Attachment styles refer to how we learn to bond with our caregivers in early childhood. Those first crucial relationships with parents or other primary caretakers shape the way you behave in close relationships later in life.
Healthy relationships are integral to a healthy life. Even as babies, we become attached to people who love and care for us. But what happens when those primary relationships are not healthy and loving?
Researchers have identified four styles of attachment among adults. Attachment patterns develop during a child’s first year, but they influence our behavior throughout the rest of our lives.
Understanding your specific attachment style provides insight into understanding your behavior in relationships and can help you create the happy, fulfilling connections you deserve.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was developed collectively by psychologists Mary Ainsworth, Harry Harlow, and John Bowlby during the 1960s. Before these studies, we assumed that babies bond to their parents because they are the source of food and that attachment was merely a learned behavior.
But Bowlby observed that children sought out their parents when frightened or disturbed, not only when hungry. This led to the theory that nurturing and responsiveness (or lack of it) were responsible for attachment behavior. It was later theorized that the attachment methods learned in childhood influence the quality of adult relationships.
How Are Attachment Styles Formed?
Because we are born helpless, human beings are hardwired to search out and attach to a trustworthy caregiver to keep them safe. The quality of that primary bonding experience directly affects the developing brain.
Babies with loving and responsive caregivers consistently receive reinforcement that the world is safe and that people can be trusted. Babies with unreliable, neglectful, or abusive caregivers learn a different lesson. To them, the world is an unsafe place, and as a result, the brain rewires itself to survive a hostile environment. With this foundation, these babies grow into children, teens, and adults who are hardwired to believe that trust is wrong and dangerous.
Other Influences on Attachment Styles
The information gathered during our most developmental years lays a foundation for handling adult relationships later in life. However, it’s important to note that caregivers are not solely responsible for shaping a person’s attachment style. Various people and interactions influence our attachment style throughout life.
A secure person can become distrustful through negative relationship experiences, and a fearful person can learn to trust through positive relationships. This plasticity is good news. It means that you are not stuck in unhealthy patterns even if your childhood was traumatic.
The Four Attachment Styles
Attachment styles go beyond secure and insecure; researchers further break down insecure attachment styles into anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant styles.
Most people can recognize their style by reading through a simplified description like the ones below.
About 60% of adults develop a secure attachment style¹. Those with this style typically approach relationships with trust and expect their love to be reciprocated.
Securely attached adults find it relatively easy to get close to others and are not afraid of emotional intimacy. They also do not worry if a friend or romantic partner needs time away. These people understand how to depend on loved ones without being dependent.
People with an anxious attachment style have a deep fear of abandonment. They tend to be insecure about the status of their relationships and worry that their friends or partners will leave them. This style of attachment is associated with clingy, needy behavior.
The most defining feature of the avoidant attachment style is a fear of intimacy. People with this attachment style are reluctant to trust others and have difficulty forming close bonds. Getting too close makes them feel suffocated or controlled. They tend to be emotionally unavailable and prefer independence.
This attachment style is a combination of both anxious and avoidant styles. People with fearful-avoidant attachment patterns avoid affection yet have a deep craving for it. They may have difficulty regulating emotions and may experience heightened sexual behavior. There is an increased risk for violence in fearful-avoidant relationships.
How Do Insecure Attachment Styles Impact Adult Relationships?
People with an insecure attachment style may:
- Be highly critical of others
- Communicate poorly or not at all
- Play a passive role in the relationship
- Be fearful of commitment
- Get attention through extreme measures
- Idealize the relationships of other people
- Internalize and blame themselves for relationship issues
- Believe their needs are more important than their partner’s
- Play “push-me pull-me” mind games
- Avoid emotional displays
- Have organizational difficulties
If you recognize yourself in the above descriptions, early attachment patterns may be damaging your ability to maintain healthy long-term adult relationships.
Attachment issues don’t just affect romantic relationships; they can influence the way you bond with friends, employers, family members, and other important people in your life. They can also influence the way you parent your own children.
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
If you have trouble forming or maintaining close, meaningful relationships, attachment issues may be the core of the problem. It takes work and intention to reform your attachment style, but it is possible.
Depending on your circumstances, you will most likely need the support of an experienced therapist to help you break out of destructive relationship patterns and form healthier ways of bonding with others.
Trauma therapy is highly effective in helping survivors of childhood trauma. It focuses on identifying past trauma, then addressing and resolving it so that you can move forward without the weight of the past holding you down.
It is not unusual for insecurely attached adults to have mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance and alcohol use disorders. Participating in addiction treatment or other therapies to strengthen your mental health may play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy attachment style.
Changing Your Attachment Style
You can take some practical steps right now to get clarity on your attachment patterns and work toward a better balance in all of your relationships.
Improve Your Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem is common among people with insecure attachment styles. The more you can learn to love and value yourself, the more prepared you will be to participate in healthy relationships with others.
Be Honest About Your Needs
Insecure attachment patterns are rooted in the fear that a partner won’t meet your needs. That being said, no one can meet your needs if you never express them.
The habit of not being honest about your needs and desires is an act of both self-preservation and self-sabotage. It takes courage to trust others enough to let them know what you want from a relationship, but it is necessary.
Seek Professional Help
The way you function in a relationship is a learned behavior. You can relearn patterns, but it may take the knowledge of a mental health expert to help make that happen.
A good therapist will help you identify your attachment patterns and teach you how to establish appropriate boundaries integral to healthy relationships.
Learn More About Attachment Styles at All Points North Lodge
The experienced clinicians and therapists at All Points North Lodge can help you identify and reshape your attachment style to support better, more fulfilling adult relationships.
No matter what has happened in the past, you have the power to make the future better. Call 855-510-4585 or start a today to learn more about how your attachment style influences your relationships.
- Hazan, Cindy, and Philip Shaver. “Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process .” University of Denver, 5 Mar. 1986.
- Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge; 2012.
- Cassidy J, Jones JD, Shaver PR. Contributions of attachment theory and research: a framework for future research, translation, and policy. Dev Psychopathol. 2013;25(4 Pt 2):1415-34. doi: 10.1017/S0954579413000692
- Salter, MD, Ainsworth, MC, Blehar, EW, & Wall, SN. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New York: Taylor & Francis; 2015.
- Leblanc É, Dégeilh F, Daneault V, Beauchamp MH, Bernier A. Attachment Security in Infancy: A Preliminary Study of Prospective Links to Brain Morphometry in Late Childhood. Front Psychol. 2017;8:2141.doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02141
- Mccarthy G. Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: a study of a group of women at risk of experiencing relationship difficulties. Br J Med Psychol. 1999;72 ( Pt 3):305-21. doi:10.1348/000711299160022
Reviewed by Emmeline Massey MSW, LSW