What Are The Four Attachment Styles?

Updated January 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attachment styles are our way of interacting with and attaching ourselves to the people who are the most important to us. These styles can influence our mindsets and behaviors in our closest relationships. Knowing and understanding your predominant attachment style may benefit you in many ways.

Explore How Attachment Styles Affect Relationships

The Four Adult Attachment Styles

  1. secure attachment style tends to be low in both anxiety and avoidance. Secure attachment tends to lead to stable, fulfilling relationships.

  2. An anxious-preoccupied attachment style is usually high in anxiety and low in avoidance. Anxious-preoccupied attachments can create relationships that thrive on drama or are generally lower in trust.

  3. dismissive-avoidant attachment style tends to be low in anxiety and high in avoidance. This attachment style may lead to more distant relationships, sometimes stemming from a fear of commitment.

  4. fearful-avoidant attachment style tends to be high in both anxiety and avoidance. People who display this attachment style are often drawn to close relationships, yet they are simultaneously fearful of them.

These attachment styles often start in childhood and follow us into our romantic partnerships later in life. They are not something that we typically talk or think about, but they can affect our lives in many ways.

What Do These Attachment Styles Mean?

Attachment styles are defined primarily by behaviors. For example, anxiety in attachment could display itself as "clingy" behaviors. An anxiously attached individual might wish to stay as close as possible to the object of their attachment. They may be very distressed at being separated from the object of their attachment. Reuniting with the object of their attachment may involve expressing anger or sadness. These emotional displays may serve to remind the person of the attachment of their affection or perhaps punish their partner for leaving.

Avoidance in attachment could display itself as cold or aloof behaviors. An avoidant individual might think of themselves as independent and self-reliant. In reality, they may be distancing themselves from healthy relationships and regular human interactions. They might feel the need to demonstrate their detachment from partners or close family . They might do this by placing a high priority on other aspects of life, such as hobbies, work, and other acquaintances.

Although initial research on attachment styles was mostly done on children, further research has indicated that our attachment to caregivers as children can play a significant role in our attachment styles in relationships as adults.

As infants and children, our attachment to our caregiver serves to keep us safe and ensure that our needs are met. The quality of that attachment can then inform our adult attachment style. Although most of our adult relationships are not directly aimed at our physical care, we have needs that are met by our close relationships. These needs include affection, affirmation, intimacy, play, teamwork, and support. The effects of attachment styles tend to be especially strong in romantic relationships, as these most closely resemble our earliest relationships with caregivers in terms of intimacy and vulnerability.

Attachment Styles In Relationships

Each adult attachment style brings along specific relationship characteristics.  These are generalities, not inevitabilities. Still, knowledge of these patterns may help us to consider how our attachment style may be affecting our relationships.

Secure Attachment

People with this attachment style often know how to maintain appropriate boundaries while still participating fully in intimate partnerships. They tend to approach their relationships with confidence and experience low anxiety about their relationships. People with a secure attachment style tend to communicate effectively about any topic, including difficult ones. A person with a secure attachment style generally has an optimistic view of their relationships and has the ability to be up-front about their wants and needs. They expect the same from their partner. People with a secure attachment style are usually less afraid of being without an intimate partnership, as they have a strong identity in themselves alone.

Anxious-Preoccupied

People with this attachment style are usually more anxious about their relationships than a person with a secure attachment style. Partners with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may feel a greater need for reassurance and affirmation. This sometimes leads people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style to invent or magnify conflicts or difficulties in their relationships. They may feel a sense of security in a focus on these issues. People with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often have a more pessimistic, anxious, or paranoid view of their relationships. They might be more afraid of losing their partner, and they may act in jealous or possessive ways.

Dismissive-Avoidant

People with this attachment style can sometimes seem cold or distant. People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may be wary of commitment to relationships. They might say that they don't want to be tied down. Partners with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style can show their independence through preoccupation with hobbies or work. They might maintain a busy social life with acquaintances that do not involve their romantic partners. A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may be more likely to be passive-aggressive or display more narcissistic tendencies than people with other attachment styles.

Fearful-Avoidant

People with this attachment style often find themselves in chaotic relationships. They may experience internal conflict over both their desire for and their fear of intimate relationships. They may desperately desire the benefits of close relationships but also be afraid of the cost of vulnerability and commitment required. Within an intimate partnership, people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may simultaneously obsess over and push away their partner. They may shower affection one day and become cold the next. Partners with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may fear to lose themselves in relationships. They can seem pessimistic and have a hard time defining healthy boundaries.

Child Attachment Styles

Researchers believe that attachment styles in children are primarily influenced by their early relationships with their caregivers. The way in which a child's earliest caregiver meets their needs seems to have the most significant influence on building their attachment style. When a child has all of their physical and emotional needs met promptly, thoroughly, and reliably, they may be more able to form a secure attachment with their caregiver.

