What Are The Four Attachment Styles?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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, with the attachment process beginning with childhood bonds with primary 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.

Explore how attachment styles affect relationships

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: 

  1. Secure: Securely attached people may have less anxiety or avoidance in relationships. Secure attachment often leads to stable relationships, healthy boundaries with others, and strong social support. 

  2. 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." 

  3. Dismissive-Avoidant: A dismissive-avoidant attachment style (also known as “avoidant dismissive”) involves low anxiety levels and high avoidance levels. This attachment style may lead to more distant or casual relationships, sometimes stemming from a fear of commitment.

  4. Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganized): A fearful-avoidant, or ambivalent, 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 different attachment styles often start in childhood and follow an individual into romantic partnerships later in life. Attachment styles that are not classified as secure are considered insecure attachment styles. 

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-dismissive 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.

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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. 

Secure attachment

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. 

Ilona Titova/EyeEm


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.

Fearful-avoidant (disorganized) 

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.

The earliest research on attachment was done on the attachment style 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. 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 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. Three attachment styles represent the potential for negative patterns in casual and romantic relationships. On the other hand, secure attachment styles often lead to lasting relationships and self-sufficiency. 

Secure attachment style in children 

Securely attached children may feel confident in their relationship with their caregivers and are often eager to spend time with them. Children with secure attachment styles 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 because of the secure attachment type. 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 style in children (anxious attachment styles) 

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. Children with anxious attachment styles tend to cry or act out in anger instead of acting happy when reunited with their caregivers after separation.

Avoidant-insecure attachment style in children (avoidant attachment styles)

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. Children with anxiety and avoidant attachment might struggle to show love and affection to those in their lives.

Disorganized-insecure attachment style in children (disorganized attachment styles)

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. 

It may help to contact a mental health professional for more information on the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). The AAI is often used to identify different attachment styles and how they might impact adult relationships based on childhood attachment security. Attachment styles might stem from the parenting style they received when they would seek support as children, but they can change in adulthood. 

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. 

Explore how attachment styles affect relationships

Counseling options 

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. 


Attachment styles can play a significant role in relationships. If you are facing challenges that may be related to your attachment style, tools are available to help you move forward. Take the first step by reaching out to a trauma and attachment-informed counselor online or in your area for further compassionate guidance.
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