Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships

Attachment Styles - Happy Couple Outdoors

What are adult attachment styles and how do they affect intimate relationships?

John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory dates back to the 1950’s. Based on his theory, four adult attachment styles were identified: anxious / preoccupied, dismissive / avoidant, disorganized / fearful-avoidant, and secure. Attachment styles develop early in life and often remain stable over time. People with insecure attachment styles might have to put some intentional effort into resolving their attachment disturbances, in order to become securely attached.

It’s human nature to seek contact and relationships, to seek love, support, and comfort in others. In fact, according to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the ‘need to belong’ is one of the main forces that drives individuals. From an evolutionary perspective, cultivating strong relationships and maintaining them has both survival and reproductive advantages. After all, most of us do ‘need to belong’ and do want closeness and intimacy in our lives. Yet, love and relationships are rarely as perfect and problem-free as we would like them to be.

Maybe you have never really thought through or analyzed your behavior in relationships. Still, you might have noticed repeating patterns in your love life. Have you wondered why you keep ending up in the same situation, even with different partners? Do you get too clingy or jealous? Or do you always seem to be more involved than your partner? Maybe you want to be with someone, but as soon as things get emotionally intimate, you back off?

What is attachment theory?

If you have noticed a pattern of unhealthy and emotionally challenging behaviors in your love life, you might benefit from digging deep and exploring the way you attach to people in intimate relationships. Here is when attachment theory comes in handy. Attachment theory has a long history and has been used as a basis for continuous research, which could be quite interesting to explore and dive into.

The first step is to get acquainted with the basics and understand the different attachment styles identified to this date.

First of all, what are adult attachment styles?

According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, one’s relationship with their parents during childhood has an overarching influence on their social (and intimate) relationships in the future. In other words, your early relationship with your caregivers sets the stage for how you will build relationships as an adult.

There are four adult attachment styles:

  1. Anxious (also referred to as Preoccupied)
  2. Disorganized (also referred to as Fearful-Avoidant)
  3. Avoidant (also referred to as Dismissive)
  4. Secure

Before getting into what characterizes the four groups, it might be useful to point out how attachment styles develop in children. The behavior of the primary caregivers (usually one’s parents) contributes to and forms the way a child perceives close relationships. The child is dependent on his or her caregivers and seeks comfort, soothing, and support from them. If the child’s physical and emotional needs are satisfied, he or she becomes securely attached.

This, however, requires that the caregivers offer a warm and caring environment and are attuned to the child’s needs, even when these needs are not clearly expressed. Misattunement on the side of the parent, on the other hand, is likely to lead to insecure attachment in their children.

Which attachment style do you have? Take our free quiz now to find out!

Each one of the four attachment styles has its typical traits and characteristics. Yet, it should be noted that a person does not necessarily fit 100% into a single category: you may not match ‘the profile’ exactly. The point of self-analysis is to identify unhealthy behaviors and understand what you might need to work on in order to improve your love life. So, let’s get to it!

How does each of the four attachment styles manifest in adults?

1. Anxious / Preoccupied

For adults with an anxious attachment style, the partner is often the ‘better half.’ The thought of living without the partner (or being alone in general) causes high levels of anxiety. This type of attachment is associated with a negative self-image, but also with a positive view of others.

The anxious/preoccupied type of person often seeks approval, support, and responsiveness from their partner. People with this attachment style value their relationships highly, but are often anxious and worried that their loved one is not as invested in the relationship as they are. A strong fear of abandonment is present, and safety is a priority. The attention, care, and responsiveness of the partner appears to be the ‘remedy’ for anxiety.

On the other hand, the absence of support and intimacy can lead the anxious/preoccupied type to become more clinging and demanding, preoccupied with the relationship, and desperate for love.

2. Disorganized / Fearful-Avoidant

The disorganized type tends to show unstable and ambiguous behaviors in their social bonds. For adults with this style of attachment, the partner and the relationship themselves are often the source of both desire and fear. Fearful-avoidant people do want intimacy and closeness, but at the same time, experience troubles trusting and depending on others. They do not regulate their emotions well and avoid strong emotional attachment, due to their fear of getting hurt.

3. Avoidant / Dismissive

The dismissing/avoidant type would often perceive themselves as ‘lone wolves’: strong, independent, and self-sufficient; not necessarily in terms of physical contact, but rather on an emotional level.

These people have high self-esteem and a positive view of themselves. The dismissing/avoidant type tend to believe that they don’t have to be in a relationship to feel complete. They do not want to depend on others, have others depend on them, or seek support and approval in social bonds. Adults with this attachment style generally avoid emotional closeness and tend to hide/suppress their feelings when faced with a potentially emotion-dense situation.

4. Secure

The three attachment styles covered so far are insecure attachment styles. They are characterized by difficulties with cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships. In contrast, the secure attachment style implies that a person is comfortable expressing emotions openly. Adults with a secure attachment style can depend on their partners and in turn, let their partners rely on them. Relationships are based on honesty, tolerance, and emotional closeness.

The secure attachment type thrive in their relationships, but also don’t fear being on their own. They do not depend on the responsiveness or approval of their partners, and tend to have a positive view of themselves and others.

Where do you stand?

Now that you are acquainted with the four adult attachment styles, you probably have an idea of which one you lean towards. It is completely normal to recognize features of different styles in your history of intimate relationships. Attachment styles can change with major life events, or even with different partners.

An insecurely attached individual could form a secure bond when they have a securely attached partner. A person with a secure attachment style could, in contrast, develop an unhealthy relationship behavior after experiencing trauma or losing a loved one. So, there is no need to fit any specific profile.

When to worry?

Chances are that many of us don’t fully belong to the securely attached group. Even if we think we have stable relationships, there might be patterns in our behavior that keep bothering us or keep making us stressed/unhappy. Unfortunately, some individuals will recognize themselves in one of the three insecure ‘profiles’ – the less healthy ones. In that case, it is preferable and highly recommended that they address the issue actively and if necessary, seek individual psychological help.

But here’s the thing: this struggle is simply not necessary, as there are many ways to heal and recover from attachment disturbances.

Strongly expressed insecure and unstable attachment styles can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. But here’s the thing: this struggle is simply not necessary, as there are many ways to heal and recover from attachment disturbances.

Are you:

  • Tired of struggling with/ruining relationship after relationship?
  • Embarrassed about being too clingy or desperate for love and attention?
  • Fed up with feeling fear and anxiety over whether your partner loves you?

Ready to learn how to tolerate emotional intimacy and start trusting and relying on people?

Feel like it’s time to start healing?

The online course Introduction to Attachment by Harvard Medical School’s Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Dr. Daniel P. Brown, might be the right choice for you. You do not need to have a clinically diagnosed attachment disorder in order to benefit from this course. It is suitable for EVERYONE. All you need is the desire and dedication to improve your quality of life and start making the best out of your intimate relationship.

View our course offerings

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