How to Heal an Insecure Attachment Style

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Attachment styles are used to identify how a person relates to others in their life. Attachment styles, otherwise known as attachment patterns, develop in childhood and carry on throughout adulthood. Broadly speaking, the two main types of attachment are secure and insecure.

This article discusses the different types of insecure attachment, what causes them, and how to cope with them as an adult.

Couple bickering in the bedroom

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What Is Insecure Attachment?

Insecure attachment is a relational pattern that causes a person to feel insecure about their relationships with others. Because of their insecure attachment style, people may have difficulties developing meaningful adult relationships with others.

Depending on the type, they will experience:

  • Anxiety about losing the people they love or being rejected
  • Avoidance of close relationships
  • Discomfort with intimacy and closeness in relationships
  • Negative self-image or low self-esteem
  • Suppression of emotions
  • Dismissal of harmful events or experiences
  • Distrust for others

Attachment Style and Relationships

It can be hard to determine what category of attachment style you fit into. Still, understanding it can help you identify specific challenges that may be hindering you from finding or successfully navigating the relationships in your life.

Types of Insecure Attachment

Insecure attachment is broken into three categories. Each category defines a group of specific behavioral patterns that play a role in how someone connects with others.

Avoidant

Avoidant attachment describes a person that has trouble tolerating emotional intimacy or closeness. They may not actively seek out intimate connections with other people. An adult with avoidant-insecure attachment may:

  • Have difficulties with intimacy
  • Avoid getting involved in social and romantic relationships
  • Be unwilling to speak to others about how they’re thinking or feeling
  • Suppress negative emotions or thoughts so they don’t have to deal with them openly

They may also value their independence and strive to remain autonomous throughout relationships because of their discomfort around getting too intimately close to another person.

Ambivalent

Ambivalent attachment, also known as anxious-preoccupied or ambivalent anxious, is a style of attachment in which a person needs and craves intimacy but struggles to trust or fully rely on a partner. What this means is that a person may be open to intimacy, but they often feel scared or worried that they may lose the person they care about if they do open up.

Their desire for connection is inconsistent with their behavioral patterns. They also have anxiety surrounding their relationships and fear rejection from their partners.

In their worry, they could become anxious, needy, manipulative, or dismissive towards their loved ones, which can lead to breakups that the person with this attachment style fears.

Disorganized

Disorganized attachment is characterized as conflicting behaviors. A person with this type of attachment will struggle between wanting to be loved and avoiding love in an effort to protect themselves.

A person with a disorganized attachment may act in confusing and erratic ways in their relationships.

People with disorganized attachment are often scared and anxious during the formation of new relationships because they're not sure if it's safe.

Other characteristics that a person with a disorganized attachment style may possess include:

  • Negative self-image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Damaging self-talk
  • Extreme loneliness
  • Fear of rejection
  • Doubting others in their lives when forming relationships
  • Distrust of others

How to Help Partners

While you can’t "cure" your partner of their attachment style, you can be there for them while they take the necessary steps to cope with it. For example, many insecure attachment styles could benefit from some form of therapy. While they seek help, demonstrating your secure attachment to them can help them potentially feel safer.

What Causes Insecure Attachment?

Childhood experiences shape all types of attachment. Each type will be shaped by a different experience.

Avoidant

Adults who develop an avoidant attachment style often had a childhood experience where their parents or caregivers were emotionally unavailable in a way that left them feeling unloved or rejected.

They may have also dealt with their caregivers being distant, closed off, or especially hurtful and dismissive when they felt they needed care the most. This could include times when they were scared, sick, or hurt.

Some parental or caregiver actions that can lead to avoidant attachment include:

  • Telling a child to toughen up when they are sad
  • Ignoring a child’s cries, fear, or other types of distress
  • Putting distance between themselves and a child when they express distressed emotions
  • Making a child feel ashamed of themselves for being emotional

Ambivalent

Ambivalent attachment develops when a parent or caregiver is inconsistent with their response to a child’s emotional needs. This could mean that a child’s caregiver would sometimes be emotionally available to the child while other times they would be cold and closed off.

In this instance, the reason behind the inconsistent emotional love and support provided by the parent or caregiver isn’t fully understood by the child. They don’t understand why they receive love on some occasions and not on others. Therefore, they grow up being fearful that they won’t get the emotional support or love that they need at any given time.

Disorganized

Disorganized attachment develops when a parent or caregiver is consistently neglectful of their child’s needs when they are in distress.

Some parents or caregivers may also use tactics of fear or intimidation to make the child refrain from expressing their emotions, such as yelling at the child to stop being upset.

In some cases, disorganized attachment can develop because of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse as a child.

The child still feels connected to their parent or caregiver, regardless of the abusive acts, but is fearful of them. This leads to the constant swing between wanting love and fearing for safety.  

