Relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or familial, are a vitally important part of our lives. They’re often a source of identity and meaning – who am I? What’s my life about? – and can have a huge impact on our happiness and wellbeing.
How satisfying our relationships are depends to a large extent on what each person in the relationship brings to the table - their attachment style.
What is attachment style?
Your attachment style is how you tend to relate to and connect with others, and all the beliefs, feelings, and expectations you might have about intimacy and closeness.
Research suggests that the roots of a person’s attachment style can be found in childhood and early experiences. We start learning a template for how relationships work through our caregivers, and we build on that template with other relationship experiences that we have as we get older.
For example, if your caregiver is neglectful, you might learn to expect that other people won’t take care of you and that you have to take care of yourself. In other relationships as you get older, you might have a hard time depending on others and may never give them the chance to show up for you – reinforcing your belief that others can’t be trusted.
As another example, if your caregiver leaves, you might learn to expect that other people will abandon you and that you have to stay vigilant to keep them in your life. In other relationships as you get older, you might find yourself clinging on to partners so tightly that they pull away – reinforcing your belief that others will leave you.
What are the different attachment styles?
According to research, there are four main attachment styles: one secure style which tends to lead to happier, more satisfying relationships, and three insecure styles which tend to lead to less satisfying relationships. Each style involves different combinations of the two dimensions reflected in the previous examples: avoidance and anxiety.
Low avoidance, low anxiety: Secure attachment
You tend to feel safe and secure in your relationships, finding a balance between closeness and independence. You may be comfortable with opening up to and depending on your partner and having them depend on you, without excessive worry about losing them or losing yourself in the relationship.
Low avoidance, high anxiety: Preoccupied attachment
You may focus excessively on your relationships and on whether the other person is happy, worrying about losing them. You may find yourself asking for a lot of reassurance, reacting more intensely to conflicts, monitoring the other person’s mood, and feeling like you need more closeness or care more about the other person than they do.
High avoidance, low anxiety: Dismissive-avoidant attachment
You may have a hard time with closeness and commitment, worrying about losing yourself and your independence. You might struggle opening up and find yourself cutting relationships short when they start feeling too intimate, shutting down in conflicts, avoiding depending on someone, and investing more time in hobbies or work than relationships.
High avoidance, high anxiety: Fearful-avoidant attachment
You may have mixed feelings about relationships, both wanting closeness and being afraid of getting too close. You may have more chaotic relationships and find yourself obsessing over and worrying about losing someone while also pushing them away, going from ‘hot’ – loving, affectionate, wanting intimacy – to ‘cold’ – silent, passive-aggressive, pulling away – from moment to moment.
Well, now what?
If you recognized yourself in the secure attachment style, great! Keep doing what you’re doing – communicating your needs and boundaries, respecting other people’s needs and boundaries, and cultivating openness, honesty, trust, and intimacy in your relationships.
If you recognized yourself in one of the three insecure attachment styles, don’t panic. You’re not doomed to a lifetime of unhappy relationships.
First, while you might relate more to one style over the others, we can often have different styles in different relationships, depending on what the other person brings to the table. So, ask yourself: is there a person in my life I feel securely attached to? What makes me feel secure in that relationship? See if you can figure out the conditions for security for you and try to translate those conditions into other relationships.
And second, while our early experiences are important in establishing our initial template for attachment, research suggests that recent experiences in relationships can have a big impact on our current attachment style. This means that our attachment styles can change for the better, even if our early experiences were difficult.
If you're struggling in relationships, MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace.
Fraley, R. C., & Roisman, G. I. (2019). The development of adult attachment styles: Four lessons. Current opinion in psychology, 25, 26-30.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2012). Attached: the new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find--and keep--love. Penguin.
Chen, A. (2019). The Attachment Theory Workbook. Althea Press.