Learning How To Identify, Manage, And Overcome Unhealthy Attachment Styles

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated August 3, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Throughout our lives, we form relationships with the people we interact with regularly, and there are a number of ways that people may bond with those they're close with. Attachment refers to the emotional bonds we form with others, and it can heavily influence our relationships. Infants naturally develop strong attachments to their caregivers, and how those caregivers respond can have long-lasting impacts on the relationships children form for the rest of their lives.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Are Unhealthy Attachment Styles Affecting Your Relationships?

What Is Emotional Attachment?

Emotional attachment refers to the bonds we form with others throughout our lives. Emotional attachments are a basic human need as they are where we find love, connection, and intimacy. These intimate relationships may take any form, whether platonic, familial, or romantic. 

As humans, we tend to rely on those with whom we form an emotional attachment and count on them to help us meet our needs. We may also feel a strong desire to ensure the needs of our loved ones are met. Emotional attachments are natural and generally necessary for functional, healthy relationships. 

What are Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles are patterns of behavior and emotional responses that develop in childhood and influence how individuals form and maintain relationships throughout their lives. Unhealthy attachment styles are characterized by insecurity, anxiety, and difficulty forming trusting relationships, while secure attachment types tend to feel comfortable with emotional intimacy and are able to form trusting and supportive relationships with others.

Attachments can heavily influence self-worth and interpersonal trust. Attachment theory proposes that we have an evolutionary need to form close emotional bonds with others and that the first ones we form—with our primary caregivers as infants—may affect our emotional development and stability. A person’s childhood attachments may affect their friendships, familial relationships, and romantic relationships throughout their life.

There are a variety of attachment styles, both healthy and unhealthy. Unhealthy attachment styles formed in childhood may lead to dysfunctional adult relationships. However, attachment therapy—either online or in-person—can be helpful for understanding how bonds are formed with others and redirect you toward a healthier attachment style.

How Are Attachment Styles Formed?

How caregivers respond to an infant’s physical and emotional needs may establish childhood attachment patterns. These attachment patterns may inform a person’s attachment style as an adult. 

Unhealthy attachments tend to form when an individual experiences inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive care during infancy and early childhood. For example, a child whose parents provide inconsistent emotional support may develop an anxious attachment style. This may cause them to need constant reassurance in romantic relationships. Healthy attachments, on the other hand, are typically the result of consistent, responsive, and nurturing care and often lead to more stable relationships later in life.

Attachment Patterns in Children

Four attachment patterns have been identified in children. The attachment patterns displayed by children may influence their adult attachment style. These four attachment patterns are:

  • Secure attachment: Children whose physical and emotional needs are consistently met tend to develop secure attachments. They  feel comfortable exploring the environment and interacting with strangers when their caregiver is present.
  • Anxious-Ambivalent attachment: If a caregiver is inconsistently available or responds inappropriately to the child's emotional needs, the child may feel uncertain about the caregiver's availability and response. They may appear clingy and anxious, and often become distressed when separated from their caregiver but ambivalent when the caregiver returns.
  • Anxious-Avoidant attachment: Avoidant attachment patterns can develop when a caregiver consistently rejects or ignores the child's emotional needs, leading the child to develop a strategy of self-reliance and emotional detachment to cope with their unmet needs. They may avoid or ignore their caregiver and become emotionally distant.
  • Disorganized attachment: A disorganized attachment pattern can develop when a caregiver's behavior is erratic, abusive, or frightening, leading the child to develop conflicting and disorganized ways of coping with their environment and relationships.

Adult Attachment Styles

A person’s attachment style may influence how they form and maintain connections with friends, family, coworkers, and even everyday acquaintances. Research indicates several adult attachment styles

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

Dismissive-avoidant attachment style is a type of insecure attachment pattern in which individuals tend to avoid emotional intimacy and may appear emotionally detached in relationships. This attachment style often develops when caregivers are dismissive of a child's emotional needs, leading the child to learn to rely on themselves and avoid seeking support or closeness from others. Adults with this attachment style may have difficulties forming and maintaining healthy relationships due to their tendency to avoid emotional intimacy and prioritize independence. They may struggle with expressing their emotions and may appear self-sufficient and emotionally distant to their partners.

This rigid self-sufficiency may stem from viewing others as untrustworthy or undependable. A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may compartmentalize love and sex within a romantic relationship, making it challenging to maintain sexual intimacy.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

If a person doesn’t not have their physical and emotional needs met consistently during childhood, they may develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style. Many people with this attachment style experienced harsh criticism, fear, or even abuse and neglect as children. A fearful attachment style is often categorized by a negative view of themselves and others, which may mean they doubt the possibility of others helping, loving, and supporting them. 

This could lead to a desire for relationships later in life, and a fear of those relationships as emotional intimacy develops. A person with a fearful attachment style may struggle to fully trust their partner and may have difficulty opening up emotionally, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. They may also have a tendency to push their partner away or engage in self-sabotaging behaviors as a way of avoiding the potential emotional pain that may arise from getting too close to someone.

