Perhaps you’re someone who waits for a text back from a friend, and then when it doesn’t arrive as expected, you worry that it’s because you’ve offended them. Or you may have a friend who feels this way about your communication or lack thereof. Maybe you have an important person in your life who gets prickly with a lot of togetherness, pushing you away when you try to get close. You probably also know people who are great communicators and comfortable with intimacy. Of course, many people act in all of these ways at different points in their lives. Have you ever wondered where all this human behavior comes from and how it affects relationships?
Attachment styles are patterns of how we think, feel and act in close relationships, says Jade Wu, clinical psychologist and host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast. “They can form early in life based on the way we bond (or don’t bond) with our primary caregivers.”
The theory of attachment was first developed in the 1950s by British psychologist John Bowlby, who was looking to learn more about the distress that young children feel when separated from their primary caregivers. Early on, it was suggested that attachment was only due to the feeding relationship between the child and caregiver—the caregiver keeps the child nourished, so the child gets attached. But the babies would scream, cling, or frantically search for their caregivers when they were absent, and feeding didn’t calm them. All they needed was attention and comfort. When caregivers were available and responsive, it allowed their children to develop a sense of security.
Secure vs. Insecure Attachment Styles
Much more research on attachment in adult relationships
began in the 1980s, with results showing that adults are motivated and affected by similar behaviors in each other as infants are with their caregivers. “Some experts say that attachment styles formed during infancy are only part of the equation,” registered psychotherapist Anna Sherman confirms. “Relationships at any age can be traumatic and damaging, as well as healing and reparative. An adult may develop a very trusting and supportive relationship with an intimate partner, causing a sense of healing and repair.” In turn, trauma experienced by an adult in a relationship could “lead to a loss of faith in intimate relationships and potentially cause an insecure attachment style.” There are four attachment styles in adults: One is known as the secure style and the other three as insecure styles.
People with secure attachment are naturals at forming healthy, trusting relationships. They are emotionally open and skilled communicators, and they cater to the needs of those close to them. (Think Ben and Leslie on Parks and Recreation.) They respect each other, share their feelings with each other and with friends, and they give each other both affection and space as needed. Securely attached people listen to your point of view, and according to Amir Levine and Rachel Heller in their highly acclaimed book, Attached, “once you get close to someone with this attachment style, you don’t have to negotiate intimacy… it becomes a given.”
This is an insecure style. Adults with this style tend to worry about their relationships. They find it difficult to express their needs, and they rely on those close to them for validation. They crave intimacy
but fear abandonment and are sensitive to any sign that someone might be rejecting them. When feeling threatened, they can cling and become overly dependent. The main factor that causes anxious attachment is experiencing unreliability in caregivers early in life; sometimes they’re supportive and comforting toward the child, and other times unresponsive or absent.
“This style involves the preference of being on your own and having difficulty depending on people who are close to you,” says Sherman. Dismissive avoidants’ boundaries make it difficult for them to form a secure bond. When they do, they tend to create distance when too much intimacy makes them uncomfortable. Dismissive avoidant attachment is formed in childhood when caregivers are unavailable for long periods of time and don’t meet the child’s needs. The child gets used to spending time alone and learns to suppress their need for intimacy.
Also called anxious avoidant or disorganized, this is the final insecure style. People with this style have traits of both anxious and avoidant attachment. “They fear both intimacy and abandonment, and they neglect emotions and lack self-confidence in relationships,” says Sherman. They want close relationships and crave affection, but once things get too intimate or emotional, they withdraw. Fearful-avoidant attachment early on can result from caregivers’ inability to care for the child, and neglectful, traumatic ways they responded to the child’s needs. Hot-and-cold behavior common in fearful avoidants is well documented in the media; it’s even a Katy Perry song!
Carrie & Mr. Big: How Styles Interact
In adult relationships, any kind of trauma or breach of trust could lead to any kind of insecure attachment style, depending on the person and the nature of the experience, says Sherman. And certain pairings of insecure styles can occur when the people involved subconsciously look for others who reinforce their beliefs about close relationships. For example, an anxiously attached person can affirm a dismissive avoidant’s beliefs that getting close to someone will make them feel smothered, unsafe, and like they need to escape. An anxiously attached person who is conditioned to fear abandonment might gravitate toward those who seem likely to reject them. Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big from Sex and the City are an example of two people navigating a relationship with some avoidant and anxious attachment. Big struggles with intimacy and commitment, and Carrie needs constant reassurance about their relationship. They activate each other’s attachment systems.
It's crucial to note that insecure attachment doesn’t make anyone a bad person, and people with any type of attachment patterns can have close relationships. Attachment styles are changeable; they can shift based on many things, such as the styles of those close to you or how easily you’re able to accept your own needs. And knowledge is power: Being aware of your attachment style is important for several reasons, says Sherman. It's important to know how and why you relate to other people. It helps when choosing a potential intimate partner, friend, or business partner because you already know what kinds of people you connect better with. And it helps to know what triggers you. “People who are aware of their fears and insecurities around attachment, and have gone through some self-development, might want to seek out relationships that are more balanced with their attachment: with people who are patient, emotionally understanding, and supportive of their background and situation.”
It’s very possible to become more secure too. “Someone who starts out with an insecure attachment style may develop a very trusting and supportive relationship with an intimate partner,” Sherman notes, “causing a sense of healing and repair and creating a newly formed secure attachment style.”
And what else helps us to become more securely attached? In addition to the essential need for communicating honestly to those close to us, Sherman says exploring a deep sense of self-acceptance
and core beliefs is key.
Loving and accepting ourselves for who we are—it’s well worth it. And we all deserve close, rewarding relationships with others who accept us in the same way.
Deepen the connection with these 17 questions to ask your partner.