Understanding Your Unique Attachment Style

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The term "caregiver" is used throughout this article to refer to the person who is primarily responsible for the regular care of an infant or child, such as a parent or guardian. The term "romantic partner" will refer to dating, married, or other non-platonic partners.

Attachment theory examines the distinct emotional ties between an infant and caregiver. Almost all children will form an attachment to at least one caregiver, even if that caregiver doesn't consistently meet their needs.

Attachment styles describe the quality and characteristics of the attachments. They develop as infants express their needs (such as crying or seeking comfort) and learn how their caregiver responds. While attachment theory is most noticeable in young children, the attachment style formed in infancy and early childhood can have ongoing effects on close relationships into adulthood.

This article reviews the four primary adult attachment styles.

The 4 Styles of Attachment

Jessica Olah / Verywell

How Are Attachment Styles Formed?

Starting at birth, an infant expresses their needs through crying, seeking physical closeness, and other behaviors. Over time, they learn how their caregiver responds to these needs.

These are observations of overall patterns, not individual instances. Is their caregiver typically nearby, accessible, and attentive? In simplified terms, if the answer is yes, the child will form a secure attachment. If the answer is no, the child will form an insecure attachment.

More specifically, an infant uses these regular interactions to form internal working models (schemas). These working models are mental representations of self and others, and help the child know what to expect from others.

These models may look like, "If I cry, my caregiver will check on me," or "If I am upset, my caregiver will comfort and reassure me."

These models have a lasting effect and are used as a prototype in later close relationships, such as with romantic partners or close friends. Adults whose early needs were not consistently met, and/or they received negative responses (such as, "if I cry, my caregiver will yell"), can internalize models that make it difficult to form healthy attachments in adult relationships.

In short, people who have had positive experiences with support tend to trust and expect that others will be there for them, while those who have experienced inconsistent or lacking support tend not to count on others for support.

This doesn't necessarily mean people who formed early insecure attachments will always repeat the pattern in all relationships. Working models can change in response to new experiences, and attachment styles may differ between relationships.

Caregivers Can't Be Perfect

Attachment styles are formed through many interactions and overall patterns. Unless trauma (such as abuse or neglect) is present, occasional negative interactions are unlikely to create insecure attachments in a child. Nearly every caregiver will occasionally become frustrated, yell, or not be 100% attentive at all times.

What Are the 4 Adult Attachment Styles?

There are four basic attachment styles expressed by adults in close relationships. They are secure, anxious/ambivalent, avoidant/dismissive, and fearful-avoidant/disordered. The descriptions here are generalizations. Actual relationships are more nuanced, especially when at least one partner is insecurely attached.

Secure

Secure individuals are confident in their ability to meet the needs of others and have healthy, reasonable expectations that their own needs will be met.

People with secure attachment tend to do well with:

  • Emotional regulation (controlling emotions)
  • Recognizing when they are upset or stressed
  • Seeking comfort from their partners
  • Recognizing when their partners are in need of care
  • Providing constructive support

Highly secure individuals typically have more positive views of themselves, their situations, and the intentions of others. They feel cared for by others and feel close to people with whom they have intimate relationships.

Anxious/Ambivalent

Anxious/ambivalent attachment (sometimes called ambivalent or preoccupied) is considered insecure attachment. Highly anxious individuals may:

  • Have negative self-views and question their worth
  • Feel unwanted
  • Seek closeness in relationships and comfort from their partner
  • Worry their partners will lose interest in them, leave them, or not feel equally as strongly about them
  • Have difficulty trusting and counting on their partner
  • Seek frequent reassurance and validation
  • View their partner's actions as a negative reflection of themselves (for instance, if their partner wants to spend an hour alone to recharge, they may misinterpret that as rejection)
  • Engage in people-pleasing behaviors

These behaviors are more likely to occur when the anxious individual is feeling distressed. These coping strategies can be overwhelming for their partners. The anxious individual may be viewed as clingy.

Avoidant/Dismissive 

Avoidant (sometimes called dismissive) attachments are also insecure. Avoidant individuals may:

  • Have a positive, but brittle view of self (may be self-inflating as a coping mechanism)
  • Have negative views of their partners
  • Seek independence, control, and autonomy in relationships
  • Be uncomfortable with closeness and emotional intimacy
  • Distance themselves, especially when distressed or feeling pressured to give or receive support
  • Seek less comfort and support from their partners when upset
  • Be less likely to offer support and comfort to their partners
  • Suppress negative thoughts and emotions
  • Feel less cared for by others
  • Feel less close to others
  • Respond negatively to their partner's emotions (both distress and happiness)
  • Assign negative attributions to their partner's behavior
  • Be less committed to relationships
  • Be hesitant to self-disclose (talk about their personal thoughts and feelings)
  • Believe they cannot rely on others

These beliefs and behaviors can make it difficult for avoidant individuals to form intimate relationships.

Fearful-Avoidant/Disordered 

Fearful (sometimes called fearful-avoidant or disordered) attachment is the third insecure attachment style.

