Unhealthy Attachment Styles: Types, Definitions, And Therapy
By Julia Thomas
Updated September 06, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Like human infants, we're born into a world where we're dependent on someone for our survival. Because we need this person so very much, we naturally become attached to them. The nature of our attachment may depend partly on who we are as individuals, but the effects of how that person responds to our needs are undeniable. Even as adults, when we care about someone, we tend to form an attachment to them.
Not all attachments are alike. The nature of our attachments to others has a lot to do with the attachment styles we developed as infants and often continue as adults. Further, if our attachment style is unhealthy, we may spend our lives being unhappy in our relationships. Is there hope for us then? Definitely! Understanding the kinds of the bonds we form with others can set us on the path to developing healthier attachment styles through therapy and living a happier life.
Psychologists have been interested in childhood attachments since the inception of the field. Attachment Theory, the basis for current studies of this phenomenon, was first postulated in the mid-1900s by John Bowlby and also by his colleague Mary Ainsworth. Between 1958-1960, a child psychologist and researcher named John Bowlby first presented his work on infant and childhood attachment in three scholarly papers that covered the bond between mother and child, separation anxiety, and infant and childhood mourning. These papers laid the foundation for what is now known as Attachment Theory. Another researcher, Mary Ainsworth, collaborated with Bowlby after doing a research project on weaning infants in Uganda. Ainsworth created the Strange Situation experiment, which tested how infants responded to their caregiver when in an unfamiliar situation.
Bowlby and Ainsworth continued studying attachment through most of the rest of the twentieth century, examining the types of attachment and how attachment theory could be used in psychotherapy. Ainsworth identified three types of attachments: secure, ambivalent and avoidant infant patterns. Bowlby and others also worked on Adult Attachment Theory beginning in the 1970s. Mary Main identified a fourth attachment type, naming it 'disorganized,' and created the Adult Attachment Interview, which is a method of assessing how adults protect themselves, especially in close relationships.
What Is Emotional Attachment?
So, what is an attachment? How can we define attachment? Emotional attachment is an emotional bond we form with someone at any time in our life. We have an emotional connection with them that we seek to maintain. If we feel an emotional attachment to someone, we want to be with them. We miss them when they're away and mourn them when they are lost to us. We rely on them to help us meet our own needs and may have a strong desire to help them meet theirs.
Why Do We Need Emotional Attachment?
Emotional attachments have been necessary to ensure the survival of the infant. Adult attachments have also helped families stay together to accomplish this task. Emotional attachments between friends can provide us with tremendous support, both practical and emotional. On a larger scale, attachments help us work together better, helping societies function. Because of this need to create families to take care of infants and children, the goal of attachment has been primarily just to stay together.
Even though we're hard-wired to seek strong emotional attachments, we may not be interested in having children. Also, many single parents have shown that a romantic attachment isn't necessary for raising a child. Still, we continue to form attachments throughout our lives. These emotional attachments can be healthy and beneficial, or they can be unhealthy and can cause us considerable emotional pain.
What Are Adult Attachment Styles?
The adult attachment styles we show other adults we have a strong connection with can be defined as the way we feel about them and express those feelings. How comfortable do we feel with them? How confident do we feel that they're our friend? How much affection do we feel for them? How much do we trust them? How much do we rely on them always being there when we need them? The answers to these questions tell us not whether we have an attachment to them, but what kind of attachment we have. We tend to form similar attachments throughout our lives. The way you typically bond with others is your attachment style.
Adult attachment styles are related to infant attachment types in that the way kind of attachment you formed with your primary caregiver might feel most familiar and comfortable for you, even if it isn't a healthy attachment style. However, there is some controversy over how closely-related the childhood attachment is to the adult attachment style. R. Chris Fraley suggests that the degree of overlap between the two is moderate rather than complete.
The four main attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and fearful avoidant attachment.
Secure Attachment Style
If you were nurtured well when you were young, and your mother, father, or other caregiver was sensitive to your needs and fulfilled them, a secure attachment style probably seems most natural to you. That doesn't mean you'll never get into an unhealthy relationship. It does mean that an unhealthy relationship will always feel wrong with you. If you don't get this good start, all is not lost. You can still learn to develop a more secure attachment style with the help of a therapist along with your commitment to.
So, what is a secure attachment like? When you have a secure attachment, you feel confident that the other person will be there for you if you need them. You enjoy feeling relaxed in your relationships, not tending to feel jealous or anxious that the relationship will end. You also feel independent and self-assured. You feel enough confidence in the relationship that you feel comfortable exploring your world, knowing that the other person is your safe base.
You also care for your partner and want to help them meet their needs, just as you accept their help when you need it. You don't have a problem expressing your feelings and needs, and you support your partner by listening to theirs. You enjoy an honest and equal relationship most.
Anxious Attachment Style
If your parent didn't understand or fulfill your needs consistently, you might have developed an anxious attachment to them. This type of attachment is an insecure attachment. As an adult, you tend to feel that same anxiety when you're in a relationship. Your anxious attachment style leads you to worry constantly about how to make your partner love you and keep loving you. You tend to be jealous, clingy, needy, full of anxiety, and fearful that if you make one tiny mistake or the other person meets someone better, the relationship will be over. You probably don't feel that you're good enough for them, whether they're a romantic partner or a friend.
