Unhealthy Attachment Styles: Types, Definitions, And Therapy
Updated November 18, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
When infants are born, they're dependent on others for survival. Because they need their caregivers so very much, they naturally become attached to them. The way these caregivers respond to the infants in their care can affect the way these infants form relationships throughout their lives. Sometimes infants learn healthy behaviors, and sometimes they learn to struggle in relationships. The way we form relationships is also known as our attachment style.
Not all attachment styles are alike. As adults, the nature of our attachments to others has a lot to do with the attachment styles we developed as infants. Furthermore, if we have an unhealthy attachment style, we may spend our lives being unhappy in our relationships. If that's the case, is there hope? Definitely! Understanding the way we form bonds with others can set us on the path to developing a healthier attachment style.
What Are Adult Attachment Styles?
The way you typically bond with others is known as your attachment style. When we have a strong connection with another adult, our adult attachment style is the way we feel about them and how express those feelings. How comfortable do we feel with them? How confident are we in the relationship? How much affection do we feel for them? How much do we trust them? Do we think they'll be there for us 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, but sometimes our attachment styles can cause distress in our relationships. If your attachment style is holding you back in life or making you unhappy, you may want to speak to a mental health professional.
What Is Emotional Attachment?
Emotional attachment is the emotional bond we form with another person at any time in our life. If we feel an emotional attachment to someone, we want to be with them. We seek to maintain the emotional connection, so we miss them when they're away, and we mourn them if we lose them. We also rely on them to help us meet our needs, and we may have a strong desire to help them meet theirs.
Why Do We Need Emotional Attachment?
As an infant, emotional attachments are necessary to ensure survival. Similarly, adult attachments can help families survive and even thrive. This is particularly important in families where adults need to stay together to raise children. Thanks to recent medical advancements, some parents choose to raise children alone, and other families choose not to have children at all. Regardless, we continue to form attachments throughout our lives.
Emotional attachments between friends can provide us with tremendous support, both practical and emotional. On a larger scale, attachments help us work together, so societies function optimally. These emotional attachments can be healthy and beneficial, or they can be unhealthy and can cause us considerable emotional pain.
Most people believe that adult attachment styles develop from infant attachments. In other words, the type of attachment you formed with your primary caregiver might feel familiar and comfortable for you, even if it isn't a healthy attachment style, so it's your default attachment style throughout your life. However, there is some controversy over this belief. R. Chris Fraley suggests that infant attachments styles and adult attachment styles are only partially related.
Regardless of how they develop, the four main attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful-avoidant attachment.
Secure Attachment Style
If your mother, father, and other caregivers were sensitive to your needs and nurtured you when you were young, you likely developed a secure attachment style. That doesn't mean you'll never get into an unhealthy relationship, but it does mean that an unhealthy relationship will always feel wrong to you.
When you have a secure attachment style, you feel confident that other people will be there for you if you need them. You enjoy feeling relaxed in your relationships, and you rarely 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 of the time.
If your needs weren't met when you were a child or if this doesn't describe your experience in relationships, all hope is not lost. You can still learn to develop a more secure attachment style with a little commitment and the help of a therapist. Read on to learn about other attachment styles.
Anxious Attachment Style
If your parent didn't understand or fulfill your needs consistently, you may have developed an anxious attachment to them. This type of attachment is known as an insecure attachment. As an adult, you likely feel that same anxiety when you're in a relationship. You may constantly worry about how to make your partner love you and keep loving you. You also tend to be jealous, clingy, needy, full of anxiety, and fearful that if you make one tiny mistake or if the other person meets someone better, then the relationship will be over. Whether they're a romantic partner or a friend, you probably don't feel that you're good enough for them.
In this case, 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 unconsciously look for someone critical, dominant, and inconsistent in showing you affection because that may feel familiar to you.
Avoidant Attachment Style
In contrast to the anxious attachment style, infants may also develop an avoidant attachment style if their parents don't nurture them well by providing for both their physical and emotional needs. 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 because 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 you may not even know what they are. You prefer to spend time pursuing intellectual goals and may avoid social interactions. Therefore, you'll likely be attracted to people who don't want to help you meet your needs and who want you to be independent.
It's worth noting that an anxious-avoidant attachment style combines the anxiety of the anxious attachment style with the dismissive attitude found in the avoidant attachment style.
