Attachment Styles: What are They and How Do They Affect My Relationship?
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
It seems more and more these days everyone is talking about their attachment styles. But what are they? Why should you care? What does your attachment style mean to you and to your relationship?
Wait, what even is attachment?
When we talk about attachment, we're talking about an emotional connection you have with another person. There are 4 kinds of attachment styles:
Secure, Avoidant, Anxious and Disorganized (aka fearful avoidant).
These terms are a concept derived from attachment theory which explains how your bond with your primary caregivers sets the foundation for how you operate in relationships throughout life. As children, we're completely dependent on our caregivers, our unconscious goal is to do all that we can to stay close to those who keep us alive. This evolutionary strategy to keep ourselves alive is thought to be where our attachment style comes from.
When you're able to consistently have your needs met by your caretaker as a child, you develop a secure attachment style. Within this emotional connection we're able to have a safe space where our nervous system is calm, we know that we can find comfort and reassurance with the ability to be emotionally balanced. When we're young especially, this connection helps us learn to not be overly sensitive to threats and creates feelings of safety. It also then allows us to feel able to continue creating these secure attachments with others. Securely attached individuals are at ease being close with others and their need for that closeness with others. They're able to identify their needs and then reach out to ask for that need, trusting that it will be met and when it is met, further security and calming results. This sets an individual up with a natural buffer to stress and positive coping though-out life. Security also corresponds with higher levels of sexual satisfaction in relationships.
Avoidant, anxious and disorganized are all insecure attachment styles. They develop when a child learns that they cannot rely on their caregiver for basic needs and comfort. Thus they fall into a pattern of expecting that others will not be able to provide those emotional needs either.
Anxious attachment is characterized by sensitivity to any negative messages coming from others they value and subsequent "fight" responses to illicit attention and reassuring support from that individual. For example, you notice a slight change in your partner's tone when they respond to you. You find yourself feeling anxious, "Are they mad at me? Did I do something to upset them that they aren't telling me about?" suddenly you find yourself doubting everything about the relationship and desperately turn to that person for reassurance that this isn't the case. You may find other people referring to you as "clingy" or simply are unable to trust others. You worry that you're unworthy of love or constantly fear rejection. You may find yourself focused on affection and sex or the frequency of sex as a proof of love, while finding difficulty exploring the fun or playful aspects of sexuality.
Avoidant attachment is characterized by "flight" responses intended to get rid of any frustration or distress felt for loved ones that are seen as hostile or uncaring. You're someone who tends to continually downplay your own needs, refusing to rely on others. You're a self proclaimed perfectionist or have been told by others that you're too self-critical. Any amount of vulnerability from yourself or others triggers distancing behaviors- ie emotions give you an ick. You cringe at the thought of asking for help and have been told you have "commitment issues". You've been told by loved one's that you "shut down" when they try to talk to you about something important or when conflict arises. You tend to try and separate sex and love, often finding yourself focusing on your performance or prioritizing your satisfaction during sexual encounters. You may have difficulty opening up to sex as being a vulnerable, feeling interaction.
Disorganized attachment, also known as fearful avoidant attachment, arises when one has been traumatized by an attachment figure. In this case, that attachment figure is both the source of and the solution to fear. Someone experiencing this attachment type will oscillate between desire and fear, demanding affection and then distancing themselves, even attacking when what they seek is offered. This results in difficulty regulating one's emotions, high levels of anxiety and distrust of others. This attachment style has the potential to manifest as substance abuse disorders, mood disorders or using self harm to cope.
Help! I don't think I have a secure attachment style!
So one of these descriptions is ringing true for you, what does that mean? Don't panic. Your natural attachment style is not a fixed character trait. New experiences can often change your attachment style. This is why it is possible to exhibit avoidant attachment behaviors in one relationship and anxious attachment behaviors in another. Additionally, it is possible to heal your attachment style and function securely in your relationships. This can be done both as an individual or in the relationship of concern. It has been shown that attachment-oriented couples therapy is effective in helping to shape healthier relationships. After all, climbing a mountain with someone you love is easier than climbing a mountain alone.
However you decide to dive into exploring your attachment style, a counselor can often be a useful tool. They can help you in better understanding experiences that formed your current attachment style, how it affects your relationships and how to make changes to become more securely attached.
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (Eft) with individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press.
Mandriota, M. (2021, October 14). 4 types of attachment: What's your style? Psych Central. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://psychcentral.com/health/4-attachment-styles-in-relationships#whats-next