The Ultimate Guide To Attachment Styles In Romantic Relationships
This is ONE OF MY FAVOURITE TOPICS so you will have to excuse my frequent use of caps.
I really do love attachment styles. Especially when applied to adult romantic relationships. In my therapy work, I have witnessed many ‘AHA’ moments when introducing this concept to clients.
Attachment styles help explain behaviour in dating and relationships that otherwise doesn’t make sense:
Hot one moment, cold the next
Many people find relief in knowing that there is an explanation for these things!
Learning about this topic was a paradigm shift for me because of the following book: Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F Heller.
Levine and Heller manage to explain attachment styles in a relatable and HIGHLY applicable way. I was inspired by the way they took decades of research and turned it into a very useful tool you can apply to a real relationship in your life.
My hope is that this guide demystifies attachment styles and helps you understand how valuable they can be in figuring yourself (and others) out.
This post is an introduction to attachment styles.
Parts 1 and 2 provide some brief background information on the basic concept of attachment. Parts 3 gets into the actual attachment styles. We will provide an overview today and do a deeper dive into each specific style in future posts!
Part 1: What Is An Attachment Style?
Part 2: Your Attachment Style Is Adaptive
Part 3: The 4 Attachment Styles Described
Part 1: What Is Attachment In The First Place?
A researcher by the name of John Bowlby made an incredibly interesting observation: humans need to be in a close relationship with others.
We all possess a basic need to form close bonds. This is such an essential part of our human make up that we have a biological mechanism responsible for creating and regulating our relationship with attachment figures (parents, children, romantic partners).
This is called our attachment system.
However, humans are an incredibly diverse species. While we all have a need to form close bonds, the way we go about forming them varies with each person.
This is why we have different attachment styles! An attachment style is essentially our unique way of responding to the innate need to form close bonds.
This variation in our need for intimacy and closeness can create clashes in romantic relationships, which is one of the strongest manifestation of our need to form close bonds as adults.
The way we learn to form attachment bonds is related to the relationship we had with our early caregivers, along with the environment we were raised in.
Now, to understand adult attachment properly, let’s rewind back to the very first years of our life.
The Early Caregiver Relationship
Our earliest relationship is with our primary caregivers. As babies, we are pretty helpless, and therefore entirely dependent on them.
The way we relate to our caregivers in this helpless state is important because this relationship becomes the blueprint we model future adult relationships on.
In the 1970’s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth extensively studied the relationship between infants and their attachment figures. She devised a procedure called the Strange Situation to test how securely attached babies were to their primary caregivers (mostly mothers).
A classification of attachment styles between mother-infant came out of this research. The basic premise was this: when a caregiver is caring and reliably responsive to their baby’s needs, the baby is more likely to have a secure attachment with the caregiver. Having a secure attachment style during infancy has been shown to predict more competent and resilient adults.
Conversely, when a caregiver is inconsistent, neglectful, or inappropriate in their responsiveness to the baby, an insecure attachment style is more likely to develop. Insecure attachment as an infant is related to a number of unfavourable outcomes later in life.
So, what does this have to do with romantic relationships?
Well, researchers Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver noticed that adults have attachment patterns to their romantic partners that resemble childhood attachment patterns. Moreoever, they found that adult attachment styles are influenced by more than how our parents cared for us. Our life experiences as adults also come into play.
This opened a door into looking at romantic relationships from an attachment perspective.
And let me tell you, it’s a game changer.
Part 2: Your Attachment Style Is Adaptive
Before we get into the actual attachment styles, it’s important to know that every single attachment style is adaptive.
This means that when your attachment style was developing, it was serving a purpose.
Yes, it’s true that certain attachment styles can make romantic relationships tricky or complicated. However, keep in mind that at some point, this way of relating to others was keeping you safe- and that is a truly remarkable thing.
We can use an evolutionary perspective to make sense of this.
The Evolution Of Attachment
From an evolutionary perspective, we need others to survive. John Bowlby proposed that early humans who became attached and could safely depend on one another had a survival advantage.
In other words, those who had only themselves to rely on were less likely to survive that cutthroat environment.
Attachment styles evolved based on the environment.