Disorganized Attachment and Personality Disorders

Research has found that many personality disorders are strongly related to a disorganized attachment style. That being said, studies also show that insecure attachment of any type correlates with personality disorders more than secure attachment, which is a type of attachment that leads to healthy relationships in adulthood and develops when a child’s emotional needs are consistently met.

Insecure Attachment Examples

Certain scenarios throughout childhood have the potential to cause the development of an insecure attachment style. The attachment style developed will depend on the scenario.

Avoidant

An example of avoidant attachment in childhood would be a child not seeking comfort from their parents. For example, if a child falls off their bike and scrapes their knee, they will cope with the pain on their own.

In adulthood, someone with an avoidant attachment style will be less inclined to share their feelings with others. An example of this would be when a person's partner asks how they're doing, and they respond with “fine,” even though they’ve had a stressful day.

Ambivalent

Children who are learning to develop an ambivalent attachment style will be wary of strangers and experience separation anxiety when their parents leave.

An example of this type of attachment style would be a child feeling great distress when dropped off at a babysitter's house, only to avoid comfort from their parents or caregivers when they return to pick them up.

In adulthood, a person with this type of attachment style will be highly worried that their partner doesn’t feel the same way as them. This could come out in the form of needing constant reassurance from their partner or having serious and often heightened emotional responses to breakups.

Disorganized

Disorganized attachment will present differently depending on age.

For example, they may avoid being in close proximity to their parents out of fear. They could spend a lot of time hiding out in their room to avoid being involved in a confrontation. Then when they do come out, they act aggressively in front of their parents as a way to mimic what they learn as a way to connect.

An adult will avoid close intimacy. An example of this is avoiding public displays of affection with their partner and reacting in an extreme way if their partner asks why they don't want to engage with them openly.

Recognizing Behaviors Based on Attachment Styles

It can be hard to see yourself exhibiting behaviors that are driven by underlying factors like attachment styles. To notice how your attachment style affects your relationships, you have to be self-aware of your actions and determine which ones are driven by fear of loss or intimacy.

How to Overcome Insecure Attachment

Some psychologists, such as John Bowlby, who was partly responsible for the development of attachment theory, believe that an attachment style cannot be changed. Once a person develops into adulthood, they will continue to be at the mercy of their attachment style and it will permeate all of their intimate relationships.

However, newer research surrounding attachment theory has found that there are ways to cope with and even overcome insecure attachment.

One such way is through the use of psychotherapy. Different types of psychotherapy may be helpful, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of therapy that examines and challenges distorted thoughts and negative behaviors.

Different types of psychodynamic psychotherapies, such as transference-focused psychotherapy, have been shown to help patients understand and rework aspects of problematic relational patterns. Psychotherapy can help uncover certain developmental experiences and traumas that shaped adult attachment patterns and help empower someone to change these unconscious influences.

Couples or group therapy may also be helpful.

Other ways a person can overcome insecure attachment include:

  • Learning secure attachment in adulthood: By developing secure relationships in adulthood, a person can change the way they view relationships and intimacy.
  • Other forms of psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help uncover certain traumas that are key to overcoming negative thinking and behavioral patterns in adulthood. When a person is privy to the root of their feelings, they have more power over changing them.

Earning Security

To change your insecure attachment style into a secure one, you have to earn your security. This can be done by exploring the impact your unconscious decisions have on your world and relationships and coming to terms with what events in your childhood led to those views.

Summary

Insecure attachment is a form of attachment style that stems from negative experiences during childhood. There are several different types of insecure attachment, all of which present with different behaviors when a person grows into adulthood.

Avoidance will cause a person to be overly independent and avoid intimacy. Other styles will leave a person feeling like they need love but are too afraid to get it.

There are ways to change your patterns so that you can learn secure attachment in adulthood. Learning secure attachment in healthy relationships and participating in therapy can have a great impact on your attachment style.

A Word From Verywell

Coping with an insecure attachment style is difficult, but if you're aware of it, you're already one step closer to developing a secure attachment. Your actions and behaviors may be extensions of your childhood experiences, but you don’t have to accept your insecure attachment. Everyone is capable of positive change.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does insecure attachment look like in relationships?

    Insecure attachment in relationships varies depending on the type. But for the most part, a person with an insecure attachment will have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships. They will either be overly aloof or avoid intimacy altogether, or they may be fearful of losing the relationships to the point of needing constant reassurance. In some cases, a person will desire love but be fearful of getting it, so they avoid it as a way to protect themselves.

  • What are three signs of insecure attachment?

    Three signs that a person has insecure attachment include the inability to engage in intimacy, struggling to form healthy relationships with others, and unpredictable or inconsistent behavior with loved ones. While there are more signs that are type-dependent, these are typically indicative that someone has gone through experiences that caused them to develop an insecure attachment style.

  • How do you deal with a partner who has an insecure attachment style?

    Dealing with a partner with an insecure attachment style can be difficult. The best thing you can do is show the person you love what secure attachment looks like. This could involve being open and vulnerable yourself, providing consistent emotional support, and engaging in positive relationship behaviors.

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