What Are Attachment Styles & How Do They Affect Our Relationships?

Human beings are social animals - we need to feel connected to others as much as we need food, water and shelter to be happy and healthy. From infancy we form attachments to our caregivers and look to them for care and comfort, and those early experiences influence the way we form relationships throughout our lives. Attachment Theory is one way to study how we form and experience bonds with others, whether parents, friends, or romantic partners.

Proponents of Attachment Theory generally identify 3-4 “attachment styles” that characterize our ability to communicate with and trust one another. Understanding your own attachment style can guide you in building healthier networks of friends, family members, and partners.

What are the attachment styles?

Different researchers have different names and classifications for attachment styles, but the three most common are Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant.

Secure

you feel comfortable accepting intimacy from and expressing your feelings to others. Your relationships don’t tend to be a source of worry for you and when conflict arises you don’t take it personally. In short, as the name suggests you are able to form secure bonds with others that aren’t threatened by your own insecurities and anxieties. You feel grounded in your relationships but have enough independence to maintain your boundaries and your sense of self.

Anxious

your relationships are a source of worry for you and you are never sure if you are close enough to friends and partners. You take conflict very personally and can catastrophize small disagreements to reflect on your self-worth and the viability of the relationship long term. You tend to prioritize the needs of others over your own and can’t easily draw or maintain healthy boundaries. You need constant reassurance from the people around you that they love and support you, and you struggle to trust others to be there for you.

Avoidant

you value your autonomy and independence over bonds with others and tend to reject intimacy. You may consider your relationships to be an infringement on your personal and emotional space and draw very hard and fast boundaries between yourself and others. Commitment may scare you, and you may struggle to trust others and dislike when people get too close to you. People who know you may have a hard time depending on you because you tend to prioritize your own feelings and desires over theirs.

How do attachment styles develop?

Proponents of Attachment Theory trace development of these styles to early childhood. Children learn how to relate to others based on their interactions with primary caregivers from birth. The relative health and closeness of these first relationships can determine our comfort with intimacy and our ability to trust others, and consequently inform our attachment styles.

For example, if your caregiver was reliable and affectionate, chances are your attachment style is on the secure side. They rewarded your attention-seeking behaviors with love and care and taught you to communicate openly with others without undue fear of rejection. Your brain has been wired by your experiences to expect others to be trustworthy, and you can comfortably seek and accept intimacy.

If your caregiver was unreliable, unavailable, cold, or otherwise unstable, chances are your attachment style is somewhere on the spectrum of Anxious or Avoidant. When you approached your caregiver with your needs they may have responded with anger or avoided you entirely, teaching you that you shouldn’t expect support even from your closest relationships. You either desperately crave the intimacy you never experienced as a child, or shun it as an unfamiliar and untrustworthy aspect of your relationships. In both cases, trusting others seems daunting since this behavior has not been appropriately rewarded in the past.

If you think you fall into the Anxious or Avoidant Attachment Style categories, don’t get discouraged! No matter what your attachment style is, you can still build successful, healthy relationships with the right people. Read on to learn about the key success points of any stable relationship.

How can I work with my style and build healthy relationships based on trust?

Practice Open, Honest Communication

As in many aspects of our lives, being honest about our feelings with others can help to set expectations and reduce anxiety around relationships. Having a few conversations with trusted friends can set them up to best support you, and give you practice in recognizing and redirecting negative thoughts and behavior that may stem from your attachment style.

Identify Relationship Patterns

Do some post-mortem on your last few relationships - notice any patterns? Do you (unsuccessfully) date the same type of person over and over? Do multiple partners or friends cite the same reasons when they break things off with you? If the same challenges or behaviors come up time and again, they may be worth analyzing to see if they come from your particular attachment style. For example, if you tend to get stuck on the perfect person and struggle to accept relationships with good people who can’t measure up to your fantasy, you may be influenced by an Avoidant attachment style. Or, if you find yourself catastrophizing every disagreement with a loved one as the potential end to a relationship, you may be influenced by an Anxious attachment style. Being aware of these patterns can help you recognize reflexive behavior that undermines your happiness, and preemptively reduce that behavior.

Challenge Cognitive Distortions

In other words, think like a Secure person. This is much easier said than done but it relies on disrupting a basic assumption that, once flipped, could make a huge difference in the way you relate to others. Secure people don’t have superior judgment to you and they don’t magically get along better with other people than you. They simply are free from the cognitive distortions that keep an Anxious or Avoidant person trapped in their cycle of relationship killing behavior. Of course Secure people get tricked and betrayed just like the rest of us, but because they don’t expect people to treat them that way, they’re better at recognizing toxic people and avoiding them, and they react in a healthy way to good behavior. Anxious and Avoidant people expect others to behave badly so they normalize bad behavior and never seek something better, or they’re incapable of recognizing the good when it comes their way.

Recommended Reading

If you want to learn more about Attachment Styles and how they impact relationships we recommend reading Attached by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.