What are Attachment Styles?
Updated: Aug 20
Have you ever wanted more out of your relationships than people tend to give you? Or do you often feel overwhelmed by people? Or maybe relationships have always confused you? In this article, we are going to look at a driving force behind our relational tendencies called Attachment Styles.
Attachment theory describes the way we interact with others throughout our lives. Research shows that everyone has two main phases for forming or molding how they attach to others. Childhood attachment comes within the first two years of your life with your parents or primary caregiver. The cumulative interactions, whether good, bad, or absent, determine the overall way in which you learn to make relationships work. Now, this is not set in stone, but it does become an entrenched pattern that affects you on a neurological level as you develop.
As everyone gets older and enters into significant, often romantic, relationships outside of adolescence, they begin to form their Adult attachment style. The two phases are important to keep in mind, because you may hear different names for the four categories that make up your attachment style. One way to visualize these categories is with a bell curve.
Close to 60% of adults form secure attachments. I will cover that section first. Secure attachments are characterized as having a positive view of themselves and a positive view of others. Imagine a base camp for explorers. In the camp, there are supplies, food, shelter, equipment, everything necessary to restock, rest, and prepare for leaving to go on an expedition. Someone with a secure attachment knows that they can get back to base camp when necessary and so they are willing to risk and adventure out to explore. In this illustration, the base camp represents their sense of self, identity, purpose, meaning, etc. They know who they are. And the expeditions are when they go out to relate with others. It's not always safe, but they have a balanced view of what to expect from others, and they know they can trust themselves.
People with secure attachments are confident that their needs will be appropriately met by others and from themselves. They are not afraid to ask questions or even ask for help because their sense of self is not wholly dependent upon what others think. They can maintain healthy boundaries in a relationship. They know their limits and are willing to risk loss or hurt when being vulnerable with someone else. They still have a healthy fear of intimacy, but it does not drive them one way or the other on the scale.
The foundation for a secure attachment style comes from parents or caregivers who were able to attune to them. They received the necessary and repeated sense of security and connection that solidified in them a sense of being understood and protected. They were freed to form a balanced internal reality. If a parent responds appropriately to a child's emotions, they learn to manage their feelings as well. This relational attunement and balance set them up to enter into new relationships as just that: new.
Secure is ideal, but to either side, about the other 40% of the population falls. I find the bell curve helpful in conceptualizing attachment theory because it is more like a spectrum than clear-cut, black and white categories. Insecure attachment styles fall into two main categories.
Let's first look at the insecure attachment style known as Avoidant/Dismissive. In broad strokes, this style is characterized by a negative view of others, but a positive view of self. Now to keep with the basecamp illustration: this person has a tendency to not want to leave the base. They had to find security or connection within themselves that they could not find with their parents. They learned early that others could not meet their emotional/relational needs, so they continue to relate as though that were true in the present. This left them with an implicit association that intimate connection equals pain, like a phantom ache of that original lack of attunement. Perhaps their parents were physically present, but not as emotionally attuned and connected as they needed. They were loved but lonely.
To one side, there is an insecure attachment style known as Avoidant/Dismissive. In broad strokes, this style is characterized by a negative view of others, but a positive view of self. Now to keep with the base camp illustration: this person tends not to want to leave the base. They had to find security or connection within themselves that they did not sense with their parents. Early, they learned that others could not meet their emotional/relational needs, so they continue to relate as though that were true in the present. Thus, they were left with an implicit association that intimate connection equals pain, like a phantom ache of that original lack of attunement. Perhaps their parents were physically present, but not as emotionally attuned and connected as they needed. They were loved but lonely.
There are all kinds of ways that this will show itself in adulthood. Positively, this person will seem very independent, not needing to ask for help. They can focus on work or a project under stress and remain pretty calm because they are not overly connected to their feelings. Stress or conflict might even bring out their humor as they deflect the negative consequences of sitting in the tension. But negatively, this person may seem withdrawn or evasive when it comes to seeing the real them. The entrenched pattern of avoiding deep connection can make it difficult for them to talk about or identify feelings. So, they'll tend to remain in abstraction or ideas and away from self-disclosure or remember to consider relational dynamics in a problem. If they seem upset, they'll most likely tell you nothing is wrong as they retreat inside themselves, but later that pent up hurt, pain, or negative emotion will probably spill out in an angry blowup.
