What Does Your Attachment Style Say About Your Relationships?

a couple is sitting separately

You may have heard about attachment styles from friends or online literature, but what does the term mean, and how do early attachments affect adult relationships?

Attachment styles: What are they, and how do they shape our relationships?

Suppose you’ve struggled in your romantic relationships in the past and wondered why you keep coming up against the same problems repeatedly. Exploring why these issues continue to manifest might be helpful in that case. For example, some psychologists believe that our attachment styles may cause many of our adult relationship struggles.

How do attachment styles form?

Evolutionary psychologists believe we develop attachment styles through interactions with our parents or caregivers as infants. Therefore, identifying your attachment style may allow you to build healthier, stronger connections with others, particularly with a spouse or potential partner.

What does attachment mean?

There are many definitions of attachment, but broadly, attachment theory focuses on the bonds and relationships between humans, for instance, our long-term relationships with romantic partners and parents and the bond between parent and child.

Evolutionary psychologists believe our attachment styles affect everything from how well our relationships progress, our partner selection, and how we manage the ending of significant relationships. So there’s something to be said for recognising your attachment pattern, as it may help you identify your vulnerabilities, strengths, and weaknesses in your relationships.

How your attachment style may affect your relationship with yourself and others

child sitting by the bed

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the original pioneers of attachment theory. 

Various studies on infants explored how young children interacted with their parents or caregivers under specific conditions. As a result, Bowlby and Ainsworth discovered that how infants’ needs are met by their parent or caregiver helps form their “attachment style” or “attachment strategy” in their adult relationships.

Attachment models

Psychologists say that as adults, we tend to attract or be attracted to partners that confirm our attachment models from childhood. So, for instance, suppose you grew up in an unpredictable environment and developed an insecure attachment style. 

In that case, you’ll likely find similar attachment styles or patterns in your adult relationships, even if these patterns are destructive or harmful. This makes sense as we are often drawn to what feels “normal” or familiar despite how unhealthy a particular behavioural pattern might be.

Attachment styles and early bonding

Attachment bonds are the emotional connection you formed as a young infant with a primary caregiver – likely your mother or father. These early bonds are significant to how well you develop a particular attachment style and carry those patterns through to adulthood.

Bowlby and Ainsworth posited that the bonding experience we have with our parents as infants often determines how we relate to others and perceive intimacy in adult life. For example, suppose your parent or caregiver was consistently responsive to your needs and made you feel loved and safe as an infant. As a result, you likely developed a prosperous, secure attachment.

Secure attachments

Securely attached people are usually trusting, hopeful and self-confident; their early attachment patterns transcend into their adult life, meaning they are more capable of cultivating healthier romantic relationships.

For example, securely attached individuals usually respond well to intimacy, manage conflict healthily, and are psychologically equipped to navigate the ups and downs of a relationship.

Understanding your attachment style

Of course, various factors make a relationship work (or not, as the case may be) that have nothing to do with your attachment style. But those who consistently find themselves slipping from one failed relationship to another might find value in exploring their attachment styles and how these patterns shape their current relationships.

If you find that you struggle to maintain healthy romantic relationships or have difficulty understanding your feelings and the feelings of others, you may have an insecure attachment style. Other traits of an insecurely attached individual include being clingy, anxious, or fearful in relationships and shying away from intimacy.

There’s a real sense of disconnection for those with insecure attachment styles in that they struggle to connect with others; exploring these issues through therapy can help a person understand why they experience this dysfunction and what it means to form healthier bonds with others.

Suppose all you’ve ever known is inconsistency or dismissiveness in your relationships. In that case, it often becomes an impossible cycle to break away from; still, there is always a way to find recovery and self-understanding, which usually comes from exploring self-defeating patterns with a safe person (usually a therapist).

What are the primary attachment styles?

The age-old understanding that our early experiences (between infancy and adulthood) shape our adult relationships seems to be deeply embedded knowledge that sits within our psyches. But that doesn’t mean we are always aware of these early influences in the grind of daily life.

The attachment bond significantly influences the infant’s brain, which can transcend into the adult experience, where the person with an insecure attachment style may behave in confusing or destructive ways. For example, perhaps they make the same relationship mistakes over and over or struggle to form meaningful connections with others.

There’s a profound sense of hopelessness and despair for those with insecure or anxious attachment styles. However, exploring what attachment pattern you may have is essential if you seek to cultivate positive, fulfilling relationships.

Four types of attachment

Psychologists have identified four types of attachment styles, which fall into the category of “secure” or “insecure,” they include:

  • Secure attachment
  • Ambivalent (or anxious-preoccupied) attachment
  • Avoidant-dismissive attachment
  • Disorganised/disoriented attachment

Let’s explore these in more detail.

Secure attachment style

couple having fun in the kitchen (1)

Studies show that up to 60% of the population has secure attachment styles.

Secure attachment styles are the most favourable in that people with this attachment type tend to enjoy more satisfying, stable relationships with others.

These individuals tend to thrive in romantic pairings as they have mastered the art of showing empathy and cultivating appropriate boundaries with others; a person with a secure attachment style is not afraid of being alone. Yet, they can still enjoy other people’s company while building close, meaningful connections.

Securely attached individuals feel safe, content, and more satisfied in their intimate relationships. Although, this doesn’t mean securely attached people do not experience relationship problems or challenges.

However, a key indicator to secure attachments is a consistent sense of security where couples own up to their mistakes and, just as crucial, are willing to seek support and help when they need it.

A secure attachment style is based on a solid, loving foundation in infancy. The child can feel trusting, hopeful, and confident that a parent or caregiver will not abandon them and will always be around to tend to their needs.

