By Sarah Fader
Updated December 11, 2018
Stuck like glue, human beings are simply made for attachment. Though you might often hear people describe themselves as a "people person" or a "lone wolf," make no mistake, we are biologically inclined to link ourselves with others. From the very first hours after birth into childhood, humans seek out security and align ourselves with others we can trust and depend on. Attachment theory says that is these early experiences that shape our attachment styles and mold how we interact with others throughout our lifetimes. Clingy? Stand-offish? Unable to connect? Thank mom and dad.
Attachment styles impact our relationships with others as well as ourselves significantly. By understanding which type of attachment style we possess, we can become more self-aware and live a fuller, more authentic life. Having insight regarding different types of attachment can also lead to stronger connections and healthier relationships. Knowledge of attachment styles can bring about positive growth and life-altering change.
The Science Behind Different Attachment Styles
So how did it all begin? In the 1960s and 1970s, research conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth gave birth to a concept now known as Attachment Theory. Through their work, the pair surmised that attachment is a deep emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. As children, we attach ourselves to our parents naturally. As we learn to trust and depend on our parents for survival, we develop attachments to them. It is these parental responses to our needs that shape the way we will connect with others throughout our lives.
According to author Kendra Cherry, Bowlby's research led him to discover the four characteristics of attachment, or the things that keep us securely bonded to our primary parent as a child. They include:
Characteristics of Attachment
- Proximity Maintenance - The longing to be physically near the people we are attached to.
- Safe Haven - Being able to return to our parent for comfort and safety when were are threatened or afraid.
- Secure Base - Our parent acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the world around him.
- Separation Distress - When the parent (or another attachment figure is away) anxiety can occur.
Through their Evolutionary Theory of Attachment, researchers Bowlby, Harlow, and Lorenz explain that children primarily attach themselves to one person during early infancy/childhood (ages 0-5). Usually, it is our mother (or mother substitute), and it is this attachment relationship that provides a model for all future relationships. If the parent-child relationship is ended, disrupted, or otherwise unhealthy, it can have serious consequences for future connections. It is these interactions (or lack thereof) that lead people to form one of the following four types of attachment.
What Are The Different Types Of Attachment?
Much like computer operating systems, the closeness-seeking system of attachment runs in the background unnoticed. Unless there is a malfunction, a child will develop a secure attachment style. Between 50 to 60 percent people have this style, although this percentage will continue to change as the population grows. Though most people will fall into one category or another, secure attachment is what all of us should be striving towards.
Secure Attachment Type
Though Hollywood and current culture may categorize secure attachment as "boring" or "mundane," it is this type of attachment that helps a relationship last. A secure attachment ensures that a person will feel both understood and protected. Interestingly, it isn't the perfect parenting or even lack of parental skills that determines attachment style. Secure attachments develop when parents can communicate (nonverbally) to their children that they are there to protect them. Things that can stop a secure attachment from developing include:
- Being mistreated or abused
- Only getting attention when acting out or behaving badly
- Having your needs met infrequently or inconsistently
- Being separated from parents (e., hospitalization, removed from the home)
During childhood, children who are attached securely to their caregivers:
- Prefer being with their parents over others/strangers
- Can separate from their parents without being overly upset
- Look for comfort from their parents when they're afraid
- Are happy to see their parents when they return
Similarly, adults who were securely attached to their caregivers as children have a long-term relationship in which they can trust their partner and demonstrate good self-esteem. Not only are they comfortable sharing their feelings, hopes, and dreams with their partners, they're also able to seek support when needed. Secure individuals can support their partners as well and comfort them when they are hurting. If you're looking for a partner, selecting someone with a secure attachment type is one way to lessen problems in your relationship.
Anxious Attachment Type- Preoccupied
If you can't relate to the first attachment type, it's probably because you developed an insecure attachment during childhood. Even though only 15 to 20 percent of people have this type of attachment, they make up a great deal of relationship counseling clients. This is because people with this type of attachment have a difficult time maintaining healthy relationships.
As with secure attachment types, it all starts in childhood. People with this type of attachment likely had parents who were preoccupied or otherwise unable to meet their needs consistently. They weren't abandoned and usually had parents that cared for them. However, their inner feelings of security weren't fully developed. Sometimes they could depend on their caregivers and sometimes they couldn't. It is this inconsistency that creates an emotional storm within the anxious child/adult.
