Stuck like glue, human beings are simply made for attachment – emotional bonds formed between individuals for better or worse.
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. It’s a basic component of human nature. From the very first hours after birth into childhood, we humans seek out security and align ourselves with others we can trust and depend on.
Clingy? Stand-offish? Unable to connect? Most likely, you can thank mom and dad, or your earliest caregivers. While individuals can – and do – have individual differences in attachment, early childhood attachments are often learned. This leads to the development of social and cultural patterns of attachment.
Can the Different Types Of Attachment Apply To Me and My Relationships?
Attachment styles impact our relationships with others, as well as how we come to understand ourselves, significantly. By understanding which type of attachment styles we exhibit in our relationships, 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. In this article, you'll discover the science behind attachment theory, as well as the four attachment types, their common characteristics, and how you can begin to form stable, secure relationships.
The Science Behind Different Attachment Styles
Characteristics of Attachment
Proximity Maintenance: Proximity is about longing to be physically near the people we are attached to. One's attachment style is developed based on the proximity we share with our primary caregivers. People who are constantly in close proximity to their primary care providers will likely develop a secure attachment type. Insecurely attached children were likely not in close proximity with their primary caregivers when they were in distress.
Safe Haven: The child can return to a parent for comfort and safety when they're threatened or afraid. Securely attached children develop security when the primary caregiver is available when they are in distress. Children whose safety needs were only met intermittently (resulting in limited contact with the attachment figure) will likely develop an avoidant type of anxious-avoidant attachment style.
Secure Base: The parent acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the world around him or her. Attachment behaviors are largely based on how securely attached infants are to their primary attachment figure. The childhood attachment style affects adult attachment style and relationships.
Separation Distress: When the parent (or another attachment figure) is away, anxiety can occur. Attachment styles among young children are affected by the level of distress. According to attachment theory, when a child is in constant distress, negative attachment styles are formed based on their fears. Attachment to the mother is the primary relationship observed in attachment theory.
Attachment Classification - What Are The Different Types of Attachment?
Through their Evolutionary Theory of Attachment, researchers Bowlby, Harlow, and Lorenz explain that children primarily attach themselves to one person during early infancy and childhood (ages 0-5). Usually, it is the mother (or mother substitute), and this relationship provides a model for all future relationships.
If the parent-child relationship ends, is disrupted, or is otherwise unhealthy, it can negatively affect future connections. It is these interactions (or lack thereof) that lead people to develop one of the following four attachment styles.
Secure Attachment Type
A secure attachment ensures each person in the relationship feels safe, cared for, and understood. Securely attached children often grow into confident and successful adults.
The differences in attachment styles and how they affect our lives are increasingly apparent when measuring the performance and happiness rating of securely attached children versus insecurely attached or avoidant types.
Interestingly, it isn't perfect parenting or even a lack of parenting skills that determines attachment style. Secure attachment develops when a caretaker is able to make a child feel safe and protected through nonverbal communication. Factors that prevent security of attachment from forming 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.g., hospitalization, removed from the home)
During childhood, kids who are attached securely to their caregivers:
- Prefer being with their parents over others/strangers
- Can separate from their parents without becoming 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 tend to have long-term relationships in which they trust their partners and demonstrate a healthy level of self-esteem. Not only are these folks comfortable sharing their feelings, hopes, and dreams with their partners, but they're also able to seek support when needed.
Secure individuals are also able to support their partners and comfort them when they're hurting. Individuals with a secure attachment style tend to make great partners.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Type
About 15 to 20 percent of people have an anxious attachment style. Many people in this state of mind seek out counseling due to the difficulty they experience when trying to develop secure attachments as adults.
Anxious caregivers are often preoccupied or otherwise unable to consistently meet their children's needs. People who form this type of attachment weren't abandoned as children, and in most cases, their parents expressed some care and concern for them; however, their inner feelings of security weren't fully developed as children. Inconsistent caretaking meant they could not depend on their parent or another caregiver.
This inconsistency creates an emotional storm within the anxious child, which carries over into adulthood and can result in relationship-avoidant types of people.
Like those individuals with a secure attachment style, people with an anxious child's attachment style crave love and intimacy, but they often feel a lack of self-worth. This negative self-worth is directly related to their security of attachment to their parental figures.
Attachment styles secure themselves in place in early childhood, attachment theory states. In adulthood, deep-rooted insecurities may lead to attention-seeking behaviors (or anti-social behavior for avoidant types). Though often loving, fun, all-around good people, their clinginess, neediness, jealousy, and tendency to nag often drive loved ones away.