Fearful individuals experience both anxiety and avoidance. They want to be in close relationships, but they lack confidence and security in themselves, their partner, and their relationships.

Fearful individuals may:

  • Have a negative view of themselves and others
  • Have difficulty connecting with others
  • Have an extreme fear of rejection
  • Feel rejection is inevitable in any relationship
  • Feel unworthy or inadequate
  • Want to be close with others but also may push them away out of fear of being hurt

Limitations on Current Research

When discussing research on adult attachment, it's important to note that some limitations exist:

  • Most studies are heteronormative and cis-normative
  • Culture is rarely taken into account
  • There is a relative lack of recent studies
  • Education levels of participants may play a role in outcome (many studies are on university students)
  • Many studies involve co-occurring conditions (such as how insecure attachment is affected by treatment for anxiety or depression)
  • Whether or not a romantic relationship is a true attachment cannot always be determined
  • The exact purpose of attachment in adult relationships is not as well understood as in infant-caregiver relationships

Current research gives places to start, but more research is needed for a better understanding of how attachment theory applies to adults.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

Attachment styles formed in childhood tend to be enduring and can affect future relationships with others. However, styles can change over time in response to new experiences with different attachment figures, or in response to treatment interventions.

Identify Your Attachment Style

Learning your attachment style is the biggest step in changing working models and behaviors.

Several assessments for attachment styles exist:

  • The Three-Category Measure by Hazan and Shaver is a quick and simple general assessment.
  • The Relationship Structures application by R. Chris Fraley assesses attachment styles across different relationships (parental, romantic, friend, etc.). Results show unique attachment styles for each relationship. Note that this assessment is not gender-inclusive.
  • This attachment style quiz by The Attachment Project also asks questions about different relationships, then gives an overall attachment style result. This quiz is inclusive.

Acknowledging your attachment style is essential to making change, should you wish to.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that helps a person identify problematic thought processes and behaviors. It uses exercises and techniques to change them into healthier ones.

One study found that anxious and avoidant attachment improved in participants with panic disorder with agoraphobia (PDA) who received CBT treatment.

Learn From Others

For some people, ongoing positive relationship experiences may help change negative working models adapted from previous insecure attachment relationships.

A 2020 study suggests that another way to change attachment styles is to "fake it til you make it." Essentially, the idea is that acting less anxious or avoidant for an extended period can change traits over time, leading to an actual reduction of anxiety or avoidance.

Seek Therapy 

While developed for depression intervention, interpersonal psychotherapy for depressed adolescents (IPT-A) may help foster healthy attachments by teaching specific interpersonal skills.

The IPT-A therapist serves as a positive attachment figure by giving adolescents space to disclose sensitive and personal information. The therapist provides them with validation, emotional scaffolding, and support. The therapist then helps the adolescent apply and incorporate these skills with existing and future relationships.

Research has shown promising results for IPT-A in improving social adjustment in adolescents with depression. More research is needed to determine if IPT is effective with insecurely attached adolescents and adults without co-occurring depression.

The effectiveness of psychotherapy overall in improving attachment security has not yet been determined, but current studies suggest that attachment security increases at least slightly with the help of psychotherapy.

How Can You Prevent Your Attachment Style From Affecting Romantic Relationships?

Identifying the attachment styles of each partner is the first step to developing a healthy relationship. This gives insight into the needs and behaviors of each partner. For instance, avoidant partners may relate better to practical support, or having their partner help them reinterpret a stressful event more positively.

Summary

Attachment styles are formed in infancy and early childhood based on patterns of positive or negative experiences with having needs met. Children who have their needs met regularly usually develop secure attachments, while those whose needs are not regularly met develop insecure attachments. These attachments persist into adulthood, but it is possible for them to change through new experiences or psychotherapy.

The four adult attachment styles are secure (confident needs will be met), anxious/ambivalent (unsure if needs will be met, comfort-seeking), avoidant/dismissive (believes needs will not be met, independence-seeking), and fearful-avoidant/disordered (desiring but fearful of close relationships).

It is possible for a person to change their attachment style, but it requires sincere effort and often takes the help of a therapist.

A Word From Verywell 

You can't control the attachments you form in your early years, but you can learn more about them now and how they might affect your relationships with loved ones. Understanding how you approach relationships can help you foster healthy partnerships and, if necessary, help you work on changing behaviors and beliefs that don't serve you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the most common attachment style?

    Secure attachment is the most common attachment style.

  • Can trauma change your attachment style?

    Trauma that occurs during childhood, such as abuse, witnessing violence, or growing up in a household with substance and mental health problems, can hinder secure attachment.

  • How do attachment styles affect relationships?

    Attachment styles help determine how a person experiences close relationships. A person who is securely attached is likely to provide support and comfort to their partner, and be confident that their partner will give the same to them.

    People with insecure attachments may worry their partner will leave them and need frequent reassurance. They may find being intimate and vulnerable difficult and pull away from their partner, or they may engage in other maladaptive (negative) relationship behaviors.

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