Understanding Attachment Styles

Everybody is different in their relationships. Some people are aloof and seem distant, whereas others cling more tightly. The way people act in relationships is according to their attachment style – their specific way of relating to others in relationships.

There are four different attachment styles, each influencing how people behave in romantic and platonic relationships.

What Are Attachment Styles?

Attachment theory was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by psychiatrist John Bowlby. The theory discussed how early childhood experiences and attachments influence later relationships.

Initially, Bowlby made three propositions about attachment:

  1. Children raised knowing that their primary caregiver will attend to their needs are less likely to feel fear than those who are not secure in knowing this.
  2. This knowledge develops at a crucial time of development and persists throughout life, whether it is positive or negative.
  3. The expectations that form are correlated to experience. If children have caregivers that respond to their needs, they expect others to do so.

Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory even further in the 1970s with her study, The Strange Situation.[1] The study tested the attachment styles of 1 to 2-year-olds by observing their behavior when they were with their mother, when a stranger was introduced to them, and when the mother left the infant and stranger alone.

The mother then returned, and the child’s reactions were measured and classified into attachment styles, including:

  • Secure attachment
  • Ambivalent-insecure attachment
  • Avoidant-insecure attachment

In 1986, researchers Main and Solomon added another attachment style, disorganized-insecure attachment, based on their research.[2]

Attachment Styles

The four attachment styles have several defining characteristics:

Secure Attachment

This is the healthiest attachment style of the four that have been identified. Healthily attached children become upset when their caregivers leave and are happy when they return, knowing that they can turn to them for comfort. Children are understood and comforted by their parents, who are also emotionally available and aware of their feelings and behaviors. Children then model their attachment style based on what they see and receive from their parents.

As children, securely attached people feel safe to explore the world and try new things independently. They form good interpersonal relationships with other children and solve problems better.

Signs of secure attachment include:

  • Reacting well to stress
  • The ability to regulate emotions
  • Enhanced communication skills
  • Good self-esteem
  • The capability to form trusting relationships

Studies have also found that securely attached people are less likely to develop depression and can be physically healthier.[3]

Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment

This attachment style, also known as anxious attachment, is characterized by an intense fear of rejection and abandonment. Those with an anxious or ambivalent attachment style may be codependent on their partners and depend on others for validation.

People can develop this style of attachment for many reasons. For example, their parents may have been attentive one moment and then distant the next or have been overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenting.

Signs of an ambivalent-insecure attachment style include:

  • Being highly sensitive to criticism
  • Difficulty being alone
  • Trouble trusting others
  • Feeling unworthy
  • Needing approval from other people
  • Being clingy or needy in relationships and friendships

Avoidant-Insecure Attachment

Those with an avoidant attachment style struggle with physical and emotional intimacy. They may have had absent caregivers, or they may have been expected to be independent even when they were young.

Some people with an avoidant attachment style were told off for depending on their caregivers and rejected when they expressed their needs and emotions.

Signs of an avoidant attachment style can include:

  • A strong sense of independence
  • Being dismissive of others
  • Finding it difficult to trust people
  • Believing that they do not need others
  • Feeling threatened by those who try to get close to them

Many people with this attachment style can feel as though their partners or friends are suffocating them if they try to get close or encourage them to open up emotionally. It is estimated that 25% of adults have this attachment style.[4]

Disorganized-Insecure Attachment

Disorganized attachment can be caused by childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Children with this attachment style can appear confused and afraid as their parents are the source of both their fear and safety. They cannot adapt to their parent’s behaviors as they do not know what to expect next, which can cause distress.

Signs of disorganized attachment include:

  • An inability to regulate emotions
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Intense fear of rejection

People struggling with this attachment style may also be at a higher risk of developing mood disorders, personality disorders, and substance abuse disorders. They may also be inconsistent in their relationships with loved ones, alternating from being aloof and distant to being emotional and clingy.

Many people with disorganized attachment also struggle to believe their partner will love them as they are and instead wait for pain and rejection to come.

Changing Attachment Styles

Approximately 56% of people define themselves as securely attached. Although many people do not realize it, those with an unhealthy attachment style can work towards a secure attachment style.

Changing attachment style takes sustained effort and time but can be achieved through techniques including:

  • Reflecting on negative patterns – Keeping a journal and reflecting on what triggers different emotions and reactions they elicit can help people identify their harmful thoughts and distorted patterns. They can then implement plans and find techniques to combat them.
  • Learning from others – Observing people with a secure attachment style can help people model their behaviors. This can also provide a safe, secure relationship for people with unhealthy attachment styles.
  • Improving communication – Communication is key within relationships. Learning how to communicate needs and discuss thought patterns with friends or a partner can help people identify harmful patterns while increasing confidence in their relationships.

Conclusion

The four types of attachment styles are formed in childhood but can inform how people act and forge relationships as adults. Those who form secure attachments in childhood are likely to establish healthy relationships in adulthood, whereas those with disorganized, avoidant, or ambivalent attachment styles can struggle.

However, attachment styles are not prescriptive. With dedication and consistent effort, people can form secure attachments as adults and move away from unhealthy attachment styles.

Resources

[1] Ainsworth MD, Bell SM. Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Dev. 1970;41(1):49-67. doi:10.2307/1127388

[2] Main, M. & Solomon, J. (1986) Discovery of a new, insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. Yogman (Eds), Affective development in infancy , pp. 95-124. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.

[3] Feeney, J A. “Implications Of Attachment Style For Patterns Of Health And Illness”. Child: Care, Health And Development, vol 26, no. 4, 2000, pp. 277-288. Wiley, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2214.2000.00146.x.  Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

[4] Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987;52(3):511-24. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.52.3.511

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