The earliest research on attachment was done on the style of attachment between infants and their primary caregivers. This research identified three child attachment styles: secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure. The fourth style, disorganized-insecure, was added later on. These four styles correspond roughly with the adult attachment styles defined earlier.

Why Does Attachment Matter To Young Children?

John Bowlby, one of the foremost researchers on attachment theory, identified four ways that attachment to a caregiver helps to meet the needs of infants: proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress. Proximity maintenance is the desire to be close to the object of our attachment. This can help a child stay safe by keeping them close to their caregiver. A child who wants to stay in proximity to their caregiver is used to being sheltered.

A safe haven is necessary for processing anxiety because it serves as a refuge from anxiety-producing stressors. Infants cannot manage their nervous systems, and their attachment to their caregiver is what helps them process their emotions. 

A secure base gives a child the ability to explore and discover the world. They know that they have a safe and secure place to return to if they run into danger or become overwhelmed with anxiety or new emotions. Exploration and discovery are developmental necessities, and attachment to their caregiver can help a child to perform these with minimal anxiety.

Separation distress may sound cynical, but the distress that children experience at the absence of their caregiver is yet another signal that prompts them to stay close to those who are capable of and responsible for meeting their needs and keeping them safe.

Secure Attachment In Children

Securely attached children tend to be confident in their relationship with their caregiver, and they are often eager to spend time with them. Securely attached children may be unhappy when they are separated from their caregivers. However, they tend to be confident that their caregiver will return. They are also usually happy when they are reunited. A securely attached child often uses their caregiver as a solid home base. They tend to know that they are free to explore since they have a safe place to return.

Explore How Attachment Styles Affect Relationships

Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment In Children

Children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment may not feel confident in their relationship with their caregiver. They might try to reassure themselves by always staying very close to their caregivers. These children are often very unhappy when they are separated from their caregivers. When children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment are reunited with their caregivers, they sometimes cry or get angry instead of acting happy to see them again.

Avoidant-Insecure Attachment In Children

Avoidant-insecure children might act like they don't care about their caregiver. They might prefer to spend time alone and reject when their caregiver offers to play with them. Children with an avoidant-insecure attachment might act like they don't notice when their caregiver leaves them, even though this is not the case. When their caregiver returns, they don't tend to acknowledge them aloud. These children do not tend to act like they hate their caregiver, but they may not show them love and affection either.

Disorganized-Insecure Attachment In Children

Children with a disorganized-insecure attachment may give off mixed signals. They often don't have a consistent pattern of behavior toward their caregiver. They often appear to be confused about how they should react. Sometimes, children with a disorganized-insecure attachment take on the role of parenting themselves. This is often seen when children are forced to care for their siblings or even feel the need to care for their parents.

How To Ease Relationship Distress Due To Attachment Styles

If you believe that you are experiencing difficulty in relationships due to your attachment style, you’re not alone. There are some basic steps that you can take to move forward.

First, you might look into your past to learn about the events that occurred to turn you into the person you are today. With this information, you may be able to understand which attachment style you adhere to the most.

Next, you can learn more about your attachment style and compare your actions to the information covered in this article.

Lastly, you might focus on concrete behaviors. It can be overwhelming to consider changing something as deeply rooted as an adult attachment style. Your knowledge of attachment styles can be a tool to help you succeed. If you focus on one behavior at a time, you'll likely feel more capable of conquering the task at hand.

Consider Therapy For Relationship Help

If you are experiencing difficulties or potential mismatches in your relationships, you might want to consider pursuing couples therapy. This intervention has been found by researchers to be effective for the majority of partners who pursued it. The success rates were confirmed again two years after the initial experiment occurred. If there is friction in your relationships, a counselor may be able to help.

If you are nervous about seeing a therapist in person, you might try online therapy, such as that available at BetterHelp. Online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy, and with BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist via phone, videoconferencing, or in-app messaging. A therapist may be able to point out roadblocks that are related to your attachment style. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing concerns related to attachment styles.

Counselor Reviews

"Blaire has been amazing. She's super supportive, empathetic, and kind. She has helped me gain confidence in myself and learn that it is okay to enforce healthy boundaries in my relationships.”

"I really enjoyed my sessions with Dr. Anstadt. He helped me see how one issue was affecting multiple aspects of my life. He has greatly improved my relationships with the people I'm closest to and even the way I approach work. I have seen a huge difference in my relationships already, and I have several tools to help me manage the issues I started seeking therapy for. I cannot express how thankful I am to Dr. I Anstadt!"

Takeaway

Attachment styles can play a large role in your life and your relationships. If you are facing challenges that you believe may be related to your attachment style, there are tools available to help you move forward to truly fulfilling relationships. Once you understand the psychology behind your actions, you may be able to guide your attachments and relationships more skillfully. Take the first step today.

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started