I’ll be honest, when I decided to pursue a career as a therapist, one of the motivating factors was the desire to better understand myself and my own relationship patterns. Yes, I wanted to offer others support and care, but I also wanted to learn how to better engage with others and finally figure out why I was drawn to the same type of dating partners (over and over and over again). Learning about attachment theory is when things started to really fall into place for me, to help me make sense of myself and those around me. And to start approaching relationships in a way that would allow for real, deep connection while feeling safe and fulfilling.
By now, information about attachment is everywhere. There are quizzes you can take on countless websites to identify your attachment style. But for some, attachment is still a mystery. If you’re an attachment expert or if you’re just getting familiar with the terms, I hope that this article can help you better understand yourself and your attachment patterns.
Let’s start with early attachment. Much of the study of early childhood development has centered on or borrowed from the concept of attachment theory. Attachment theory suggests that as infants, we must form attachments to our caregivers, not only as a matter of survival, but as a framework for how we come to understand people and the world around us. It dictates that these early childhood attachments and the way they develop can have lasting effects on how we form and maintain relationships as adults. As attachment theory developed, we came to understand that as children we need a safe and secure base from which to explore the world and ourselves. When that isn’t provided, we can develop varying types of insecure attachment that go on to influence how we perceive and engage with others.
The attachment style that is understood to be the healthiest one, and that one that we tend to strive for as parents, is a secure attachment style. According to attachment theory, we either initially form secure attachments or one of three types of insecure attachment at a young age. Secure attachment forms when a caregiver is able to meet the emotional, physical and psychological needs of their child. Secure attachment in children presents as a child knowing that they are loved and cared for, and feeling comfortable exploring the world and learning about themselves. A child with a secure attachment will likely feel secure in the knowledge that those around them are there to help them succeed. This is accomplished by the caregiver successfully co-regulating with the child, giving them the right amount of attention and support, and modeling for them what a safe and healthy relationship looks like. When a child is functioning from a secure attachment style, they’re more likely to have higher self esteem, greater resilience, and stronger social skills. They also tend to be better at emotionally self regulating, exercising patience, and understanding when their needs cannot be met immediately.
An anxious attachment style may form when the caregiver is present, but inconsistently emotionally available. This can be destabilizing for the child who is unsure of whether or not they are safe, secure and wanted due to their caregiver’s ever changing moods. As a result, children with an anxious attachment style may be worried or concerned about being abandoned and can have a tendency to ramp up their attachment cues in order to get what they need from their loved ones and soothe those fears. Caregivers who look to their children to help the caregiver manage their own emotional state can also produce anxious attachment in children. This can force the child to be concerned about their caregiver’s emotional well-being over their own, staying hypervigilant to discern any fluctuations. And unsurprisingly, overly anxious caregivers can reproduce their anxieties and fear into their children, creating a negative feedback loop of anxious attachment bonding.
An avoidant attachment style generally develops when the primary attachment figure is either unavailable, absent, and/or neglectful and the child has to adapt by learning to rely only upon themselves. While the need for attachment and connection remains, the child may learn that by suppressing their attachment needs for protection and closeness, they seemingly avoid the possibility of neglect or rejection. Children can also develop avoidant attachment styles when their caregivers are highly critical, strict and overly focused on achievement. Without being given the support needed to thrive and succeed, the child comes to understand that it’s unlikely that they will receive help and care, so they must figure out how to help themselves and act as if they don’t have need. In the preliminary attachment studies that helped form attachment theory, children with avoidant attachment styles appear fine on the outside when separated from their caregiver, but experience internal signs of distress.
And finally, a disorganized attachment style forms most often out of traumatic experiences wherein the caregiver, who is meant to be the source of safety and protection, winds up being the threat. This leaves the child confused as to whether or not they should seek out comfort from their caregiver or run away, and leaves them with an attachment style that is simultaneously deactivated and hyperactivated; a combination of both the avoidant and anxious attachment styles. In many instances, the caregiver’s own unresolved trauma is the catalyst for the development of a disorganized attachment style in a child. Children with this attachment style tend to have a compromised sense of self and of the world around them due to their past trauma.
While it initially seemed that attachment theory was both related to childhood and was established in childhood, with time researchers came to understand that our attachment styles are just as significant in our adult relationships. We also came to learn that they are plastic, and not static. An attachment style that is established in childhood still has the capacity to change, and can change, to become more or less secure.
According to one of the creators of attachment theory, John Bowlby, romantic relationships can serve as reciprocal attachment bonds where each partner becomes the attachment figure for the other. Regardless of whether one has a secure attachment style or is coming from a place of insecure attachment, a person’s attachment style can significantly impact their relationship. Our willingness to make commitments, our ability to give and receive love and our ideas around self worth are all wrapped up in our attachment styles. We also learn how to trust, how to empathize and how to emotionally self regulate through these early childhood attachments.
What do our attachment styles look like in our adult relationships?
In a romantic relationship, someone with a securely attached style feels worthy of love and feels confident in creating meaningful connections. They know that it is okay to need or depend on others and they value being needed in return. Intimacy and vulnerability are not an issue as the securely attached individual has a strong sense of self and isn’t dictated by fear of rejection. They may also better tolerate conflict, understanding that it is a healthy component of any relationship and not a sign that they will be abandoned. Adults with a secure attachment style will likely both value their independence and autonomy, comfortably spending time apart from their loved ones, and will also value providing care for, and receiving care from others.
