Exploring the Different Attachment Styles and Their Impact on Relationships
Attachment theory was initially developed by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist in London, in the 1950s. Through his work with troubled children at a Child Guidance Clinic, he began to identify that attachment related behaviors in children (e.g., crying or searching for their attachment figure) were in response to separation from their primary caregiver or attachment figure and that these children were attempting to maintain contact with this attachment person in attempts to receive care, nurturing, attunement, and protection.
Later, Mary Ainsworth further expanded on Bowlby's work and conducted influential research to identify different attachment patterns in children through the "Strange Situation" procedure. Her work helped to categorize the main attachment styles we now know as Secure, Anxious (or Preoccupied), Avoidant, and Disorganized.
Additional research and observations have been conducted based on the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth that explored and demonstrated attachment relationships and styles are evident throughout an individual’s life, including in friendships, romantic relationships, and other interpersonal relationships.
However, the initial bond to an attachment figure (e.g., your primary caretaker) cannot be ignored. The bond formed between a child and their attachment figure lays the roadmap for how a child will bond with others throughout their life. Attachment theory continues to be an essential framework for understanding human social and emotional development and how early attachment experiences impact individuals' interpersonal relationships and well-being.
Recognizing your attachment style is essential as it can help you better understand your responses in intimate relationships, conflicts, communication, and emotion regulation. Furthermore, understanding your current attachment style can be a critical step in your healing and recovery as you move towards a more secure attachment style.
Attachment Style Categories
There are four primary attachment styles, each with its own unique characteristics and influences on our relationships. Below are the four attachment styles explained further.
Secure attachment is considered the most healthy and adaptive attachment style in which individuals feel secure and confident in their relationships with others. These individuals trust that their needs will be met. These individuals, more so than the other attachment styles, are able to regulate their emotions, generally have positive self-esteem and a sense of self-worth, are comfortable being alone and around others, and are emotionally available. People with secure attachment are able to navigate relationships well, including conflict, maintain boundaries, and develop trusting, positive, and loving relationships with their friends, family, and significant others. In general, those with secure attachment hold a positive view of the self, characterized as believing you are worthy and capable of being loved, along with a positive view of others, believing that others are accepting and responsive.
Secure attachment results from caregivers that consistently responded to the child’s needs. Caregivers provided comfort, support, reassurance, and safety. That is to say, you felt safe, understood, and comforted during your childhood and were able to seek reassurance or validation without fear of punishment.
Anxious attachment, also known as anxious-ambivalent or preoccupied attachment, is characterized by individuals who seek excessive reassurance and validation from others and experience fears and worries of rejection or abandonment. These individuals may struggle with feelings of inadequacy and have difficulty trusting that their needs will be met by their caregivers or romantic partners. Adults with preoccupied attachment styles may become overly focused on physical and emotional closeness (overly clingy) and become distressed when apart. Additionally, people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may over analyze their relationships and end up misinterpreting others’ behaviors as signs of disinterest, this may lead to jealousy and an over involvement in their relationships. These individuals often view themselves as being unworthy and unlovable.
This attachment style results from inconsistency in parenting during childhood. For example, this could look like a parent being overly coddling towards the child and this inadvertently reinforces the child's dependency and need for constant reassurance. This could also develop from caregivers who are inconsistent in responding to the child's needs for comfort and reassurance, the child may become anxious and uncertain about whether their caregiver will be there for them when they need support.
Avoidant attachment, also known as anxious-avoidant attachment or dismissing attachment, is characterized by individuals who tend to avoid emotional closeness and intimacy in relationships and may over emphasize self-reliance and independence. These individuals may feel uncomfortable with emotions and exhibit difficulty expressing needs and feelings. In romantic relationships, people with avoidant attachment may be distant and find it difficult to reach a deeper level of intimacy. In general, these individuals view themselves positively and hold a negative view of others, in which they view people as untrustworthy and rejecting.
