What Is Attachment Style? Understanding The Four Different Types Of Attachment

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many have found that attachment theory has received lots of coverage in social media and other online spaces. This theory generally exists at the intersection point of three main areas of psychology, intimacy and romance. While early attachment styles can develop in childhood, they can eventually grow to shape our adult lives and relationships. 

For example, your attachment style can influence the way you relate to other people, specifically in the context of romantic relationships. Adult attachment styles can be heavily influenced by self-worth and interpersonal trust, and may be directly related to how well you bonded with others during childhood.

In this comprehensive guide to attachment, we’ll explore the four main attachment styles and their range of possible implications. With this foundational information, we can then consider how one can use attachment theory to promote stable relationships, one’s perception of self-worth, and one’s overall mental health.

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What is attachment theory? 

The original attachment theory is thought by many to have developed in the 1960s, based on the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Both researchers were documented to have studied the relationship between parenting styles, as well as children’s earliest emotional bonds and sense of attachment to their primary caregivers. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), attachment theory generally argues that humans can have an evolutionary need to form close emotional bonds with significant people in their lives.

Based on this theory, many young people might experience a drive to bond with their caregivers, an act which can possibly influence their socioemotional development and adult relationships. 

Using attachment theory, Bowlby, Ainsworth and other psychologists worked to explain children’s varied reactions to the short-term loss of their mothers or other primary caregivers. Since the emergence of attachment theory, many believe that other researchers have contributed greatly to the field—and current research is thought by many to have shifted to the role of attachment style in adulthood. 

Psychologists typically identify these four basic styles of adult attachment, possibly with some slight variations: 

  1. Anxious attachment 

  2. Avoidant attachment 

  3. Disorganized attachment 

  4. Secure attachment

While attachment theory can be considered to be a foundational concept in psychology, many have watched as social scientists continue to discuss the accuracy and flexibility of these categories in newer publications and articles. 

Exploring the four attachment styles

Read on to learn more about each attachment style and how your earliest moments during the attachment process can continue to influence your adult life.* 

If you’d like to learn more about your attachment style, you might consider contacting a mental health professional about taking the Adult Attachment Interview to learn more about your attachment patterns. 

*We do want to note: Experiences with attachment can be incredibly individual. Some living with a certain attachment type may have experiences that are completely independent of or directly contract the style they identify with. 

1. Anxious attachment style

Anxious attachment styles are sometimes known as anxious-preoccupied attachment styles. 

Anxious attachment styles are often considered insecure attachment styles. People living with one of these adult relationship attachment styles may feel uncertain within themselves, possibly feeling as if they experience low self-esteem. In social situations, some research suggests that people who identify with anxious attachment hallmarks can be more likely to experience stress and perceived social rejection. 

Additionally, some psychologists recognize subcategories within the anxious attachment definition, including “anxious-preoccupied” and “anxious-ambivalent” styles. While these labels can sometimes be used interchangeably with anxious attachment as a concept, the APA recognizes ambivalent attachment as its own category at the time of this publication. 

According to the APA, infants living with an ambivalent attachment style can show a combination of both positive and negative patterns toward their parents. This behavior can be more likely to occur if the child’s parent is inconsistent in their parenting style; such as acting responsive at one moment and disengaged at the next. 

With this in mind, adults living with an anxious-ambivalent style may worry that their romantic partner might abruptly end the relationship, whether there is any reason for them to do so or not. In some cases, they may refrain entirely from committed relationships to avoid possible desertion later on, even if they feel an intense desire for intimacy.

2. Avoidant attachment style

Avoidant attachment, also known as avoidant-dismissive (or dismissive-avoidant) attachment style,  is considered by many to be the second form of insecure attachment, generally characterized by a sense of discomfort in being with others and a tendency to avoid intimate relationships with them. According to the APA, psychologists generally identify two forms of avoidant attachment: dismissive attachment and fearful attachment.

While individuals living with dismissive attachment can view themselves as competent and worthy of love, they may view other people as untrustworthy or undependable. Consequently, they may have challenges with tolerating emotional intimacy in their relationships and overemphasize the importance of self-reliance. They might also favor casual relationships more than securely attached individuals. 

