Whether you are aware of your relationship attachment style or not, it plays an important role in your everyday life. It influences how you fall in love (and whether you do at all), how close you feel to people in your life, and how easy or hard it is for you to be vulnerable with others.
Understanding your attachment style can be beneficial if you want to improve your everyday relationships, whether it is with your partner, friends, family, or even yourself. So, let’s talk about the attachment theory, the different types of relationship attachment styles, and how to find out which one is yours.
What is relationship attachment theory?
Attachment styles describe our behaviors in relationships, whether it would be romantic, platonic, or family relationships. Depending on what your relationship’s attachment style is, your views, beliefs, and the way you seek out relationships will be different from people with a different attachment style than yours.
The attachment theory was first developed by a British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, but it is still relevant to this day. He determined the three distinct attachment types (later, the fourth one was added) between children and their caregivers and how it affects children’s development.
Our attachment styles form early in childhood, however, certain experiences we go through as adults might impact our attachment style. For example, an adult with a secure attachment style might experience trauma during adulthood, which can cause them to develop an insecure attachment.
Also, it’s possible to change your attachment style from insecure to secure with the help of therapy and conscious work. While it’s not an easy feat, it’s definitely possible.
What are different attachment styles?
Relationship attachment styles are divided into two major groups: secure (~50% of the population), and insecure attachments. There are three different types of insecure attachment styles: avoidant (~25% of the population), anxious (~20% of the population), and disorganized (~4% of the population).
In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues conducted an experiment called The Strange Situation involving children and their mothers to look into how different attachment styles work. Researchers observed the children and their reactions to their mothers leaving them alone in a room with toys and other adults coming in and out of the room.
Let’s look at each attachment style and their behavioral patterns:
People with a secure relationship attachment style have no issues being in a relationship, and they are also okay with being single. Researchers Brennan, Clark, and Shaver used a Two Attachment Dimension Scale to measure the scores of avoidance and anxiety people with different attachment styles have in relationships, and securely attached people score low on both, anxiety and avoidance.
In Mary Ainsworth’s experiment, when the securely attached child’s mother left the room, the child was visibly distressed and upset. However, once the mother was back, the child could be soothed and comforted into feeling well once more.
“When you were upset as a child, and went to your parents for comfort, if they were good at quickly soothing you and creating trust by routinely being there for you, you likely developed a secure attachment style,” says licensed professional counselor, Jeff Guenther.
People with an avoidant attachment style often find it difficult to be in close relationships, they might completely avoid long-term romantic relationships. They might only engage in casual hookups or avoid any sort of romantic relationship altogether.
According to Brennan, Clark, and Shaver’s Two Attachment Dimension Scale, avoidant people score high on avoidance and low on the anxiety scale. In Ainsworth’s experiment, when the avoidantly attached child’s mother left the room, they showed no signs of distress and they showed no emotions once the mother was back.
“When you were upset as a child, and your discomfort was ignored or dismissed so you learned to detach from your uncomfortable feelings because you couldn’t trust that your parents would ever be there for you, you likely developed an avoidant attachment,” explains Guenther.
Avoidant people still crave intimacy, despite their avoidance of relationships. So, they might often appear very interested at the beginning of the relationship, during the “chase” stage, and then pull back once the person they pursue reciprocates their feelings.
This happens due to the deep-rooted belief that some avoidant people have of being unlovable. When someone is interested in loving them, they find it hard to believe and accept, explains sex researcher Nicholas Velotta.
Anxiously attached people crave intimacy and relationships, and they struggle with being single. According to Brennan, Clark, and Shaver’s Two Attachment Dimension Scale, anxiously attached people score high on anxiety and low on the avoidance scale.
In Ainsworth’s experiment, when the anxiously attached child’s mother left the room, they showed visible signs of distress. And then when mother returned, they continued to be distressed and were hard to soothe. Sometimes, they were acting out as a way to “punish” the mother for leaving the room.
“When you were upset as a child and your parents were not able to easily soothe you and weren’t able to create trust because they were sporadically there for you, which didn’t feel reliable, you probably developed an anxious attachment style,” explains Guenther.
People with a disorganized attachment style tend to want relationships and intimacy but have trouble being in relationships. Disorganized people tend to have behavioral patterns from both, anxious and avoidant attachment styles. According to Brennan, Clark, and Shaver’s Two Attachment Dimension Scale, disorganized people are high on avoidance and high on anxiety.
In Ainsworth’s experiment, the children who had disorganized attachment styles showed inconsistent behavior toward their mothers leaving and coming back. Sometimes they were visibly distressed, sometimes fearful of their mother, and sometimes even showed signs of aggression.
“If you grew up in a chaotic, manipulative, threatening or abusive environment and you were just trying to survive and your parents were sometimes there for you, but also at times were very scary, you probably developed a disorganized attachment,” explains Guenther.
Research shows that there is a link between childhood abuse and disorganized attachment style in adults, and disorganized people tend to have the largest number of romantic partners compared with other attachment styles.
Why knowing your relationship attachment style is important
While everyone has an attachment style, not everyone is aware of theirs. But knowing your relationship attachment style is important. The reason is that it might allow you to form and develop a better relationship with your partner, and it allows you to better understand yourself and your behavior patterns.
It also allows you to understand your partner’s needs and if you both know your attachment styles and are willing to communicate, you are able to better fulfill each other’s needs. If you have an anxious attachment style, and your partner has an avoidant style, you might struggle to find common ground in a relationship when you aren’t aware of why your partner acts the way they do.
Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A., authors of the book Attached, believe that knowing attachment theory and using effective communication can be a huge help in determining whether your partner is a good match or not.
“If your partner is responsive and genuinely concerned about your happiness and security, you have a green light to go ahead with the relationship. If, however, your partner tries to evade important topics, acts defensively, or makes you feel foolish or needy, you should heed it as a serious warning sign,” they write.
Here is how to determine your relationship attachment style
You might have already recognized your relationship attachment style while reading this blog post. But whether you already know, or still want to find out, we have a few good resources.
First of all, the book we mentioned, Attached, is a great place to start. It has an explanation of the attachment theory, as well as each attachment style, the quick quiz you can take, and guidance on how to determine your partner’s attachment style. Also, it has resources on how to apply your knowledge of attachment styles to your relationships.
Otherwise, you might want to take an online quiz. There are plenty available online, but we recommend taking this longer survey developed by R. Chris Fraley, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Illinois who specializes in attachment theory.