Attachment styles originated from an attachment theory by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s and 60s. Attachment styles describe how individuals interact with and attach to the people closest to them, forming from childhood bonds with parents or caregivers. These styles can influence mindset and behavior in one's closest relationships. Knowing and understanding your predominant attachment style may benefit you by allowing you to strengthen your relationships and find healthier connections.
What Are The Four Adult Attachment Styles?
According to attachment theory, there are four main attachment styles experienced by people of all ages, including the following:
- Secure: A secure attachment style involves less anxiety or avoidance in relationships. Secure attachment often leads to stable, fulfilling connections and healthy boundaries with others.
- Anxious-Preoccupied: An anxious-preoccupied attachment style may involve high anxiety levels and low avoidance. Anxious-preoccupied attachments can create relationships that lack trust or thrive on a "chase."
- Dismissive-Avoidant: A dismissive-avoidant attachment style involves low anxiety levels and high avoidance levels. This attachment style may lead to more distant relationships, sometimes stemming from a fear of commitment.
- Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganized): A fearful-avoidant attachment style tends to be high in anxiety and avoidance. People with this attachment style are often drawn to close relationships yet are simultaneously fearful of them.
These attachment styles often start in childhood and follow an individual into romantic partnerships later in life.
What Do Attachment Styles Signify?
Attachment styles are defined primarily by behaviors. For example, an anxious attachment could display itself as "clingy" behavior. An anxiously attached individual might wish to stay as close as possible to the object of their attachment. They may feel distressed at being separated from someone they love. Reuniting with this individual may involve expressing anger or sadness about their fear of abandonment.
Avoidance in attachment could display itself as cold or aloof behaviors. An avoidant individual might think of themselves as independent and self-reliant. However, they may be distancing themselves from healthy relationships and regular human interactions. They might demonstrate detachment from partners or close family members by prioritizing other aspects of life, such as hobbies, work, and acquaintances.
Although initial research on attachment styles was done on children, further research has indicated that attachment to caregivers as children can play a significant role in attachment styles in adult relationships. As infants and children, young people's attachment to their caregivers keeps them safe and ensures their needs are met. The quality of a child-caregiver attachment can inform an adult attachment style. If a child's needs are unmet, including when abuse might not be present, an insecure attachment style may form.
Although adult relationships are not necessarily aimed at physically caring for each other, many people have needs met by 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 the earliest relationships with caregivers regarding intimacy and vulnerability.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
Attachment Styles In Relationships
Each adult attachment style can involve specific relationship characteristics. Knowing these patterns may help couples consider how their attachment styles may affect their relationship.
Individuals with a secure attachment style often know how to maintain appropriate boundaries while participating fully in intimate partnerships. They may confidently approach their relationships and experience low anxiety about opening up and taking space.
These individuals often communicate effectively about multiple topics, including those that may be challenging to address. In addition, a person with this attachment style may have an optimistic view of their relationships and the ability to be upfront about their desires while expecting similar treatment from their partners.
People with a secure attachment style may not be afraid of being without an intimate partnership and have a strong personal sense of identity. For this reason, they might feel better able to end or start relationships on a healthy schedule. Recent studies have found that it may be possible for people with an insecure attachment style to develop a secure attachment style with treatment, healthy relationships, experience, and research.
People with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may be more anxious about their relationships than those with a secure attachment style. They might feel a greater need for reassurance and affirmation from their partner and seek validation from outside of themselves.
Attachment anxiety sometimes leads people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style to invent or magnify conflicts or difficulties in their relationships. They may feel secure in focusing on their fears and often have a more pessimistic, anxious, or paranoid view of their relationships. They might be more afraid of losing their partner and act jealous or possessive.
People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style can sometimes seem cold or distant and may be wary of relationship commitment. They might say that they don't want to be tied down or that they don't like "clingy" people. These patterns can cause them to leave relationships quickly, act unkindly to others, or feel scared of commitment.
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 don't reach deep or vulnerable levels with them. In addition, they might act passive-aggressive or struggle with empathy more than people with other attachment styles.
