9 September 2021
By Kate Skurat
Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has been working in healthcare since 2017. She mainly treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, grief, identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience is focused on individual and group counselling.
Attachment theory explains your approach to adult relationships. Here is what you need to know about attachment styles to improve your relationship.
3 Types of Attachment Styles and How They Affect Your Relationships
Human beings are wired for attachment. That is why solitary confinement is a successful form of punishment. From an early age, you learn how to bond and form intimate relationships with people.
Extensive research has been done on how children bond with their caregivers. The findings are summarized in the attachment theory that explains childhood and adult relationships. Understanding this theory can help you improve your relationships.
Here is what you need to know, and here’s how therapy can help.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth studied infants’ behaviour to understand the effects of family bonds on emotional development. Infants were separated from their primary caregivers and reunited after a while. The observations from this study led to the development of the attachment theory.
According to the attachment theory, bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a huge impact on their lives. Unlike earlier theories that suggested attachment as a learned process, the attachment theory defines it as a natural, innate one.
What does this mean for you? As an adult, the attachment theory implies that:
- You were born with the need to form attachments with others – everybody needs somebody.
- Early attachments resulted from receiving comfort and care – your need to be loved and cared for is natural.
- Your childhood experiences determine your adult behaviour – dealing with past trauma may improve your adult relationships.
Based on Bowlby’s work, Ainsworth categorized attachment styles into three:
What Is Secure Attachment Style?
Children with dependable caregivers form a secure attachment. They develop a sense of security because they have primary caregivers who are available and responsive to their needs. They know that they can count on their caregivers. Therefore, they are confident to explore the world.
In Ainsworth’s study, children who had dependable caregivers showed distress when separated and joy when reunited. Although they were upset when their caregivers left, they felt assured that they would return. When frightened, they were comfortable getting reassurance from caregivers.
Having secure attachment styles in relationships does not mean one did not experience childhood trauma. Rather, it means that your needs were met and emotions validated by your primary caregiver.
How Does Secure Attachment Style Affect Relationships?
Adults who were securely attached in their childhood have strong self-esteem. They are self-reliant. As a result, they have successful social relationships.
A secure attachment style in a romantic relationship means that one is responsive to one partner’s emotional and physical cues. Because you appreciate your self-worth, you can express your needs in a relationship. Moreover, you enjoy spending time with your partner but do not get overly anxious when apart.
What Is Anxious Attachment Style?
Children with inconsistent caregivers form an anxious attachment style. They are uncertain whether their needs will be met because they have primary caregivers who are occasionally responsive but mostly unavailable. The uncertainty makes them anxious about whether they can rely on their primary caregiver.
Children with an anxious attachment style constantly monitor their caregivers. They reassure themselves that their caregiver will not abandon them. They may become more demanding and clingy, hoping that their exaggerated emotions will force their caregiver to react. The lack of predictability makes children distrustful, angry, and needy.
How Does Anxious Attachment Style Affect Relationships?
Adults who were anxiously attached in their childhood seek to please others while constantly feeling like they fall short. You may have a constant fear of being rejected or abandoned. Sometimes, these fears may be unnecessary. It results in you being clingy and overbearing.
Space between you and your partner may seem like a threat when you have an anxious attachment style. So, you find it difficult to observe boundaries. When away from your partner, you may feel anxious. To keep them close, you resort to manipulation and other controlling behaviours. When a relationship ends, you see it as evidence that they will always be rejected or abandoned.
What Is Avoidant Attachment Style?
Children with avoidant attachment show no preference between their primary caregivers and strangers. Because they were punished for relying on their caregivers, they avoid seeking help. They know that their needs may not be met. Such an attachment style is the result of abuse or neglect.
In Ainsworth’s study, children with avoidant attachment showed no emotions when their caregivers left and returned. They did not prefer strangers to their caregivers. They seemed isolated and did not seek comfort when there was reason to be distressed.
How Does Avoidant Attachment Style Affect Relationships?
Adults who were abused or neglected in their childhood may avoid relationships. They keep people they meet at a distance. When they form relationships, they may sabotage and end things for no apparent reason. Usually, they end relationships out of fear that their partner may leave them. It is an unconscious attempt to make sure that they do not get neglected again.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may be extremely self-reliant in relationships. You may have a hard time being vulnerable. Rather than seek intimacy, you may give your partner too much space and require the same return.
What Is a Disorganized Attachment Style?
Children with inconsistent caregivers may develop a disorganized attachment style. Because they are comforted one minute and rejected the next, they display a mix of behaviours. They may avoid their caregivers while needing comfort from them at the same time. They may seem disoriented, dazed, or confused while in distress.
In Ainsworth’s study, some children showed distress when separated from their mothers but were not happy when reunited. They ignore the presence of their caregiver. When distressed, they ran to their caregivers for comfort but would resist being comforted.
How Does Disorganized Attachment Style Affect Relationships?
Adults who had inconsistent caregivers tend to feel undeserving of love. They may learn how to self-soothe to avoid depending on others. They do not feel secure in a relationship and often swing between extreme emotions. Although they crave meaningful and healthy relationships, they may sabotage out of fear.
Alcohol and drug abuse are more common in people with a disorganized attachment style. They may display aggressive or violent behaviour. Self-regulation is a challenge for such people; they are prone to negative, antisocial behaviour.
If you have a disorganized style, you may be hard on yourself and others. You may be insensitive towards your partner, often displaying selfish and controlling behaviour. Your social interactions may suffer as a result. Although you crave a meaningful and intimate relationship, you feel unworthy, so you lash out at others.
It is easy to be classed as the villain when you have a disorganized attachment style. Many people may not understand why you behave erratically. Because your actions hurt others, you may end up isolated.
Is It Possible to Change Your Attachment Style?
Yes, it is. Attachment styles are not permanent, even though they are deeply rooted in your childhood experiences. You do not have to have unfulfilling relationships because of your traumatic past.
If you recognize an anxious or avoidant attachment style in yourself or your partner, it is important to seek help. Therapy can be useful in developing a secure attachment style. It can help you nurture healthy, fulfilling relationships.
Seek help from a therapist who is conversant with attachment theory as it relates to relationships. They will help you make sense of emotional trauma stemming from childhood. You will discover how it is affecting your romantic relationships. You may choose one-on-one or couples counselling to deal with your attachment style.
However, if you do not have access to therapy, you can still build a secure attachment style on your own. Learning more about attachment styles is a great place to start. When you understand the role your past plays in your present, you will recognize and correct your attitude and behaviours that affect your relationship.
Additionally, you may want to work on the following areas:
- Communication skills – improve how you interact with others
- Emotional intelligence – understand and manage your emotions
- Your choice of partner – build relationships with securely attached people
- Childhood trauma – overcome the pain and learn to trust again
These are vast and often complicated areas of your life. You may not be able to deal with them alone. So seeking help is always a good idea.
H2: The Bottom Line
Attachment styles determine the nature and success of adult relationships. Whereas securely attached individuals are expressive and responsive, anxiously attached people tend to be clingy and possessive. Avoidant attachment styles may interfere with intimacy.
Each of these is a result of childhood experiences. To resolve negative attachment styles and have healthy relationships, therapy is needed. Working with an experienced counsellor on Calmerry helps to overcome past trauma and create a secure attachment style.