The individual with an anxious attachment style may be hyperfocused on their partner and the closeness of their relationship. They tend to give up or lose their sense of self in order to cater to the needs of their partner as a means of ensuring closeness or connectivity. People with this attachment style can also have a hard time trusting in their partner’s love for them and believing that they are worthy of their partner’s love, even when it’s being given. Because they are so hypervigilant about any perceived weakness in their relationship, they may become overly demanding, needy and possessive, which may unintentionally wind up alienating and frustrating their partner. Their hypervigilance extends to their partner’s moods as well and rather than give their partner space, they may further amplify their attachment cues when they recognize this frustration.
Adults with an avoidant attachment style may not only detach from their own needs and feelings, oftentimes to the point that they no longer register, but they also can have a hard time picking up on the attachment cues of their partners. They tend to have difficulty committing in relationships, preferring instead to keep people at arm’s length for fear of getting hurt. These individuals will likely also struggle with intimacy, vulnerability and emotional intensity, and have a tendency to withdraw from conflict or criticism. People with this attachment style may highly value their independence and autonomy, not because they view it as a component of a healthy relationship like securely attached individuals, but because they view it as a means of survival.
Because the disorganized attachment style can be so dysregulating, it is often associated with more emotional volatility and, in extreme instances, it can be very destructive in relationships. Someone operating from a place of disorganized attachment fears both being too close and too distant from their partners. People with this style of attachment want to experience intimacy and closeness with their partner but also fear voicing that need due to their past traumas. They have a hard time trusting that their partner won’t hurt them and similar to anxious attachment, they may not see themselves as worthy of love or affection.
Note to Reader
Before we move on, it’s important to note that attachment wounds and attachment developments in childhood and adulthood can occur for so many different reasons, including physical or mental illness, needs of other family members, death, poverty, and other social factors. And while attachment theory creates the illusion of four neat boxes, many people see themselves reflected in the different attachment styles at different times and within different relationship[s]. Most of us (our parents included) are doing our best with what we have, and often our attachment styles are survival adaptations to our environment. The promising thing to recognize is that since they were learned, they can also be unlearned.
It could be easy to read all of this, identify what sounds the most like your experience and assume that as a sort of identity. If that feels validating for you and helps you make sense of yourself then by all means, do so. But if that feels limiting and unhelpful, it is important to remember that these attachment styles are not necessarily rigid states, but are malleable and subject to change over the course of one’s life and relationships.
Our attachment styles are not static and further, they are not the determinants of who we are or who we’ll be. While attachment theory initially may have made value judgments about the insecure attachment styles, leading someone who falls into one of those categories to develop a complex about their ability to form healthy attachments, it can now be conceptualized in a more helpful and less damaging way. Additionally, some individuals may feel that they fall into multiple different attachment styles, or feel as though they resonate with none at all. People are complex, nuanced beings and one’s attachment style is simply meant to be a guideline, not a rule.
So how do we reach a place of secure attachment? It will likely vary greatly across individuals but it must begin with understanding. Our insecure attachment styles were likely created out of a series of fractures in relationships over time. And while these injuries may heal over time on their own, the lingering effects of those hurts may still persist to color how we engage with our future relationships. It requires care and attention to work to heal the breaches in trust that lead to developing a more insecure attachment style. A person with avoidant attachment for example, must find a way to stop suppressing their own attachment needs and trust that they can rely on another person to fulfill them. Letting down their walls is no small feat for someone who has developed a hard outer shell to protect themselves from potential pain and neglect, but given our very real need for connection, this work may be necessary.
Those coming from a place of anxious attachment will benefit from shifting their focus to the relationship they neglect the most, the one with themselves. Finding a path toward self love and self acceptance may be crucial for the anxiously attached in order to reach a place of secure attachment. After going on for so long, feeling unworthy and undeserving of love and affection, it can be hard to give it to oneself but it is necessary in order to feel safe to accept it from others.
Healing from a place of disorganized attachment can be a bit more complex. The trauma people with this attachment style have likely faced can leave them with PTSD and other challenges. While the above suggestions may help, having a supportive professional in your corner can also assist individuals rebuild their attachment style.
Tips as you move forward and engage in different relationships:
-Take the time to better understand your own attachment style. You can do this by reading more about attachment theory, taking one (or more) of the many quizzes that are available, and more comprehensively, doing an attachment inventory in which you consider your most significant relationships and the potential impacts they may have had on the current you.
-Offer yourself compassion. Remember that we are all doing our best, and that we have developed our attachment style out of necessity. That doesn’t mean we can’t change. If you’re committing to the work of being intentional in your life, here is one more area in which you can show up for yourself.
-Consider how a person with a secure attachment style would engage in a similar relationship or situation. If you can imagine what a different response would look like, you can also help yourself act in said way (even if it feels unnatural or uncomfortable). These changes won’t happen overnight and it will likely take time to understand when to challenge yourself to respond to relationships and situations differently, but with effort and commitment, we can offer ourselves a more secure framework for our relationships.
I know that this is a great deal of information, and also, that making the changes outlined above are easier said than done. As I mentioned at the start of this article, learning about attachment theory is one of the things that has really helped me understand my relationships. It is also one of the areas that has required, and continues to require, attention and intention. We establish patterns over time, and changing patterns is absolutely doable, with commitment. If you have read this and suspect that you could use some help in better understanding your relationship patterns and you could also use help in developing a more secure attachment style, please reach out. Our skilled therapists are trained in attachment theory and would be glad to offer you support in changing your relationship with yourself and with others.