If the environment was very dangerous or unpredictable, it made sense not to invest all your time and energy into one person (i.e. avoidant attachment)
Another option in a dangerous environment is to cling strongly to an attachment figure and be very hypervigilant about maintaining closeness with them (i.e. anxious attachment).
If we grew up in a chaotic or dangerous household, our attachment styles developed in response to this environment. While they kept us safe then, as adults, those adaptive responses may no longer be serving us.
Part 3: The Four Attachment Styles Described
There are 3 main adult attachment styles, and 1 additional style that is less common. Levine and Heller (authors of Attached) describe attachment styles as the way people perceive and respond to intimacy in a romantic relationship.
According to the authors, people with different attachment styles vary across these factors:
- Views on intimacy and togetherness
- How they deal with conflict
- The ability to communicate their own needs and wishes to their partner
- The expectations they have from their partner and the relationship
Interestingly, we all fall into an attachment category, whether we are new to the world of dating, or have been in a committed relationship for 20 years.
As we go through the attachment styles, you might find is useful to compare them using the diagram below. This figure illustrates the 4 attachment styles across two dimensions: Avoidance and Anxiety.
So without further ado, let’s get into it.
The Anxious Attachment Style
People with an anxious attachment style are low on avoidance and high on anxiety.
They have a very sensitive attachment system. If you recall, an attachment system is the biological mechanism that tracks and monitors both the safety and availability of our attachment figures.
Those with an anxious attachment style have a heightened ability to sense when their relationship is threatened. The smallest hint that ‘something is off’ will activate their attachment system.
In other words, if you have an anxious attachment style, you are a master at picking up the subtle details the rest of us tend to miss.
Activating Strategies And Protest Behaviour
Once someone who is anxiously attached senses something is wrong (i.e. once their attachment system is activated) they find it hard to calm down until they get clear reassurance from their partner that the relationship is safe.
To re-establish closeness with their partner, they engage in activating strategies. Levine and Heller describe this as any thoughts, feelings, or behaviours that encourage someone to get closer (physically or emotionally) to their partner:
- Being consumed with thoughts about the relationship
- Putting partner on a pedestal by underestimating what you offer and overestimating what they offer
- Remembering only their good qualities
- “This is my only shot at love”
- “He can change”
If someone who is anxiously attached does not get reassurance about the safety of the relationship, the situation often escalates to protest behaviour. These are actions to get the other person’s attention or shock/jolt them into responding to you:
- Calling/texting excessively
- Playing games and keeping score (i.e. if it takes her 15 minutes to respond to my text, I’ll wait 20 minutes before replying back)
- Making them feel jealous (i.e. having lunch with an ex)
- Threatening to leave while hoping they will stop you from leaving
The Good News
If you have an anxious attachment style, you have an incredible attunement to the world around you. However, you tend to ‘shoot from the hip’ and jump to conclusions that cause you pain in the long run.
According to Levine and Heller, a securely attached partner will be able to provide the reassurance and safety you need in a relationship. Once you have this safety, your ability to tune into your partner’s needs and emotions is actually quite the gift.
The Breakdown For Anxious Attachment
Views on intimacy and togetherness: want to be as emotionally close as possible; others may be reluctant to get as close as they would like
Dealing with conflict: can often be highly emotional or argumentative due to hypersensitivity to changes in their partner’s actions and mood, displaying protest behaviour
Communicating needs and wishes: communication is often not collaborative- tend to communicate through activating strategies and protest behaviour
Expectations from partner and relationship: need ongoing reassurance from partner, worried about rejection and abandonment
The Avoidant Attachment Style
People with an avoidant attachment style are high on avoidance and low on anxiety.
Unlike anxiously attached folks, their attachment system is under-active, not overactive.
Avoidants have an attachment system just like everyone else. However, despite connecting with romantic partners, people with an avoidant attachment find ways to create mental distance and always have an escape plan.
This is because they tend to equate intimacy with a loss of independence.
