Ways To Change An Attachment Style: How To Create A Secure Attachment

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated February 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Attachment theory describes the way in which human connection is established in a person's life, starting from early childhood between a child and their primary caregivers. This attachment can impact future relationships as an adult, including those with one's own children, friends, partners, and lovers. The child's interaction with their attachment figure can form one of the four main attachment styles.

In some cases, factors such as abuse, trauma, or difficulties in a child's life can lead to an insecure attachment style, such as avoidant attachment or ambivalent attachment. For those with insecure styles, learning to develop a secure attachment may feel impossible or challenging.

A 2020 study found that it is possible to change your attachment style and become less anxious or avoidant over time, with the intention of working toward a secure attachment style.

A woman is outside and has a coffee cup in one hand and a cell phone in the other; she has a calm expression.
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Unsure how to create a healthy attachment?

What are the five attachment styles?

The attachment theory, first published by psychologist John Bowlby, aimed to understand why infants experienced psychological distress when separated from their mothers, impacting their healthy development. He found that infants and young children displayed different behavioral patterns, influenced by how securely attached children felt in relation to their caregivers.

His colleague, Mary Ainsworth, expanded on this theory by hypothesizing that there were several main attachment styles and identifying them accordingly. Observing the varying ways children reacted to attachment-related challenges, she classified their responses into one of the following main attachment styles, highlighting the significance of emotional cues and nonverbal communication in forming these connections.

Secure attachment style

In securely attached adults, individuals feel safe expressing their own emotions, communicating with others, and setting boundaries. They experience higher self-esteem and may not feel anxious or worried about their place in someone's life, trusting that people love and care about them without much reassurance.

When facing an unhealthy relationship, they may feel confident in cutting off contact or removing themselves from the situation. They often don't avoid conflict, difficult conversations, or the emotional needs of others. These securely attached adults understand that emotions are an essential part of being human, and they are better equipped to form healthy relationships, including intimate relationships and romantic relationships.

Insecure attachment styles 

There are four insecure unhealthy attachment styles, including the following:

  • Anxious-preoccupied: Those with this attachment style may question the intentions of others, often worry about being abandoned, or feel intense jealousy. They may go to great lengths to avoid being harmed, often ask for reassurance, and experience low self esteem.
  • Dismissive-avoidant: Those with this attachment style may avoid emotional conversations or topics, keep their relationships at a distance, and shame others for their deeper feelings. They may feel uncomfortable or not know how to express their own feelings. They may reject openness or vulnerability.
  • Fearful-avoidant: Those with this attachment style crave intimacy and vulnerability but may become fearful or uneasy when they have it. They may end relationships early, stay busy to avoid others, or avoid intimate behaviors.
  • Disorganized: Those with a disorganized attachment style may struggle with features of several insecure types. They may go back and forth between avoiding intimacy and craving it. In some instances, they may ask for reassurance and become frightened; in others, they may become angry, cold, or distant.

An insecure attachment style may develop from abuse, abandonment, or a rocky relationship with a caregiver or parent. No perfect parent exists, but understanding how a child feels in the strange situation of developing an insecure attachment can help caregivers work towards helping them develop a secure attachment.

As you become an adult, your attachment style may reflect the behaviors you took on to defend yourself in a complex relationship when you were younger. For example, you may be avoidant of the emotions of others due to having an emotionally volatile parent who asked you to care for their emotional state. Or you may crave reassurance or become frightened due to a parent who was distant, neglectful, or didn't meet your needs. It is better to talk to a counselor if you feel like your attachment style turned into one of those unhealthy attachment styles.

Getty/Halfpoint Images

How to create a secure attachment style

Becoming more secure may feel highly challenging at times. Unlearning patterns from childhood that your family could have taught you may take time. However, a recent study shows that learning or re-learning security is possible. In the study, 46% of participants changed their attachment style within the course of two years. 

Consider the following methods of encouraging a secure attachment style in your own life.

Learn to set boundaries

Boundaries may be rules that you set for yourself, your body, your space, and your belongings. Consider the following examples of boundaries:

  • Not letting your niece eat on your new couch
  • Asking a partner not to touch your face without asking
  • Telling someone you're not interested in dating them
  • Saying "no" to sex
  • Telling someone you need a day to think before answering their question
  • Rejecting a job offer
  • Not letting your little sister use your makeup without asking
  • Ending a relationship that is harming you
  • Telling a boss what you need to stay in a position

Boundaries do not control someone else's behavior. Others may still have the right to set their own boundaries about themselves or their belongings. Confidence in your limits may help you create a healthier connection with someone you love. 

If you struggle to say "no" or bring up your needs, practice boundaries on your own first. Practice saying "no" in the mirror or ask a friend to bring up requests for you to decline. You may start small, as well. For example, you might practice saying "no" to water at a friend’s house or decline an offer to take an overtime shift at your job.

