What Are The Four Attachment Styles?

By: Jessica Anderson

Updated June 04, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

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

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The Four Adult Attachment Styles

  1. A secure attachment style is low in both anxiety and avoidance. Secure attachment tends to lead to stable, fulfilling relationships.
  2. An anxious-preoccupied attachment style is high in anxiety and low in avoidance. Anxious-preoccupied attachments can create relationships that thrive on drama or are generally lower in trust.
  3. A dismissive-avoidant attachment style is low in anxiety and high in avoidance. This attachment style may lead to more distant relationships, sometimes stemming from a fear of commitment.
  4. A fearful-avoidant attachment style is 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 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 Scales Mean?

The definitions for these attachment styles can be confusing if you don't entirely understand the terms "anxiety" and "avoidance." 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 object of the attachment of their affection, or perhaps punish them for leaving.

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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. An avoidantly attached person might feel the need to demonstrate their detachment from partners or close family members. 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 plays a significant role in our attachment styles in relationships as adults.

As infants and children, our attachment to our caregiver exists to keep us safe and ensure that our needs are met. The quality of that attachment then moves forward to set up 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 relations. These needs include affection, affirmation, intimacy, play, teamwork, and support. The effects of attachment styles are 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. Remember, these are generalities, not inevitabilities. Still, knowledge of these patterns can help us to consider how our attachment style may be affecting our relationships.

Secure Attachment

People with this attachment style know how to maintain appropriate boundaries while still participating fully in intimate partnerships. They tend to approach their relationships with confidence. They 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 upfront 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.

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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 often 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. This is because they feel a sense of security in a shared 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 very wary of commitment to relationships. They might say that they don't want to be tied down. Partners with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may show their independence through preoccupation with hobbies or work. Sometimes, they maintain a busy social life with acquaintances that do not involve their romantic partners. A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style is more likely to be passive-aggressive, or display 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 and fear of intimate relationships. They may desperately desire the benefits of close relationships but may 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 may 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 styles. When a child has all of their physical and emotional needs met promptly, thoroughly, and reliably, they are able to form a secure attachment with their caregiver.

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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, including proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress. Proximity maintenance is the desire to be close to the object of our attachment. This helps to keep a child safe by keeping them close to their caregiver. A child who wants to stay in proximity to his 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 regulate 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, as 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 allows 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 are confident in their relationship with their caregiver, and they are eager to spend time with them. Securely attached children may be unhappy when they are separated from their caregivers. They are, however, confident that their caregiver will return. They are also usually happy when they are reunited. A securely attached child will use their caregiver as a solid home base. They know that they are free to explore since they have a safe place to return.

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Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment In Children

Children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment do 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 them, as well. When children with an ambivalent-insecure attachment are reunited with their caregiver, 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 look like they don't notice when their caregiver leaves them, even though this is not true. When their caregiver returns, they don't tend to acknowledge them aloud. These children do not act like they hate their caregiver, but they do not show them love and affection either.

Disorganized-Insecure Attachment In Children

Children with a disorganized-insecure attachment give off mixed signals. They don't have a consistent pattern of behavior towards 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, there is no need for despair. There are some basic steps that you can take to move forward.

Look into your past. Learn about the events that occurred to turn you into the person you are today. With this information, you will be able to understand which attachment style you adhere closest to.

Next, learn more about your attachment style. You can begin by taking this test to receive an outside opinion about your attachment style. You can also compare your actions to the information we have covered in this article.

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Lastly, 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 is only a tool to help you define and 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've looked into this information and still find yourself struggling to bring about positive changes, you may want to consider professional help. A therapist or counselor, such as those available at the convenient online option, BetterHelp, can help you to develop strategies for change. A professional may also be able to point out roadblocks that are unrelated to your attachment style. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing a range of issues 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!"

Conclusion

Attachment styles can play a large role in your life and the relationships you carry. 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 will be able to guide your attachments and relationships in your life today. Take the first step.


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