You don't wait for someone else to criticize you, you do it yourself. You tend to become dependent on relationships, feeling that the other person is better than you and therefore better able to meet your needs. You may find yourself looking for someone who is critical, dominant, and inconsistent in showing you affection.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Infants whose parents don't nurture them well by providing for both their physical and emotional needs tend to have an avoidant attachment rather than a secure attachment. Often, these parents also emphasize the need to be independent and not show emotion. This insecure-avoidant attachment may cause them problems in later relationships. Adults with an avoidant attachment style both crave and avoid intimacy.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you dismiss the idea that intimacy and emotions are important to you, focusing instead on being self-reliant. You may become a loner, preferring to be alone rather than take the chance of having a relationship with someone. You hide your feelings so well that even you may not know what they are. You prefer to spend your time in pursuing intellectual goals rather than social interactions. You'll likely be attracted to people who don't want to help you meet your needs and want you to be independent.
An anxious, avoidant attachment combines the anxiety of the anxious attachment style with the dismissive attitude found in the avoidant attachment style.
An infant whose parent figure doesn't nurture them consistently or who neglects, abuses, criticizes harshly or frightens them in any way can develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style. You didn't just hide or bury the pain, but you disconnected with it completely.
As an adult with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you may feel desperate to be in a relationship - until the relationship gets to close for you. At that point, you may experience the feelings you disconnected from in the past. You'll likely run away from the relationship, attributing your emotional pain to the current relationship.
This type of attachment style can show up as 'disorganized,' 'ambivalent,' or 'unresolved.' If your feelings are disorganized, you may feel disoriented whenever you're in a relationship. When unresolved feelings from previous relationships overwhelm you, you run. You're ambivalent about any relationship, wanting it desperately, but also fear it. People with fearful-avoidant attachment styles typically are attracted to people who are neglectful or abusive.
An anxious-ambivalent attachment combines the anxiety of the anxious style with the fear and disorganization of the fearful avoidant attachment style. An ambivalent attachment is one that evokes contradicting feelings.
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Reactive attachment disorder is a rare condition that happens early in childhood. What is reactive attachment disorder? It's what can happen when a child is abused or neglected, although it doesn't always happen in those instances. These children suffer from extreme attachment anxiety.
The reactive attachment disorder symptoms share features with many other disorders, including PTSD, conduct disorder, some anxiety disorders, oppositional-defiant disorder, and social phobia. So, it's important to seek a diagnosis from a qualified professional.
The most notable characteristic of children with RAD is that they relate socially in extremely inappropriate ways. They either try desperately to get comfort from adults other than their parents, including strangers or are very reluctant to seek comfort even from those closest to them. This all happens before they reach age 5. Other reactive attachment disorder symptoms include difficulty managing emotions, inability to trust, low self-esteem, anger, and a need to be in control.
What about reactive attachment disorder in adults, though? If an adult continues in the reactive attachment style, they typically have severe problems relating to others. They may overwhelm others who they barely know with excessive displays of affection or demands to be loved. Or, they may shun all affection. Unless they receive therapy, it's unlikely that they will ever be able to have a satisfying relationship.
Attachment Disorder Symptoms
An infant with attachment issues is usually easy to spot. Their attachment disorder symptoms may include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Failure to smile
- Crying even when their needs are finally met
- No cooing or making sounds
- Doesn't reach out to be picked up
- Doesn't respond to efforts to calm them
- Doesn't notice when you leave them alone
- Doesn't follow you with their eyes
- Doesn't want to play with toys
- Rocks or self-soothes much of the time
Children and teens with attachment issues may have some of those symptoms as well as symptoms like:
- Don't like being touched
- Have anger problems
- Excessive need for control
- Don't show affection for others
- Fail to show guilt, regret, or remorse after misbehaving
Attachment disorder in adults typically show up in romantic relationships, but people who have these disorders may also have problems in their friendships. The attachment disorder in adults symptoms depends on their attachment styles.
- Emotionally distant
- Don't express feelings
- Don't ask for help
- Have trouble remembering childhood
- Avoid conflict
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Bossy and controlling
- Sabotage others to get what they want
- Uncomfortable with closeness
- Fear intimacy
- Refuse personal responsibility
- Disobey rules
- Lack of empathy
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Criminal behavior
What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Attachment Style
If any of the preceding unhealthy attachment styles sound very familiar to you, you might be feeling concerned or even alarmed right now. Attachment begins in infancy, so how can you correct it as an adult?
Some controversial therapies have been proposed to help with attachment disorders, and unscrupulous individuals are even practicing some of them. These therapies include:
- Deep tissue massage
- Restricting food or water as a punishment
- Forcing you to make eye contact
- Not allowing you to meet any of your own needs
- Cathartic therapy
- Rebirthing therapy
These types of therapy have not been proven to help, and are likely to make matters worse.
So, what can you do if you know you have attachment issues and want to deal with them? You can start by taking an attachment style quiz. The quiz can help you see clearly what kind of attachment style you have as an adult. If your attachment style is unhealthy, you can easily see the charts and graphs how extreme the problem is. All this information can give you a head start when you seek help from a counselor.
Dealing with attachment issues on your own can rob you of having satisfying relationships with others. Even if you're already in a relationship, it's important to seek therapy if you want that relationship to improve. Be sure you work with a reputable therapist that doesn't use unproven methods.
Therapy can help you examine your past relationships, including the one you had with your primary caregiver, as well as current relationships such as with a romantic partner. They can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help you change the way you think about relationships. Dialectical behavior therapy can also be extremely important to help you learn to regulate your emotions more effectively.
Licensed counselors are available now at BetterHelp.com to help you identify your attachment disorder and address those attachment issues, as well as other mental health issues. Whether you're in a relationship now or want to be prepared to have a satisfying relationship in the future, attachment therapy may be the help you need right now.