All this does not get built on a “perfect” foundation, but consistent caregiving where an infant is made to feel safe and secure, enabling their nervous system to become securely attached.

Secure attachment signs

Signs of a secure attachment style include:

  • Being comfortable with being alone and independent
  • Being able to trust yourself and others
  • Being capable of accepting rejection despite pain and disappointment

Ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment style

Those with an ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment style (sometimes called “anxious attachment”) are often anxious, needy, and lacking in self-confidence. Ambivalence is the crux of this attachment style, where individuals tend to crave emotional intimacy but fear that others don’t want to be with them or will not return their affection.

People with anxious attachment styles may experience shame and embarrassment about their need for intimacy and love. They may worry that their needy behaviour might push their partner away or wonder whether their partner truly loves them.

Anxious attachment types tend to experience intense anxiety about the strength of their relationships and require much validation and reassurance from a spouse or partner.

Anxious attachment signs

porn addiction couple fighting in bed man looking at phone

Signs of an anxious attachment style include:

  • Not wanting to be alone and constantly finding yourself in unhealthy relationships.
  • Behaving in overly-emotional or irrational ways
  • Always doubting your partner and needing lots of reassurance about the relationship.
  • Difficulty trusting others, even those close to you
  • Constantly questioning your partners’ loyalty.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment style

When attempting to understand the avoidant-dismissive attachment style, it might help if you think of it as the opposite of the anxious or ambivalent types.

Unlike the anxious attachment style, the avoidant-dismissive individual doesn’t crave emotional intimacy much. A person who is avoidant-dismissive is often cautious of getting too close to others; thus, avoiding emotional connections to other people instead of cultivating meaningful bonds is the preferred approach for those with this attachment pattern.

People with avoidant-dismissive attachment styles value their freedom and autonomy to the extent that they may feel suffocated or stifled by closeness and intimacy in their romantic pairings.

Relying on and having others depend on them doesn’t come naturally to these individuals.

Avoidant-attachment types are independent, self-sufficient, and can be uncomfortable with too much closeness or intimacy.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment signs

If you or someone you are in a relationship with exhibits any of the following signs, you or they may have an avoidant-dismissive attachment style:

  • Distancing yourself whenever you feel suffocated in your relationship – you may complain that you feel stifled when faced with intimacy.
  • Structuring your lifestyle to minimise too much proximity with others or to avoid emotional intimacy
  • Getting frustrated or annoyed when your partner wants to spend more time with you- you may also feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable when your relationship becomes more intimate.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment styles often originate from having rejecting or unavailable parents. Likely, your parental figure did not consistently meet your needs when you were an infant. Thus you were forced to withdraw emotionally and learn to self-soothe.

Avoidance behaviours often become a coping mechanism for people with this attachment pattern, where they continuously avoid intimacy and crave independence in adulthood.

Disorganised/disoriented attachment style

porn addiction guilt and shame

The disorganised/disoriented attachment style, also called anxious-avoidant, is usually a mixture of two (extreme) attachment polarities.

There’s a sense of “push and pull” with this attachment style which may cause much confusion for the individual and their significant other. For example, anxious-avoidant types crave intimacy, but when their relationships become more profound, their mistrust and fear lead them to withdraw.

A cycle ensues where the anxious-avoidant person looks for commitment and intimacy yet runs in the opposite direction when they finally find it. Studies have shown that a small portion of the population is anxious-avoidant, with many also struggling with mental health and substance use disorders.

Disorganised/disoriented attachment signs

If you suspect you or your partner might be anxious-avoidant, here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Withdrawing from your partner when your relationship gets too profound
  • Craving relationship security and safety, but also feeling unworthy of love and fearful of getting hurt again
  • A history of abuse or neglect in childhood
  • Exhibiting negative behaviour patterns like aggression or violence or abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Seeing your romantic relationships as alarming or confusing, you may experience extreme mood swings and feel immense love for your partner sometimes, while at other times, you experience intense anger or hatred toward your significant other
  • Refusing to take responsibility for your actions and demonstrating selfishness, aggression, and controlling behaviours toward your partner

Why do people develop insecure attachments?

There are various reasons why your parents or caregivers might have been unable to provide you with a safe and loving connection. For example, perhaps your mother or father have unresolved traumas of their own, or maybe they were too young or inexperienced to adequately meet the needs of a young infant.

Whatever the reason, help and support are available to those with an insecure attachment; however, reaching out requires a particular awareness of how your attachment style affects your relationships and, indeed, your sense of self.

Attachment styles can change.

The great news is that your attachment style can change. Attachment patterns are not fixed like some characteristics can be – you may have formed a particular attachment style based on your interactions and relationship with a parent or caregiver, but that doesn’t have to determine how you relate to those you love as an adult.

By becoming aware of your attachment style, you can evaluate how you may have been blocking intimacy from your life and work towards building a secure attachment -and all this is possible with proper support and guidance.

Therapy is a valuable way to make sense of your past and how your early interactions shape your current relationships. For example, if you think you or a partner may have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, you must know that things can turn around for the better; therapy can help you change maladaptive patterns that you may have developed in childhood.

Furthermore, recognising your particular attachment style is the first step to exploring and challenging any underlying fears and insecurities, allowing you to create new, healthier attachment styles that may help you enjoy more loving and fulfilling relationships.

Centres for Health and Healing

We aim to help empower people through self-awareness and knowledge, allowing each individual to become the best version of themselves at Centres for Health and Healing.

We offer the most effective mental health and substance addiction treatment practices from the past and present that have allowed us to create unique and transformative recovery programmes for all our clients. 

Contact our friendly team to find out more.

Additional resources

  1. How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships, HelpGuide, Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.
  2. How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship, PSYCHALIVE, Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.,
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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