Common characteristics of an anxious attachment type include:
- A need for reassurance and constant validation from partners
- A desire for constant touch, interaction, and attention from partners or potential partners
- Relationships with extreme highs and lows
- An anxious or panicked feeling when away from a partner (even temporarily)
- A tendency to use blame, guilt, shame, and other forms of manipulation to keep their partners close
- A tendency to neglect responsibilities due to a preoccupation with relationships or personal concerns
- A tendency to overreact when there is a perceived threat to the relationship. In some cases, these threats might be imagined
If the above-mentioned characteristics describe your tendencies, you are certainly not alone. While an anxious attachment style can make it difficult to build and maintain strong long-term relationships, it's important to realize that attachment types are fluid and can be shifted with awareness, self-acceptance, and therapy.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Type
A dismissive-avoidant attachment type is the polar opposite of the anxious-preoccupied attachment type outlined above. Though the two types have one similarity -- they're both insecure -- these attachment styles couldn't be more different. Emotionally distant and avoidant, individuals with a dismissive attachment type don't crave love; in fact, they run from it.
Interestingly, many anxious attachment types find themselves in relationships and marriages with dismissive-avoidant partners. The more the needy partner pushes for love and approval, the further the dismissive partner distances him or herself. Upset by this lack of intimacy, the non-avoidant partner may threaten to end the relationship, which will have little effect on the dismissive partner.
Able to detach themselves from others, shut down completely, and live their lives inward, folks with a dismissive attachment style give off a pseudo-independence that suggests they do not need connection. Of course, this is simply untrue.
By now, you've probably noticed a pattern. The avoidance of intimate relationships is the result of childhood events in which a caregiver was unable or unwilling to parent in a way that would build a secure attachment.
In some situations, parents were physically present, but for one reason or another, they weren't able to meet their children's emotional needs. In this case, the child learns to ignore and repress their emotions. When looking at contrasting differences in attachment styles -- securely attached children usually report a higher level of satisfaction with their adult lives than insecurely attached children do.
This unhealthy style of attachment for avoidant types carries into adulthood, and the grown individual dismisses the need for love and connection. The following characteristics are usually present if a person has an avoidant attachment type:
- They are uncomfortable with deep feelings and intimate situations
- They set extreme emotional and/or physical boundaries
- They may hide information from their partners
- They send mixed signals and disregard partners' feelings
- They are noncommittal and prefer casual sex
- They idealize past relationships
Though avoidant types may have a deep desire for close relationships and intimacy, they are typically unable to fulfill their desires due to their deep-seated internal struggles. Avoidant types are more likely to engage in sexual affairs and end up divorced.
According to the psychology of attachment theory, it is entirely possible for people with negative attachment styles to transition to a secure attachment style, in order to form and maintain healthy relationships. As with any type, this shift in attachment type is possible if guided by a mental health professional who understands the attachment process.
A licensed professional can help you heal unresolved issues with your primary attachment figure -- and yourself. Securely attached adults and children report markedly less distress in their lives.
If you want to learn more about how your relationship with your primary attachment figure has affected your life, talk to a licensed therapy professional who specializes in counseling based on attachment theory and attachment strategy.
Because avoidant types find it difficult to discuss their feelings, pursuing therapy can be a daunting task, but it's an important and necessary step to help them move toward becoming securely attached.
Disorganized Attachment Type
The final type of attachment isn't based solely on neglect or preoccupation, but also on intense fear. The attachment figure of children with a disorganized attachment style is usually dealing with trauma themselves. Because of unresolved trauma, pain, or loss, the attachment figure is unable to attach themselves securely to the child. Eighty percent of people who were abused as a child have this type of attachment.
Because their primary attachment figure's behavior was often erratic and fear-driven, adults with this type of attachment style have never learned to self-soothe. Their past is marked by pain and loss, and they may become aggressive, see the world as unsafe, and otherwise have trouble socially. Signs of this attachment style include:
- A hot/cold attitude when it comes to relationships
- Antisocial behavior and lack of remorse
- A tendency to be selfish, controlling, and lack personal responsibility
- Recreating abusive patterns from their childhood in adult relationships
- Drug and alcohol abuse, as well as violent or destructive criminal behavior
If you think you may have a disorganized attachment type, don't be discouraged. You can learn how to become securely attached with the help of a licensed therapy professional. Once again, knowledge is key. Education, willingness, and therapy can help you move toward a secure attachment style, so you can establish strong, healthy relationships.
How to Move Forward
Throughout this article, you've read that therapy can be life-changing for individuals with non-secure attachment styles. Online therapy offers a safe space to discuss your concerns, and best of all, you can reap the benefits without leaving the comfort of your home.
BetterHelp's online therapy services are tailored to fit your individual needs. Our counselors understand the importance of attachment strategy and work hard to help resolve issues with an early attachment figure. Read below to learn how our online counselors are helping clients shift to a healthier mindset.
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Regardless of your attachment style, you deserve connection, love, and security in your life. Now that you have a better understanding of each attachment style, you can move toward a happier, healthier future. Take the first step today.