In contrast, people living with fearful attachment may have a negative perception of both themselves and others. They might doubt their own competence as well as others’ dependability; even when they’re distressed.

According to attachment theory, these adult expressions of avoidant attachment can stem from a parent who was unavailable or otherwise rejected their children. This type of upbringing can lead to excessive independence and concerns around trust later on. 

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3. Disorganized attachment style

Disorganized attachment styles are generally regarded as the third type of insecure attachment. Possibly also referred to as fearful-avoidant attachment, this style can be defined by a sense of fear and confusion about how to seek support from a primary caregiver—particularly at times when it may be in a child’s best interests.

Adults living with disorganized attachment can face a higher risk of dissociative disorders, anxiety disorders and behavioral challenges. They may also feel that they don’t deserve love or closeness in a relationship. These feelings can originate in childhood trauma, with either physical or emotional neglect or abuse. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you identify with this attachment style, you may associate your primary caregiver with both fear and comfort. This duality can create a lasting sense of confusion and disorientation, which can be more evident when you pursue intimate relationships as an adult. 

4. Secure attachment style

Conversely, people living with secure attachment styles can experience greater emotional security. Securely attached people may view themselves as worthy of love, possibly perceiving others as generally accepting and responsive. 

Children may be more likely to form secure attachments when their primary caregivers are responsive to their needs and cultivate a safe, emotionally sensitive environment. Securely attached children often grow into securely attached adults in future relationships because of the healthy emotional support from their childhood. 

We do want to note: If you have a secure attachment style, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationships will be perfect, or that intimacy will always come easily. However, you may be able to impart your feelings more openly, seek support when distressed and find healthy ways to manage conflict in close relationships. 

Can I change my attachment style?

Attachment types are not generally considered to be “fixed” or static. They can change as we pursue new relationships, invest in our self-care and mental health, and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Currently, science suggests that it can be possible to form a more secure attachment style and develop healthier, mutually rewarding relationships. It can take work—however, many find that the first step is understanding the basic framework of attachment theory. From there, you can use this information to work on your personal style.

For example: Recent studies suggest that romantic partners and other intimate couplings can develop more secure attachments through intimacy-building activities. 

On a longer-term basis, romantic partners can supplement these activities with couples therapy and other therapeutic interventions. 

In many cases, increasing your attachment security doesn’t need to be overly complicated. It may be as simple as setting aside time at the end of the day to talk to your partner, listen to their concerns and open up a bit more than usual.

Therapy can help you understand your attachment style

Many may find that one of the best ways to truly understand attachment theory is by connecting with a licensed therapist.

Many mental health professionals can be knowledgeable about attachment theory and other developmental concepts. Some may even specialize in helping people understand their attachment styles and strengthen their romantic relationships. 

Although some patients prefer to begin this process with a face-to-face therapist, a growing number of people are using online therapy to invest in their mental health due to the convenience that it can offer to many. 

It can also be a faster way to connect to support in many cases. Digital platforms like BetterHelp can connect you to a board-certified therapist that is suited to your specific areas of need based on your responses to a brief questionnaire. After you’re matched, the professionals will work hard to help you resolve areas of attachment concern that could stem from your childhood, past relationships and other formative experiences.

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Is online therapy effective? 

A growing body of research suggests that online therapy can make mental health care more approachable for people of all backgrounds. In a 2022 study of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic, an online counseling intervention was suggested to be comparably effective as face-to-face counseling in reducing psychological distress. 

Students in the experimental group experiencing both insecure and secure attachment styles showed improvements in depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, interpersonal sensitivity and anxiety disorder-related symptoms. 

Takeaway

Attachment theory is considered by many to be a fascinating field of psychological study that can impact one’s adult life and relationships. 

The development of attachment styles can start early—and while it can be hard to “break” the pattern of your personal style, it can be possible to develop a more secure attachment over time. 

A therapist can help you begin this process and supply the tools you need to cultivate healthier relationships, better mental health, and a stronger sense of self. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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