Like secure attachment types, people with this type of attachment crave love and intimacy. Unfortunately, they feel doubtful about their self-worth. Because of their internal feelings of insecurity, people with this form of anxious attachment type demand attention. Have you heard the phrase "stage five clinger"? This is the anxious attachment preoccupied type. Though often loving, fun, and all-around good people, their clinginess, neediness, jealousy, and tendency to nag can drive even though most loving partner away. Wondering if you fit the mold of an anxious-preoccupied partner? Consider these signs:
- Crave reassurance and constant validation from your partner
- Need constant touch, interaction, and attention from partners/potential partners
- Have relationships that are characterized by extreme highs and lows
- Become anxious/panicking when you are away from your partner (even temporarily)
- Use blame, guilt, and other forms of manipulation to keep their partners close
- Neglect other responsibilities because of preoccupation with relationship/personal concerns
- Overreact when they perceive a threat (sometimes imagined) to the relationship
It might be hard to admit that this is your attachment style, even if you fit the bill. After all, no one wants to describe themselves as needy or anxious. But thankfully, attachment types are fluid and can be shifted with self-acceptance and work.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Type
If you're looking for the opposite of the anxious-preoccupied attachment type, you've found it. Though the two types have one similarity (they're both insecure) how they relate to a relationship couldn't be more different. Emotionally distant and avoidant, they don't crave love, they run from it.
Interestingly, many anxious attachment types find themselves in relationships/marriages with dismissive avoidant partners. The more the needy partner pushes for love, intimacy, and approval, the further the dismissive partner distances themselves. Upset by this, the non-avoidant partner may make threats to end the relationship. The dismissive partner's response: "I don't care." Able to detach themselves from others, shut down completely, and live their lives inwardly, and give off a pseudo-independence that suggests they do not need connection. This is simply untrue.
I'm sure by now; you know the pattern. This avoidance of intimate relationships is based on childhood events, usually, a situation in which a caregiver was unable or unwilling to parent in a way that would build a secure attachment. In some situations, parents were there physically, but for one reason or another wasn't able to meet their child's emotional needs. To get by, the child learns to pretend they don't have emotional needs at all.
This unhealthy style of attachment carries into adulthood and creates a grownup who dismisses the need for love and closeness. These signs are usually present if a person has an avoidant attachment type:
- Uncomfortable with deep feelings and intimate situations
- Set extreme boundaries either emotional or physical
- May hide information from their partners
- Send mixed signals while also disregarding their partner's feelings
- Are noncommittal/prefer casual sex
- Idolize past relationships
Though they may desire relationships and intimacy deep down, avoidant attachment types are usually unable to fulfill their desires because of their internal issues. More likely to cheat on their partners and end up divorced, even in subsequent marriages, avoidant types of attachment are unhealthy and need to be moved towards secure attachment. As with any type, this shift in attachment type is possible if guided by a mental health professional who knows how the process works.
Because avoidant types have a hard time talking about feelings, seeking out and going to see a therapist can be a daunting task. For this reason, online programs like Betterhelp are a great option. Betterhelp will match you with the right therapist who can guide you through the process of changing your attachment style in the comfort of your own home.
Disorganized Attachment Type
The final type of insecure attachment is one not based solely on neglect or preoccupation but on intense fear. Parents of children with a disorganized attachment type are usually dealing with trauma themselves. Because of unresolved trauma, pain, or loss, the parent is unable to attach themselves securely to their child.
Eighty percent of abused children have this type of attachment. Because their primary caregiver's behavior was often erratic and driven by fear, adults with this type of attachment never learned to self-soothe. Their past is full of pain and loss. They may become aggressive, see the world as unsafe, and have trouble socially. Signs of this attachment style include:
- A hot/cold attitude when it comes to relationships
- Antisocial behavior/lack of remorse
- Tend to be selfish, controlling, and lack personal responsibility
- Recreate abusive patterns from their childhood in adult relationships
- Are at a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse as well as criminal behavior
The list above may seem discouraging, especially if you feel that you have a disorganized attachment type. But keep in mind that the first step in fixing a problem is seeking knowledge. Once you are armed with information about your way of attaching to others, you can move forward with a plan to morph this unhealthy pattern into a secure one.
Of course, it's not recommended that you go at this alone. Instead, let a program like Betterhelp private online counseling guide you through the process so that you can live the rest of your life surrounded by loving, stable relationships. It's never too late to become securely attached to the ones you love.