Therapy and self-reflection can help individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style to develop more secure attachment patterns and improve their ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

If a child receives inconsistent care from their primary caregiver and becomes unsure whether their needs will be met, they may develop an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. Anxious-preoccupied attachment is a form of insecure attachment that is characterized by a strong desire for closeness and intimacy in relationships, combined with a fear of rejection and abandonment.

Individuals with this attachment style tend to worry about their relationships and may become overly preoccupied with their partner's thoughts and actions, often seeking constant reassurance and validation. An anxious attachment style can lead to clingy and needy behavior, jealousy, and a tendency to overanalyze and overthink the relationship. 

Secure Attachment

A secure attachment style is a healthy and adaptive form of attachment pattern in which individuals feel comfortable with intimacy and are able to form close, healthy relationships. Warm, responsive care as a child typically results in a secure attachment style. People with a secure attachment style develop a positive view of themselves and others, making them more likely to trust and depend upon others while providing that same support and love to the important people in their lives.

Adults with secure attachment styles highly regard attachment relationships and appear to have a capacity to manage intrusions of emotions regarding their past or future in an effective manner. Secure relationships tend to be characterized by trust, mutual respect, effective communication, and a sense of emotional safety and security.

However, a secure attachment style does not guarantee healthy relationships. However, a secure attachment type may be more open to getting help when experiencing relationship problems or leaving an unhealthy relationship. People with secure attachment styles tend to be accountable for their mistakes and shortcomings in relationships.

Unhealthy Emotional Attachment Styles Vs. Attachment Disorders

A person with an unhealthy attachment style may display unhealthy relationship patterns or have difficulties maintaining relationships. Adult attachment issues related to insecure attachment styles are not uncommon, though they are not an official diagnosis. An insecure or unhealthy attachment style should not be confused with an attachment disorder.

Attachment disorders are diagnosable conditions found only in children. These disorders can arise when a child experiences significant disruptions in their early attachment relationships, resulting in difficulty forming healthy attachments and relationships later in life.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

When a child is abused or neglected in early childhood, they may develop Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Children experiencing this disorder often feel extreme attachment anxiety. Children with RAD often show abnormal social behavior, such as seeking comfort from adults other than their caregivers or a strong reluctance to seek comfort from anyone. 

Common symptoms of RAD include:

  • Withdrawn or emotionally detached behavior
  • Failure to initiate or respond to social interactions
  • Limited emotional expression
  • Lack of interest in comforting from caregivers
  • Destructive or aggressive behavior
  • Distaste for physical contact

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder

If a child experiences insufficient caregiving early in life due to neglect or lack of opportunity to form an attachment, they may develop Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED). Children with DSED may wander from caregivers, show a willingness to leave with strangers, or display overly familiar behaviors such as seeking physical contact like hugs from unfamiliar adults. 

  • overly trusting and friendly behavior towards unfamiliar adults
  • a lack of fear of strangers
  •  willingness to leave with unfamiliar adults
  • attention-seeking behavior
  • Impulsivity or poor impulse control

Overcoming Unhealthy Attachment Styles

Unhealthy attachment styles may lead to difficulties in adult relationships. Those with unhealthy attachments may benefit from seeking help from a mental health professional. Through talk therapy, a mental health professional can help an individual understand how a difficult childhood or past trauma may be affecting their current relationships. A therapist may also provide guidance and support for developing more secure relationships.

A person's attachment style is not set in stone, and with intentional effort, it’s possible to form secure emotional bonds. This typically involves a period of self-reflection in which a person develops a deeper understanding of specific needs and emotions. This may empower individuals to address their own needs and the needs of their partners.

 In therapy, a licensed therapist may guide an examination of past and current relationships to recognize any unhealthy relationship patterns. Many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help individuals change the way they think about their relationships with others to adjust their behaviors and enjoy more stable, fulfilling relationships.

Research Shows Online Therapy Can Be As Effective As In-Person Treatment

If you struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships, you may benefit from treatment with a licensed therapist. Online therapy providers like BetterHelp offer convenient appointments via phone, video call, or online chat. Online therapy may be preferable in cases where in-person treatment is inaccessible or inconvenient. 

Recent research shows that online CBT treatments can be as effective as in-person treatments for various mental health conditions. Remote therapy offers convenience with the ability to send your therapist a message or schedule a phone or video appointment whenever you experience challenges in a relationship. Online therapy has also been shown to be more cost-effective, to have lower drop-out rates, and to promote stronger relationships between clients and therapists. 


Unhealthy attachment styles may be common, but they can be overcome with the help of a qualified therapist. Working with a licensed therapist may make it easier to develop a secure attachment style and build healthy relationships with the people in your life. Developing a secure attachment style may promote healthier relationships and foster a stronger sense of self-worth, allowing individuals to connect more deeply with others.

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