What are Attachment Styles?
Maybe you’re in a marital rut, you keep attracting partners that aren’t right for you, you’re working your way through the dating minefield or you’re happily coupled up. Whatever your relationship status, your attachment style is likely playing a significant role.
The notion of attachment styles was first theorised by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and greatly expanded upon by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Its basic premise is that our relationship patterns are shaped by the way we were attached to our primary caregivers, and how they met our emotional needs.
According to Bowlby and Ainsworth’s model, there are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant, and these are largely formed in the first two years of life. Infants with a secure attachment style tend to have more stable and long-lasting romantic relationships as adults, whereas children with anxious or avoidant attachment styles may struggle to form functional relationships in later life.
Of course, there’s a lot of individual variability, but most people tend to identify with one of these three types. Here, we will look at how each attachment style is formed and how it manifests in our intimate relationships in adulthood. Hopefully, by recognising our attachment style, we can open up the possibility of relating to others in ways that are infinitely more fulfilling, stable and nurturing.
The Three Attachment Styles
Securely attached people had parents who gave them a secure base from which they could safely venture out and explore the world. As an adult, they have a similar relationship with their romantic partner, and feel secure and connected. They give their partner freedom to live an independent life, and are honest and supportive.
People with a secure attachment style accept their partner’s shortcomings, and are responsive to what they need. They don’t manipulate or play games. They can make their points while listening to their partner’s point of view without feeling threatened by differences in outlook and opinion.
Those who are securely attached have a balanced and healthy outlook on life, and seek partners who are also secure, grounded and able to take risks without the fear of failure. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving towards each other.
You may have a secure attachment style if…
- You can listen to your partner’s grievances without getting defensive
- You are OK with your partner being independent and moving freely
- You offer support when your partner is distressed
- You speak up for yourself instead of internalising resentments or discomfort
Children form an anxious attachment style when their caregivers’ responses to them are inconsistent; sometimes appropriate and nurturing but at other times ambivalent. When children don’t know what type of treatment to expect they become confused and insecure.
Instead of feeling real love or trust towards their partner, anxiously attached people often feel a sense of emotional hunger and neediness. Because they are looking to their partner to rescue or complete them, they can find it hard to live in the moment, and get overly attached to their partner’s potential.
Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they often take actions that push their partner away. To alleviate their relationship anxiety, anxiously attached people sometimes play ‘hard-to-get’ and ‘hot and cold’ games in their relationship to get attention.
Signs you may have an anxious attachment style…
- You ‘act out’ to make your partner jealous
- You fixate on a future scenario (such as marriage)
- You withdraw and stop answering texts or calls
- You display clingy, demanding or possessive behaviour
Children learn avoidant attachment styles when their caregivers are emotionally unavailable and unaware of the needs of their children. This lack of attention and responsiveness encourages children to become overly self-sufficient.
People who have an avoidant attachment style may yearn for a loving connection but run away from potentially intimate relationships. A deep-seated fear they will be abandoned and rejected means they don’t allow themselves to get too close. This can lead to loneliness and disconnection.
It is not uncommon for those with an avoidant attachment style to be workaholics or to develop unhealthy patterns around substances, exercise and/or food – all behaviours that put in a protective barrier between themselves and others.
You may have an avoidant attachment style if…
- You subconsciously sabotage new romances
- You find excuses to end relationships when things start getting serious
- You crave or binge on drugs, work, exercise or food
- You sometimes neglect your spouse and children
Can you change your attachment style?
Most people never change their attachment style, but with some work there are ways you can move towards a more secure approach to relationships. These include seeking therapy, only pursuing relationships with securely attached people, and actively encouraging intimacy and connection with your partner.
A good therapist will help you become aware of your attachment style, challenge the insecurities and fears supported by your old models, and develop new styles of attachment for sustaining a satisfying, loving relationship.
The choice you make in a partner is crucial. Anxious and avoidant types tend to recreate unhealthy relationship patterns from childhood in adulthood. The familiarity is comforting, and can be confused with feelings of relationship chemistry. We can challenge this tendency by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style, and work on developing ourselves in that relationship.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people can change their attachment style over time and improve their relationships.
The researchers found that where couples took part in intimacy-building exercises such as question-answering and partner yoga, found that when participants’ romantic partners acted in positive ways – such as listening to them or making them feel loved – they felt more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and rated their relationship as higher-quality.
In conclusion, although how we were parented in our early years sets the template for our attachment style in adulthood, it isn’t set in stone, and we can continue shaping it throughout our lives. Recognising your attachment style is a crucial first step in making critical changes to your relationship patterns and becoming more secure and balanced in how you relate to others.
Develop a more secure attachment style by…
- Choosing a partner who is secure
- Talking to your partner honestly and openly, and having thoughtful conversations
- Doing regular activities with your partner
- Working with a therapist to become aware of your attachment style and change your beliefs
Sources and further reading:
- Can You Cultivate a More Secure Attachment Style? – Elizabeth Hopper
- Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process – Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver