What is “Attachment”?
Attachment theory is focused on the relationships and bonds between people, especially long-term relationships, between a parent and child and also between romantic partners. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, pioneers of this subject, found that the way infants’ needs are met by their caregivers significantly forms their “attachment strategy” in their adult relationships (1). In other words, as adults we tend to find partners that confirm our attachment models from childhood. For example, if you grew up with an insecure attachment pattern, you may search for similar patterns in your adult relationships, even if these patterns are harmful.
Your attachment style doesn’t explain everything about your relationships, but it may help explain why your relationships have succeeded or failed in the way that they did, why you’re attracted to certain people, and why certain relationship problems keep coming up.
Why Does Your Attachment Style Matter?
Educating myself on attachment theory radicalized the way I saw myself and others. Your attachment style influences your partner selection, how well your relationships progress, and also how they end. Mindfulness of your attachment style can help you understand your strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.
Four Attachment Styles
There are four attachment styles that adults can adopt (1):
Secure Attachment Style
People with secure attachment styles are comfortable showing interest and affection toward others. They can prioritize relationships within their life and establish healthy boundaries with others. They’re also comfortable with being alone and independent. You may have already guessed it, but secure attachment types tend to make the best romantic partners, friends, and family members. They’re able to trust others, are trustworthy themselves, and can accept rejection despite the pain.
Anxious Attachment Style
Anxious attachment types tend to be nervous and insecure about the strength of their relationships, and need lots of reassurance and validation from their partner. They find it difficult to be alone, and may find themselves in unhealthy relationships. They find it difficult to trust people, even those they’re close to. They may find themselves behaving irrationally and being overly-emotional. This may be reflected in someone who constantly doubts the loyalty of their partner or needs constant reassurance that their partner is attracted to them.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Avoidant attachment types are self-reliant, independent, and often uncomfortable with intimacy. They often fear commitment and avoid emotionally intimate situations. When faced with intimacy, they complain about feeling “suffocated” and may distance themselves further. In every relationship they have an “escape route,” and may structure their lifestyle to minimize emotional intimacy. This may be reflected in someone who gets annoyed when their partner wants to spend extra time with them, or feels uncomfortable when their relationship becomes more intimate.
Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style
Anxious-avoidant attachment types (also known as “fearful-avoidant”) are a combination of two attachment “extremes.” Anxious-avoidant types crave intimacy and commitment, but when relationships get deeper, their fear and mistrust leads them to distance themselves. This creates a cycle in which the anxious-avoidant desperately seeks out intimacy and validation, yet withdraws when they near intimacy. They may find themselves in a series of short relationships that end with them finding fault in a partner who seems more threatening as the relationship grows deeper. Research has found that a small percentage of the population qualifies as anxious-avoidant, and these individuals typically struggle with mental illness and/or substance abuse as well. (2)
The Anxious-Avoidant Trap
In codependent relationships, a common pattern of behavior is the “anxious-avoidant trap.” This relationship feels like a “push and pull” as both partners are at are at opposite ends of the attachment spectrum.
The anxious person in the relationship moves closer to their partner and craves lots of attention, validation, and intimacy. The avoidant person, on the other hand, responds by moving away as they interpret the emotional advances as suffocating. The avoidant type feels threatened and then overloaded by their anxious partner. They feel they’ve lost their autonomy and sense of self as their anxious partner seeks to move even closer.
This push-and-pull creates a cycle that is referred to as the “anxious-avoidant trap:”
Your Attachment Style Can Change
The attachment style you formed as a child based on your relationship with a parent or caregiver doesn’t have to define your ways of relating to those you love as an adult. If you become aware of your attachment style, you can discover ways you’re defending yourself from emotional intimacy, and can then work toward forming a secure attachment.
For example, you can challenge yourself by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style and work on developing yourself in that relationship. Therapy can also be helpful for changing maladaptive attachment patterns that you feel you’ve developed from childhood. Awareness of your attachment style is the first step to challenge insecurities and fears, and cultivate new styles of attachment for a satisfying, loving relationship.
All of the attachment types discussed are scalar, and while one has a “dominant” attachment type, it’s possible to exhibit tendencies of more than one type. For example, all non-secure attachment types will probably score some amount on the “secure” scale, and secure attachment types may score some amount on the “anxious” and/or “avoidant” scales.
Attached: A Must-Read
The book Attached, by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, M.A., piqued my interest in attachment theory. It was comprehensive yet explained simply, and I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the concept of attachment and their own attachment style. It also includes interactive and self-reflective components that are helpful as one progresses through the book.
So… What’s Your Attachment Style?
Psychology Today offers an online test you can complete to find out.
- Bartholomew, K., Kwong, M. J., & Hart, S. D. (2001). Attachment. In Handbook of personality disorders: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 196–230). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
- Caspers, K. M., Yucuis, R., Troutman, B., & Spinks, R. (2006). Attachment as an organizer of behavior: implications for substance abuse problems and willingness to seek treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(1), 32.