If you identify with these characteristics, then there are ways that you can seek to move more towards a secure attachment with others. How can you do that? The first step will be to make intentional choices to open up to safe people through vulnerability. Obviously, not everyone is safe, so some discretion is necessary. But extending trust is what creates intimacy, not the other way around. It may feel like your losing preciously guarded control, so at some point, you will need to risk! That's the exploring. Try letting other people into your rich internal world. Take down the mask of self-reliance, give voice to and share your concerns, hopes, fears, dreams, and disappointments. Think of ways to verbalize encouragement or gratitude to others. Moving in these directions will take you into uncomfortable, relational territory. So take note of the ways that you escape or checkout. Think of ways that you can let someone else be there for you. It's worth the risk.
The second form of insecure attachment is called Anxious. Likewise, this style has a negative view of self, but a positive view of others. With the base camp metaphor, they do not feel like they have a safe base (inner reality) with which to return. So, they seek comfort and security outside themselves. They learned early that they could not trust themselves to provide the necessary emotional stability. Perhaps there was a loss of a significant relationship early in life, like a parent. So the loss of connection in others feels like death.
Positively, this person will likely be able to connect with others quickly. They may be admired for being out-going or highly relational. But the anxious part comes in because they may feel "clingy" or overly sensitive, and this will get projected onto the other person since they need others to feel safe. If Hollywood type-casts the avoidant as the mysterious loner, then the anxious ambivalent would be the hopeless romantic, who'll do anything to win the love of another. They may embody a sense of ambivalence because they lack a definite sense of self, and therefore are willing to become whomever someone else needs them to be. Ultimately, they are after what that other person represents and not so much who they are. Their needs get projected onto others as a relational "savior." But that is an expectation that no one can live up to, so rejection of others can come quickly as they move on to another relationship.
If you have caught glimpses of yourself in this description, then here are some ways to bring balance and integration within yourself. Explore some ways of self-care that allows you to develop an identity that is not wholly dependent on others. That might mean developing a hobby, focus, passion, skill that provides an avenue of self-expression. Cultivate solitude. Make a list of nouns or adjectives that describe you, "I am…" Then imagine what you would want that list to say and pursue those values. Again, this will feel risky. But learning ways to be alone with yourself will help you not only develop a better sense of self, but one that taps into the dignity of who you are. Remember, someone else's silence or need to be alone is not a rejection of you. Your desire for more isn't wrong, but the ways you have been trying to get it needs to be re-examined.
Finally, there is one last attachment style called disorganized. Thankfully, it makes up a relatively small percentage of people. But tragically, it is characterized by a negative view of self and others. Meaning, they feel stuck without a safe base to return to and an inability to trust others as well. In many ways, they combine the most negative aspects of the avoidant and the anxious. On the bell curve, they would represent the bottom edges of both sides. It is not uncommon for them to be survivors of abuse and trauma from a parent or caregiver. They may project a strong push/pull dynamic that feels chaotic to others as they live out past trauma/manipulation/abuse through their present relationships. They may stir up drama or conflict in a relationship just to avoid rejection or painful feelings. They will likely test the bounds of every relationship, not being able to trust their own judgment or the intentions of others
If you, or someone you know, identifies with this last attachment style, then moving toward secure will take considerable time and trust. Most likely, they will do best with the professional guidance of a counselor or therapist who is trauma-informed and trained to help provide a stable, objective baseline.
Again, it's good to remember that this is a spectrum since you may recognize some of the above listed relational styles to some degree or another. However, they may not be inhibiting how you connect in all relationships. The bell curve might also serve as a metaphor to the hill it will feel like you are climbing as you make efforts to go against the default responses that you have cultivated over a lifetime. Remember, attachment styles are not personality types like extroversion or thinkers/feelers. Though, it may be the undercurrent that drives your personality to a particular imbalance. So when you recognize your defenses going up or deep urges one way or another in relationships, it's okay! Be glad that you're even aware and let that be an opportunity to start making choices for how you'd like to grow in understanding yourself and others.
The desire for connection and attunement with others is a good thing! It is our bad strategies that give us disordered desires.