The idea behind attachment theory is that the early bonds we form with our caregivers (specifically, our mother) as children can affect the relationships we have as adults, including romantic and intimate ones.
Attachment theory was developed in the late 1950s by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Our upbringing can certainly shape who we are and how we navigate relationships, but Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theory goes further and identifies specific attachment styles.
Attachment is the emotional bond we have with other people in our lives. Attachment styles are characterized by the way you behave in a relationship or interact with a partner. There are four main types of attachment:
Attachment theory says that your style of attachment mirrors the dynamics you had with your caregivers as a child.
If you’ve noticed a pattern in your relationships, or always have the same arguments with your partner regardless of who they are, it could be down to your attachment style — and your relationship with your parents.
Estimates vary, but most research suggests the most common form of attachment style is secure, followed by avoidant, anxious, and disorganized.
Although attachment theory isn’t a new concept, it’s been making a comeback in mainstream conversations around dating and relationships. So what exactly are the different attachment styles, and how does attachment theory impact your relationships?
Bowlby and Ainsworth identified three main types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and anxious. Years later, researchers Mary Main and J. Solomon found a fourth style: disorganized attachment. Avoidant, anxious, and disorganized are considered “insecure” forms of attachment.
Knowing your attachment style could help you understand your romantic relationships, make sense of any problematic patterns, and recognize how they’re affecting your love life.
So what do the four attachment styles mean and how can they show up in your relationships?
People with a secure attachment style tend to be satisfied in their relationships and are unlikely to be anxious, jealous, or possessive over their partner. They can trust others and form close bonds easily.
Securely attached people generally feel confident with their relationship and aren’t worried about pursuing different friendships or interests with their partner. They manage to strike the perfect balance of intimacy and independence within a relationship.
An avoidant attachment style is characterized by a fear of intimacy. It’s sometimes referred to as “dismissive-avoidant”.
People with avoidant attachment prefer to be self-sufficient as a defense mechanism to avoid forming emotional bonds. They have trouble trusting people and getting close to others.
Avoidant people tend to isolate themselves and withdraw from their partners out of fear of closeness, and a fear of commitment is often a sign of avoidant attachment. Adults with an avoidant attachment are typically emotionally unavailable in their relationship and are less likely to share their feelings or thoughts with a partner.
People with an anxious attachment style — also called “ambivalent” attachment — crave a connection with their partner as a source of security, but need constant reassurance. Anxious attachment style is characterized by a fear of abandonment and rejection.
Adults with an anxious attachment style often worry that their partner doesn’t reciprocate their feelings, and are more prone to being jealous, possessive, and needy. They might get anxious if their partner doesn't text back for a long time or if they’re apart for too long, for example.
Anxiously attached partners might feel like their relationship is under constant threat, and become especially distraught when a relationship ends.
While there is no hard and fast rule about which attachment styles are more compatible with one another, people with anxious attachment might have a hard time being in a relationship with an avoidant person.
Also known as “fearful-avoidant”, a disorganized attachment style is fairly rare. It’s characterized by an inconsistent attachment behavior — as the name would suggest.
Disorganized attachment incorporates both anxious and avoidant attachment styles, so adults with this attachment style don’t display coherent social behavior. Experts believe this style is a consequence of childhood trauma or abuse.
People with a disorganized attachment style blow hot and cold, giving mixed signals. They both crave and avoid intimacy, and need to feel loved by others but also have difficulty developing a close romantic relationship.
Despite its popularity — and the role it played in behavioral psychology — attachment theory has its limitations. So don’t go blaming all your relationship problems on your parents just yet.
Some psychologists think it’s a stretch to insinuate the relationship you had with your parents in early childhood can have such a lasting effect on your adult relationships.
Bowlby developed attachment theory within the context of American family life over 60 years ago, without taking into account how class, gender identity, race, and culture affect personal development.
Because attachment theory relies heavily on an outdated idea of parenting and gender roles, experts also believe it might not translate so well today.
And yet attachment theory endures because it’s a way for people to understand their past relationships, and make sense of what kind of romantic partners they are.
Knowing your attachment style can help you gain more self-awareness, but take it with a grain of salt.
Putting you or your partner in a box won’t do much to improve your relationships — on the contrary, you might end up creating false and self-limiting beliefs about yourself that could hinder your romantic relationships. Some people might even use their attachment style as a way of placing blame or avoiding accountability.
Your attachment style can also change throughout your life or depending on who you’re in a relationship with. So it might be more helpful to think of attachment as a spectrum, rather than a fixed label.
Attachment theory can be a valuable tool to understand how you relate to others in real life, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. Human beings are complex and relationships aren’t as black and white as attachment theory suggests.
Don’t get too attached (pun intended) to the idea that your attachment style is the be-all and end-all of your relationship. Rather, use it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, reflect on your past relationships, and grow as a partner.