An infant can develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style if their parents don't nurture them consistently or, worse, if their parents neglect, abuse, criticize harshly, or frighten them in any way. These individuals don't just hide or bury the pain; they disconnect 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 too close for comfort. At that point, you may experience the feelings you disconnected from in the past, and 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, or you're ambivalent about any relationship, wanting one desperately and fearing it at the same time. When unresolved feelings from previous relationships overwhelm you, you run. People with fearful-avoidant attachment styles are typically attracted to people who are neglectful or abusive.
To further complicate things, an anxious-ambivalent attachment style 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 (RAD) is a rare condition that manifests in early childhood when a child is abused or neglected. (However, it doesn't always happen in those instances.) The children who struggle with this disorder suffer from extreme attachment anxiety.
The symptoms of reactive attachment disorder share features with many other disorders, including PTSD, conduct disorder, some anxiety disorders, oppositional-defiant disorder, and social phobias. As such, it's important to seek a diagnosis from a qualified professional.
The most notable characteristic of children with RAD is that their social behaviors can be extremely inappropriate. Either they're desperate for comfort from adults other than their parents, including strangers, or they're extremely reluctant to seek comfort, even from those closest to them. This all happens before they reach the age of five. Other reactive attachment disorder symptoms include difficulty managing emotions, inability to trust, low self-esteem, anger, and a need to be in control.
If reactive attachment style persists into adulthood, these individuals typically have severe problems relating to others. They may overwhelm people 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 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 the above symptoms, and in addition they:
- Don't like being touched
- Have anger problems
- Show an 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 symptoms present in adults depend on their attachment styles.
- Are emotionally distant
- Don't express feelings
- Don't ask for help
- Have trouble remembering childhood
- Avoid conflict
- Display passive-aggressive behavior
- Are bossy and controlling
- Sabotage others to get what they want
- Are uncomfortable with closeness
- Are selfish
- Fear intimacy
- Refuse personal responsibility
- Disobey rules
- Lack empathy
- Abuse drugs and alcohol
- Participate in criminal behavior
What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Attachment Style
If you're concerned that you may not have a secure attachment style, you may worry that you'll never have healthy relationships. Attachment begins in infancy, so how can you correct it as an adult?
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, the charts and graphs can indicate how extreme the problem is. All of this information can give you a head start when you seek help from a counselor.
Understanding your unhealthy attachment style is the first step to healing. From there, it's usually important to seek guidance from a mental health professional. In addition to that, there are a number of tools to support you while you work to develop a more secure attachment style. For example, writing in a journal can bring more clarity to a muddy situation.
Practicing unhealthy attachment styles also breeds anxiety. If you are feeling particularly anxious, slow down and breathe. Breathing exercises are a wonderful way to calm your heart rate and relax your mind.
Mindfulness is another great way to get out of your head. You can relax and get in touch with your innermost self by learning to focus on the present moment.
How BetterHelp Can Help
If you're struggling with attachment issues, it can be hard to have satisfying relationships with others. Know that you're not alone and that help is available to you. Working with a good therapist is the best way to develop a more secure attachment style.
Therapy can help you examine your past relationships, including the one you had with your primary caregivers, as well as current relationships with friends or romantic partners. A therapist can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help you change the way you think about relationships. Dialectical behavior therapy can also be extremely important as you learn to regulate your emotions more effectively.
Licensed counselors are available at BetterHelp. They can help you identify your attachment disorder and address your concerns, along with any other mental health issues. Whether you're in a romantic relationship or want to have a satisfying relationship in the future, attachment therapy can help you prepare for success. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"I had some trauma when I was younger that was severely affecting my life and my relationships in a negative way... I had tried different forms of therapy with limited success, but being able to write out my feelings, thoughts, and experiences allowed me to express myself in a way that I would not feel comfortable doing while sitting one on one with someone in the same room with me. Maybe that's a sign of me being on the older side of the texting/dm/instant message generation, but the messenger discussion was a game changer for me. Danny and BetterHelp helped me so much in a short amount of time, and they didn't dismiss me or treat me as less important just because of my adverse financial situation. Because of Danny, I found a local EMDR therapist that I can see, and it has been so helpful. Thank you so much."
"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."
Unhealthy attachment styles are common, but anyone can overcome them. You can work with a qualified therapist to develop more a secure attachment style and have healthier relationships. Take the first step today.