People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style often find themselves in chaotic relationships that go back and forth from anxious to avoidant. They may experience internal conflict over their desire for and fear of intimate relationships while desiring the benefits of close relationships. However, when asked to give vulnerability and commitment, they might struggle.
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 an anxious-avoidant attachment style may fear losing themselves in relationships, seem pessimistic, and struggle to define or accept healthy boundaries. This attachment style is typical in personality disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD) or for those who have experienced trauma in childhood.
Childhood Attachment Styles
Attachment styles in children are primarily influenced by the child's early relationships with their caregivers. How 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 their physical and emotional needs met promptly, thoroughly, and reliably, they may be more able to form a secure attachment with their caregiver.
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 meet the needs of infants, including the following:
- Proximity maintenance
- Safe haven
- Safe base
- Separation distress
Proximity maintenance is the desire to be close to the object of one's attachment. This skill can help a child stay safe by keeping them close to their caregivers. A child who wants to stay near their caregiver may be sheltered and given a lot of proximity care.
A safe haven may be necessary for processing anxiety because it is a refuge from anxiety-producing stressors. Infants cannot manage their nervous systems independently, and their attachment to their caregivers helps them process their emotions.
A secure base allows a child to explore and discover the world. With this base, they may know they have a safe 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 in the absence of their caregiver is another signal that prompts them to stay close to those who are capable of and responsible for meeting their needs and keeping them safe. If a child feels too comfortable going up to strangers or avoiding their parents, they might get into unsafe situations.
Attachment Styles In Children
Below are the four attachment styles that might present in infants and children.
Secure Attachment In Children
Securely attached children may feel confident in their relationship with their caregivers and are often eager to spend time with them. They might feel unhappy when they are separated from their caregivers. However, they are often confident that their caregiver will return and that they will remain safe. A securely attached child often uses their caregiver as a solid home base while knowing they are free to explore within their home rules. They might easily make friendships, connect with teachers, and work hard to achieve their goals.
Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment In Children (Anxious Attachment)
Children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment style may not feel confident in their relationship with their caregivers. They might try to reassure themselves by staying close to their caregivers, acting younger than they are, or acting out when separated. When children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment are reunited with their caregivers after separation, they may cry or act out in anger 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 caregivers. They might prefer to spend time alone and reject it 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 they may feel hurt. When their caregiver returns, they might not acknowledge them aloud. These children might struggle to show love and affection to those in their life.
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 caregivers and may appear confused about how they should react. Sometimes, children with a disorganized-insecure attachment take on the role of parenting themselves. This role is often seen when children are asked to or must care for their siblings or parents. In many cases, this type of attachment forms from early childhood trauma and may persist into adulthood.
How To Ease Relationship Distress Due To Attachment Styles
If you believe you are experiencing adult attachment issues in relationships due to your attachment style, you're not alone. There are a few steps you can take to move forward.
Look At Your Past
Before considering moving forward, look into your past to learn how your caregivers met your needs. With this information, you may understand which attachment style you adhere to the most and why it developed. For example, suppose you remember your parents being emotionally distant but meeting your physical needs. In that case, you might understand why you have an avoidant attachment style as an adult, as you struggled to learn healthy emotional patterns as a child.
Learn About Your Attachment Style
After understanding the root of your attachment style, it can be beneficial to learn more by researching. As noted by the study above on developing a secure attachment style, research and an in-depth understanding of how attachment works are factors involved in developing safe relationship patterns.
Focus On Concrete Behaviors
Focusing on concrete behaviors can also be beneficial. It may feel overwhelming to consider changing a part of you as deeply rooted as an adult attachment style. Your knowledge of attachment styles can be a tool to help you succeed. Focusing on one behavior at a time might make you feel more capable of changing how you act.
You might consider attachment-based therapy if you are experiencing difficulties or potential mismatches in your relationships. Many forms of treatment might be effective in working with attachment styles, trauma, or difficulties in relationships, and many people find that formats like online therapy allow a convenient and cost-effective way to do so.