In response to the clash between an attachment system that seeks intimacy, and fear of losing independence and control, the avoidantly attached person engages in strategies to deactivate their attachment system and suppress intimacy and closeness:
- Letting small imperfections in your partner interfere with romantic feelings
- Pulling away just when intimacy increases (ghosting or hot/cold)
- Avoiding conversations about the direction of the relationship
- Saying you are not ready to commit, yet staying in the relationship for years
- Getting into relationships with an unlikely future (i.e. with someone who is married)
The Breakdown For Avoidant Attachment
Views on intimacy and togetherness: uncomfortable with intimacy and depending on others; equate intimacy with loss of independence and prefer to be ‘together but alone’
Dealing with conflict: tend to avoid serious relationship conflicts because they have the potential to lead to increased understanding and intimacy
Communicating needs and wishes: not comfortable discussing emotions; tend to feel smothered and overwhelmed when partner communicates their needs
Expectations from partner and relationship: independence is a priority in the relationship; partner usually wants more closeness
The Good News
Having an avoidant attachment style can make relationships a complicated business.
However, the good news is that attachment styles are not set in stone- they are malleable.
It is entirely possible to shift to a more secure style! We will get into how to shift attachment styles in a future post. For now, try learning to identify deactivating strategies for what they are- ways to keep your partner at arm’s length.
The Secure Attachment Style
People with a secure attachment style are low on avoidance and low on anxiety.
The secures of the world have an incredibly precious gift: they are relationship masters. However, this doesn’t mean that every relationship they are in will be successful or last forever! Life simply does not work this way.
Here is what sets people with a secure attachment apart from other attachment styles:
- They know how to handle conflict without responding defensively or needing to hurt their partner
- Can seek intimacy and closeness without fear of being rejected or losing their independence
- Excellent communication skills
- Expect good things to happen to them and consider themselves worthy of this
- They don’t play games
- Have the ability to forgive quickly because they have a core belief that people have good intentions
- Carry positive beliefs about the relationship and their ability to improve it
If you are currently single, one of the most effective ways to manage an anxious or avoidant attachment style is to seek a secure partner.
Those of us who have only been in relationships with people who have insecure attachment styles can scarcely imagine how different life can be a secure partner.
Secure To The Core
One of the most important factors that distinguishes securely attached people is their core beliefs about themselves and the world.
They tend to believe that there are many potential partners out there who are open to intimacy and closeness and would be responsive to their needs.
At their core, they believe that they deserve to be loved and valued. This belief is a force of nature that helps them naturally gravitate towards those who make them happy.
People who have a secure attachment date and marry people from all the attachment styles. Secure adults can maintain relationships with anxious and avoidantly attached people because overtime, they have a secure effect on their partners.
It is also entirely possible to become less secure over time! Difficult experiences can shake the core of a secure attachment.
However, the secures of this world tend to have healthy and well-developed instincts. More likely than not, they know when a relationship has run its course or is no longer healthy.
The Breakdown For Secure Attachment
Views on intimacy and togetherness: comfortable in a close, loving, and intimate relationship; is okay with depending on their partner and having their partner depend on them
Dealing with conflict: unlikely to avoid conflict; engages in conflict without aiming to injure partner and forgives quickly
Communicating needs and wishes: communicates emotions, needs, and wishes openly; is attuned and responsive to partner’s needs as well
Expectations from partner and relationship: has positive and growth-oriented expectations for the relationship and confidence in their ability to make this happen
The Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style
People with an anxious-avoidant attachment style are high on avoidance and high on anxiety.
This is the least common attachment style. People with this attachment style are both uncomfortable with intimacy but also very concerned about their partner’s availability.
An anxious-avoidant attachment style can also be referred to as ‘unresolved’ or ‘disorganized’. It often stems from past traumas that have not been addressed or resolved.
If you identify with this style, you can benefit from information on both avoidant and anxious attachment styles.
Attachment theory is a relationship game-changer. Once you learn about it, it’s unlikely that you will see relationships the same way again!
Try re-evaluating your past relationships from an attachment lens. When I do this exercise with clients, they are usually surprised to see how consistent their previous partner’s behaviour is with a certain attachment style. With this framework in place, what seemed chaotic in the past now makes sense.
Likewise, we can apply attachment theory to improve our own relationship IQ and what to do when attachment styles clash. Look out for a future blog post on exactly this topic! Now that we have learned about attachment, I can’t wait to show you how to apply it.
If you identify with any of the insecure attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, anxious-avoidant), please remember one thing: you are not an anomaly! These styles are very, very common and there is a lot we can do to move towards a more secure way of being in a relationship. Stay tuned.
Still not sure what your attachment style is? Try this quiz from the authors of Attached.
Until next time!