Understanding your individual attachment style can help you become more successful in your platonic and romantic relationships. 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,
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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 attachment (sometimes called ambivalent or preoccupied) is considered insecure attachment. Highly anxious individuals may:
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 (sometimes called dismissive) attachments are also insecure. Avoidant individuals may:
These beliefs and behaviors can make it difficult for avoidant individuals to form intimate relationships.
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:
When discussing research on adult attachment, it's important to note that some limitations exist:
Current research gives places to start, but more research is needed for a better understanding of how attachment theory applies to adults.
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.
Learning your attachment style is the biggest step in changing working models and behaviors.
Several assessments for attachment styles exist:
Acknowledging your attachment style is essential to making change, should you wish to.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Secure attachment is the most common 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.
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.