Attachment theory is the idea that we develop an “attachment style” from our formative relationships – both with our parents as babies, and the relationships we go on to develop as adults
Attachment is an emotional bond with someone.
There are four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.
While the commonly held belief is that attachment styles are formed by our relationships with our parents as babies, any formative relationship is likely to influence your attachment style.
It’s possible to change your style with intention, patience, and time.
Attachment is an emotional bond between two people. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who is credited as the father of attachment theory, described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Bowlby strongly believed that early childhood experiences are foundational in development, and can impact behaviors later in life.
Attachment theory has revealed how our attachment style with our parents or primary caregivers as babies can impact our relationships as adults. It can help predict our behavior in relationships, some say. We explain the four different attachment styles and how they might be impacting your relationships.
The characteristics of attachment
Bowlby proposed that there was an evolutionary component at play with attachment. He believed that it’s an adaptive trait necessary for survival, as well as human nature. He defined four characteristics of attachment:
Proximity maintenance: This is the desire for closeness with the attachment figure.
Safe haven: The attachment figure is where we retreat for comfort and safety when presented with a threat.
Secure base: The attachment figure is our “home base,” a place of security from which we can explore the world around us.
Separation distress: Separation distress is commonly known as “separation anxiety,” referring to the anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.
Today’s experts believe that attachment styles can also be influenced by relationships we have as adults. This means it’s possible to learn new attachment behaviors based on formative experiences. Therefore, with conscious and intentional work, it is possible to heal your attachment style if your current one isn’t serving you.
Research on attachment theory
Although Bowlby is credited with developing attachment theory, research on attachment started with the “father of modern psychology,” Sigmund Freud. It has been studied with much interest ever since. The attachment theory we know today has been developed and shaped by multiple researchers.
A colleague of Bowlby, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, expanded on Bowlby’s original attachment theory by identifying the differences in how various infants dealt with being separated from their parents. She conducted a famous experiment in the 1970s called the “Strange Situation” experiment. This experiment identified the four attachment types: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.
In the 1980s, the work of Ainsworth and Bowlby was applied to adult romantic relationships. In 1998, the idea of adult attachment was further developed. Two dimensions influencing attachment patterns were described: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance.
The four attachment styles
The attachment styles identified by Ainsworth are characterized by the behaviors exhibited, particularly during a threat. Understanding your own style can provide valuable insight into how you show up – or don’t show up – in your relationships. It can also help you understand your own biases in how you interpret the behaviors of others, including your partner. Lastly, it gives you a conceptual framework for how you can identify and change these patterns. The four styles are:
1. Secure attachment
Secure attachments are a result of reliable and responsive attachment figures. Those with a secure style have a strong sense of safety and stability and report higher rates of satisfaction in their relationships. They are comfortable with themselves and aren’t afraid to be alone, but can develop close relationships and build trust with their partners.
2. Anxious attachment
One of the three insecure attachment types, people with an anxious style can be clingy, uncertain, and require a lot of validation. Although they desire emotional intimacy, they fear that others don’t. This style is also known as ambivalent attachment, anxious-preoccupied, or ambivalent-anxious attachment. Anxious attachment likely occurs when attachment figures are unreliable, inconsistent, or unpredictable.
3. Avoidant attachment
Avoidant attachment is another insecure attachment style, also known as avoidant-dismissive attachment. This style is characterized by hyper-independence, which can be a trauma response derived from being unable to safely and reliably depend on anyone. This style is the opposite of the anxious attachment style – instead of desiring intimacy, avoidantly attached people actively seek to avoid emotional connections with others. They may come off as aloof or uninterested. Avoidant attachment is created when attachment figures are dismissive, distant, and unresponsive. Even if physical needs are met, attachment figures are emotionally unavailable, creating a learned behavior of emotional avoidance.
4. Fearful-avoidant attachment (disorganized)
Fearful-avoidant attachment is also known as disorganized or disoriented attachment. This style is prevalent in those who have a history of childhood trauma such as abuse or neglect. It can be a result of an attachment figure who was using maladaptive coping skills to deal with their own unresolved traumas. Your attachment figure may play multiple roles in your life, presenting as a source of fear and distress, as well as comfort, understandably leading to confusion. Fearful-avoidant attachment may manifest as someone who wants a close relationship, but experiences deep fear about relationships and finds it difficult to trust. They may not understand what a healthy relationship looks like. This may present as someone who’s “hot and cold” or has difficulty maintaining a stable relationship because they are engaged in a “push and pull.”
While some people can identify their styles by reading the descriptors, there are lots of quizzes online. You can take an attachment style test based on scientific research here.