Through a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples, you can connect with one of the thousands of therapists specializing in unique areas of mental health. In addition, you can express your preferences for treatment beforehand and get matched with a therapist, often within 48 hours of signing up.
Studies have also backed up the effectiveness of online therapy, with one study finding that online cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR were as effective as in-person therapy, reducing symptoms related to traumatic experiences by 55%. Another study found that online therapy could be more cost-effective than in-person counseling.
What do the 4 attachment styles mean?
The four attachment styles refer to how humans bond to and attach. They are derived from attachment theory, a theory of human development originally pioneered by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Bowlby’s original theory and the subsequent additions made by other researchers were primarily concerned with how children bond with caregivers. In the mid-1980s, researchers discovered that once a child had grown, their childhood attachment style continued to influence how they bonded to others, most notably in romantic relationships.
The implication that a person’s attachment style affects them well beyond childhood means that their attachment style is an important factor in predicting success in interpersonal relationships, especially romantic relationships. Secure attachment yields the highest success, while any of the three insecure styles predicts lower relationship success.
What are the 4 common attachment styles?
The four attachment styles are secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. The styles are outlined below:
- Secure attachment develops when a child has a healthy, open, and nurturing relationship with their caregiver. Those with a secure attachment style can typically maintain healthy relationships as adults.
- Anxious attachment, or preoccupied attachment, occurs when a child receives inconsistent parenting, sometimes being supported and sometimes rebuffed. An anxious attachment style is strongly associated with an intense fear of abandonment.
- Avoidant attachment, sometimes called dismissive attachment, typically occurs when caregivers attend to a child’s physical needs (food, shelter, etc.) but do not communicate emotional intimacy or support. In adulthood, those with avoidant attachment often dislike the idea of a committed relationship and may resist deep social connections.
- Disorganized attachment, also known as an anxious-avoidant attachment style, is most prevalent in those who have experienced abuse in childhood. It occurs when a child’s caregiver - their sole source of safety - also becomes a source of fear. In romantic relationships, those with disorganized attachment often believe that their partner does not genuinely love them, that they are not worthy of support, and that disappointment or hurt is inevitable.
What do attachment styles mean in relationships?
Regarding romantic relationships, all three types of insecure attachment (anxious, avoidant, and disorganized) can potentially cause problems. Conversely, secure attachment is associated with healthy, open, and communicative romantic relationships.
Those with anxious attachment often feel that they need their relationship to survive and perceive its loss as an ever-present threat to their well-being. They can restore their sense of stability by receiving affection from a partner and likely doubt their ability to be happy without their romantic partner. Anxiously attached people often fear criticism, rejection, or other negative behaviors from their partner. They may also need near-constant reassurance and may struggle to take responsibility for their own emotions.
People with avoidant attachment often struggle to tolerate emotional intimacy. They may become closed off when they notice the relationship getting serious. In addition, they may begin to look for a reason to end the relationship, becoming increasingly frustrated by their partner’s behavior or appearance. Avoidantly attached individuals typically don’t believe they need emotional intimacy and often expect requests for support to be rejected or ignored.
Finally, adults with disorganized attachment present must overcome unique challenges in a relationship. These adults both desire love and fear that their partner will betray them, making it difficult to connect to others romantically. They often have trouble believing that their partner would love and support them. This can turn into self-sabotage, where a person with disorganized attachment takes steps to end a relationship prematurely. It can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where a person chooses partners who are likely to confirm their negative beliefs.
What is the most common attachment style?
Evidence suggests that secure attachment is the most common attachment style, accounting for 66% of adults in the United States. This aligns with earlier attachment theory research, which found in a large nationwide sample that 59% of adults displayed signs of secure attachment.
What is the best attachment style?
Secure attachment is typically described as the best attachment style. Securely attached people tended to have childhoods with warm, nurturing caregivers who provided safety and tended to their child’s emotional needs. Those with a secure attachment style tend to have high self-esteem, see the best in others, and view their childhood positively. Secure attachments are associated with the highest chance of successful romantic relationships. Below are some signs of secure attachment in adult relationships:
- Able to regulate emotions and feelings.