Avoidant attachment typically results from caregivers who are consistently unresponsive or dismissive of the child’s emotional needs. Caregivers may not have responded to a child’s cry for comfort or have been inconsistent or unpredictable in their responsiveness or availability for the child. Children who experienced emotional neglect may come to learn that emotional closeness is not to be had in these relationships and thus become distant or avoidant of others. Children who experienced repeated separations from their primary caregivers may have learned to depend on themselves to cope with feelings of abandonment, unlovability, or unworthiness.
Disorganized attachment, anxious-disorganized attachment, or fearful attachment can be viewed as a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles. It is described as exhibiting inconsistent behaviors, such as seeking closeness or clinging behaviors and then pushing people away; desiring intimacy and fearing rejection. They may alternate between emotional outbursts and emotional numbing, thus struggling with emotion regulation. These individuals fear rejection and abandonment as well as struggle with trusting others, which contributes to difficulties in forming close relationships.
This attachment style often is the result of childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, and incredibly inconsistent caregiving. People with this attachment style typically were raised by caregivers who provided both comfort and fear for the child. This created a confusing and unpredictable environment. For example, for a child whose caregiver displayed frightening behaviors may have created an environment that the child experiences as dangerous and unpredictable; not knowing if their needs will be met. This leads to a lack of trust and safety in the attachment relationship. If a child reaches out for emotional comfort and is inconsistently met with love and care or rejection or lack of response may develop a disorganized attachment relationship in which they may reach out for the caregiver and then withdraw.
Attachment Style Dimensions
More recent research on attachment theory suggests that attachment styles are more dimensional rather than categorical. The two dimensions are attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. The dimensions can be mapped over our understanding of the 4 categories of attachment styles.
The above image (Fraley et.al, 2015) depicts attachment theory's two-dimensional model (anxiety - avoidance) that is laid over the four category attachment model. The two-dimensional is based on Bartholomew and Horowitz’s (1991) research.
Attachment-related anxiety refers to the degree to which individuals feel worried, preoccupied, or insecure about their relationships. People high in attachment-related anxiety tend to have a heightened sensitivity to potential rejection or abandonment by their partners. They may seek reassurance and validation frequently and may be more emotionally reactive to relationship challenges. These individuals often experience a fear of being unloved or unimportant to their partners.
Attachment-related avoidance refers to the degree to which individuals are uncomfortable with emotional closeness and dependency in relationships. People high in attachment-related avoidance tend to value independence and self-reliance, and they may find it challenging to express vulnerability and seek support from others. They may distance themselves emotionally from their partners during times of stress or conflict as a way to cope with intimacy-related fears.
Attachment theory offers valuable insights into how early attachment experiences shape our interpersonal relationships throughout life. With this in mind, it is important to note that attachment styles are not static. That is to say, you are not stuck in a pattern of insecure attachment for life. Attachment theory approaches attachment relationships with others as a dynamic, developmental process in which movement toward secure attachment can be achieved. Additional research also found that individuals do not fit into a single attachment style; rather, individuals report a mix of the styles over time and within different relationships.
By examining your attachment patterns with a trusted mental health professional, you are able to recognize maladaptive patterns in how you think, feel, and behave in response to interactions in interpersonal relationships. New patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can be reinforced and practiced to move toward healthy, secure attachments in your relationships. With self-awareness, therapy, and supportive relationships, individuals with insecure attachment styles can develop more secure and fulfilling relationships and work towards a healthier approach to emotional intimacy and connection with others.
Curious About Your Attachment Style?
You can a survey to find out more information about your attachment style: https://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl **
**This is by no means a replacement for formal diagnosis or real, therapeutic work with a mental health professional. It is solely an instrument to gain further awareness about yourself, your attachment style, and how you may function in interpersonal relationships
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 226-244. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Brennan, K., Clark, C., & Shaver, P. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York: Guilford.
Fraley, R. & Hudson, Nathan & Heffernan, Marie & Segal, Noam. (2015). Are Adult Attachment Styles Categorical or Dimensional? A Taxometric Analysis of General and Relationship-Specific Attachment Orientations. Journal of personality and social psychology. doi:109. 10.1037/pspp0000027.
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351168366
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