Learn when to communicate and when to take space

For those with insecure attachment styles, you may not know how to communicate emotions, needs, or ideas. Or you might struggle to understand when to take time away, give someone space, or let go of a harmful situation. 

Learning to communicate when you don't have a healthy example may sometimes feel impossible. However, there are various resources available to help, including:

  • Therapy with an attachment/trauma therapist
  • Couples therapy
  • Books
  • Online quizzes
  • Articles and online resources
  • Online or in-person support groups
  • Communication courses

You may benefit from deciding to communicate more often with those you're in close relationships with if you usually avoid conversation. If you typically initiate conversation or struggle with taking space, you may find relief from journaling your feelings or taking time out before asking to converse with someone else. 

This exercise may help to get you to a "middle ground" where you can healthily communicate or take space without extreme fear, anger, or upset. 

Learn about emotions

If you struggle to identify or understand emotions, it may help you to create an "emotions chart." There are several widely known emotions, including:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Jealousy
  • Envy
  • Love
  • Excitement
  • Desire
  • Willingness
  • Contentment
  • Contempt

If visual aids help you, consider printing out a visual chart of emotions. When you feel something and aren't sure what it is, ask yourself if it matches any of the pictures or labels on the emotions chart. Doing this exercise may help you name your emotions when others ask you, "how are you feeling?" 

In some cases, long-term periods of one emotional state may be due to mental health conditions or mental illness. For example, extended periods of profound sadness may be depression, and frequent feelings of fear and worry may be due to anxiety. Speaking to a counselor may also be a beneficial option for you.

Find safe connections

Studies show that humans need social connections to feel safe and healthy, both physically and mentally. For this reason, finding safe and healthy relationships may be valuable for your health. 

Unsafe relationships could cause an insecure attachment style to be more apparent, and you may not feel safe in creating a secure attachment. In a secure attachment, you may leave a relationship or be able to pick up on "red flags" before a relationship starts. If you're already in an unhealthy relationship, it may not be possible to work on your attachment style until you leave and are in a safe environment. 

Someone who is safe and healthy to form a relationship or friendship with may fit the following behaviors:

  • They are open about their feelings and thoughts but can self-control and practice self-care when needed
  • They offer emotional support, kindness, and validation when they can
  • They do not belittle, threaten, or mislabel you
  • They respect your sexuality, gender identity, and pronouns
  • They express interest in spending time with you
  • They do not yell, intimidate, or throw things
  • They do not physically harm you
  • They respect your boundaries, including physical, emotional, and sexual ones
  • They practice active listening when you bring a concern to them
  • They are open-minded
  • They understand that no one is perfect and that mistakes can happen
  • They communicate when they need space or time away from the relationship
  • They are empathetic and compassionate
  • They have goals, ambitions, and desires unique to them
  • They have a strong sense of identity

You may find people who do not fit all these criteria, which may be okay to you. Not everyone will have healthy skills from the get-go. However, the relationship is probably not safe for you if you are experiencing threats, insults, physical or emotional abuse, or bullying. 

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Unsure how to create a healthy attachment?

Seek help through counseling

It may feel too challenging to work through attachment behaviors alone. You may not have a healthy example in your life or want advice from a professional. In this case, counseling can be a valuable option. Online counseling could benefit those who feel most comfortable at home or have busy schedules. 

Studies show that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively treats long-term exposure to stress and trauma and the symptoms that may go with that. Further studies show that a compassionate and focused therapist can effectively treat attachment disorders or insecure attachment styles. 

If you're interested in meeting with a counselor to discuss this topic further, online platforms such as BetterHelp offer an extensive database of counselors with experience in various concerns, such as trauma, anxiety, and attachment. 

Read below for counselor reviews from BetterHelp users who have expressed similar concerns. 

Counselor reviews

”Kerrie is very responsive and supportive. She attends to what I’m saying and finds ways to help me make connections between my thoughts, feelings, and experiences that move me towards my goals. I thoroughly enjoy working with her and appreciate the insights she offers in our sessions.”

”I am so grateful to have found such a wonderful counselor. I finally have a safe place to talk through the darkest parts of my life and continue to receive practical advice that I can actually use to cope with and heal from my trauma, and be more comfortable in my day-to-day life. I could not be more pleased with the counselor I was matched with and I look forward to every session, even if the discussion topics are rough or painful. I would 100% recommend him to anyone I know.”

Takeaway

Changing your attachment style may be possible. By forming new interpersonal patterns, learning about boundaries, and connecting with safe people, you could be on the road to a more secure attachment. There's no shame in getting help; online therapy is another option available if you're ready to take the first step.
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