- Adept at communication and opening up to others.
- Comfortable with closeness and mutual dependency.
- Actively gives empathetic support and receives it from their partner.
- Comfortable being alone.
- A strong sense of self-awareness regarding the relationship.
What is the hardest attachment style?
One of the hardest attachment styles to live with is likely the disorganized (or anxious-avoidant) attachment style. Adults with disorganized attachment tend to have a negative view of both themselves and others. They have a higher risk of developing mental health issues and substance use disorders. In romantic relationships, disorganized adults may be volatile and destructive. They tend to want love and affection but are convinced that their partners will betray them or that they don’t love them.
What is the rarest attachment style?
The unofficial “fifth” attachment style may likely be the rarest. Commonly referred to as earned-secure attachment, this style refers to someone who previously had an insecure attachment style (avoidant, anxious, or disorganized) and underwent the personal growth necessary to move to a secure attachment style. Most people attain an earned-secure attachment style by leveraging support networks, making sense of their childhood, improving their self-perception, and making conscious changes to thought patterns and behaviors.
What is the unhealthiest attachment style?
The disorganized attachment style is likely the unhealthiest. It is characterized by a strong desire for love and affection carried alongside the belief that loved ones are unreliable and their love is not genuine. In romantic relationships, those with disorganized attachment often struggle to balance their desire for love against the fear of their romantic partners. They may become self-destructive and prematurely end a relationship to avoid betrayal, which they usually consider inevitable. They may also struggle to manage conflict appropriately.
Disorganized adults may also tend to find partners who confirm their beliefs, people who aren’t very good for them or genuinely don’t show them much love. Adults with disorganized attachment are also more likely to experience mental health issues and substance use disorders. While all types of insecure attachment can have potential consequences, especially for romantic relationships, disorganized attachment likely has the most significant impact.
Can I have all 4 attachment styles?
It is not possible to have all attachment styles at once, although sometimes insecure attachment styles can overlap, and some people are not easy to categorize. While insecure attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized) can sometimes overlap, it is impossible to simultaneously have both a secure and an insecure attachment style, meaning a person can not have all four attachment styles at the same time.
How do I change my attachment style?
Changing from an insecure attachment style to a secure attachment style is possible. Those who do so attain a “fifth” attachment style, earned-secure attachment. Earned-secure attachment is nearly identical to secure attachment, except an earned-secure person typically has an in-depth understanding of their childhood and how it affected them. Evidence suggests that earned-secure attachment significantly reduces mental health concerns and problems in future relationships.
According to The Attachment Project, an organization that promotes attachment theory and helps people attain earned-secure attachment, there are four broad steps required to change an insecure attachment:
- Utilize Support Networks. Consciously allowing yourself to depend on others is an important step toward secure attachment. Make a decision to seek emotional support from someone in your support network, even though it may feel uncomfortable.
- Understand Your Childhood. Recognizing the impact of childhood experiences allows you to rationalize how those experiences impacted you as an adult. A rational understanding of your childhood and your caregiver’s behavior can help you make sense of your thoughts and actions.
- Challenge Your Self-Perceptions. How we see ourselves begins to develop when we are very young and is heavily influenced by our caregivers. Insecure attachment styles are sometimes associated with a negative self-image. You may need to work on building self-esteem and changing preconceived notions you hold about yourself.
- Make Deliberate Behavior Changes. Behavior patterns often align with attachment style, and you may continue to demonstrate behaviors consistent with insecure attachment. One common behavioral example is setting boundaries. Those with a secure attachment style can set strong, healthy boundaries, while insecure people may struggle to do so.
Each of the four steps necessary for attaining earned-secure attachment will likely be significantly easier if you seek support from a therapist. A qualified mental health professional can use evidence-based psychotherapeutic techniques and assessments, like the Adult Attachment Interview, to help you identify your unique attachment style and make the appropriate changes to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
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