preoccupied and dismissive styles. Indeed, people who have disorganized attachment exhibit characteristics of both styles – like warring, conflictual strategies. The consequence is that they have very poor relationships.
Someone who has disorganized attachment has a higher chance of being involved with the law, courts, and institutional settings. They don’t sit around wondering if they are preoccupied or dismissive. They’re not going to be interested in figuring themselves out, because they blame everybody else.
Disorganized attachment can be a serious issue that requires therapeutic treatment. It’s not likely that you’ve had this type of disturbance all along and that you and the people around you haven’t noticed it.
Remember that in point four we talked about dimensionality. Now, when it comes to disorganized attachment, there is no dimensionality. You can’t really be “a bit disorganized, but mostly secure,” unless you’ve been through some serious trauma, such as war, rape, etc.
A common issue among medical students, or psychology students, is that, once they learn about a disease or disorder, they tend to freak out that they have it. They try to find a way to self-identify with it. The same goes for attachment disturbances.
Be careful with self-diagnosing your attachment style. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.
Keep in mind that attachment specialists spend years learning how to conduct and score an attachment interview. They’re not going to give you a quiz like the ones you see in Cosmopolitan magazines. It really takes an expert in the field to assess your attachment style accurately.
It’s good to learn about attachment styles and their characteristics. It’s good to reflect on your relationship experiences. It’s also completely fine to take an attachment quiz and assume that you have a certain tendency (of anxiety or avoidance). But the important thing is to not rely on that self-diagnosis too much.
This comes as a “part two” of the previous point. Just because you’ve read a lot and believe you get the theory pretty well doesn’t mean that you can (and should) make assumptions about the attachment styles of everyone around you. It might be tempting, sure. And it’s absolutely fine to wonder about it, or to even analyze others in your head.
Just don’t expect to always be right. And please, don’t go around telling people that they have a problem. That’s just not cool. Instead, make the best out of your knowledge. Share what you’ve learned with someone who might need to hear it. If needed, encourage them to get acquainted with the topic or to see a therapist.
Last but not least, it’s important to have realistic expectations when it comes to healing attachment issues. Keep in mind that most online sources on the topic are offering knowledge, not treatment.
It’s unrealistic to think that you would figure things out and heal an insecure attachment style just by reading books or articles, or by watching YouTube videos.
The truth is that you can’t substitute treatment for knowledge.
There’s no quick fix when it comes to healing insecure attachment. And if you really want to change, you need to commit to that.
Attachment theory is not as easy as it seems. It’s not straightforward. Yet, it offers incredible insight into human development. But it’s essential to use this insight carefully. We hope you enjoyed hearing a different perspective on attachment theory, and we hope these tips made things clearer for you.
Now you can go ahead and research this amazing theory. To read more articles, click on the links below.
If you liked this post and want to learn more about attachment theory, then we recommend following The Attachment Project on Instagram. We regularly post content to help you make sense of attachment theory in various contexts.
This blog post is based on an interview with our partner, attachment specialist Paula Sacks. The information provided stems from Paula’s expertise in attachment and her personal and professional experience as a mental health practitioner.