The Truth About Attachment Styles, From A Therapist

- Relationships -
The Truth About Attachment Styles, From A Therapist

"Oh, he's anxiously attached, and I've worked really hard to be securely attached, so that's not gonna work." That's an actual quote I heard in a bathroom in midtown Manhattan. I realized at that moment that attachment theory had been pop-culturalized. What once was a psychological theory that only mental health professionals were aware of is now in the awareness of millions of people due to TikTok and other social media platforms. Now, this isn't always a bad thing, but... it’s time we do some clarifying.

Like the 5 Love Languages, attachment theory is more extensive than can be explained in 60 seconds. It has more nuance than what can be described in one social media post or even one article. For context, I had a whole half of a semester of my Master's program learning about attachment theory.

The theory was first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s and 1960s and stated that a person's attachment style is developed in early childhood (as young as seven months old) in response to our relationships with our earliest caregivers. As time went on, even more researchers began studying attachment theory. For example, in the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver began to apply Ainsworth and Bowlby's attachment theory to adult romantic relationships — which gave birth to the concept of the adult attachment styles we know today.

Here's the thing:

  • Just because your attachment style isn't secure doesn't mean you can't shift your behaviors towards being securely attached.
  • There is no "better" or "worse" attachment style. While secure attachment is ideal, it's not the only way to have "successful" relationships.
  • After a lot of studies, most psychologists have agreed that "attachment styles in the child-parent domain and attachment styles in the romantic relationship domain are only moderately related at best," Chris Fraley, Ph.D. writes in a University of Illinois article.
  • Your attachment style is YOURS. It doesn’t change based on the other person you’re in relationship with.

Attachment Styles vs. Attachment Disorders

Attachment styles are specific ways we relate to others in relationships that result from the bonds (or lack of) that we make in early childhood with our caretakers. There are four primary attachment styles for adults: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant (aka disorganized). According to Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, our attachment style includes how we respond emotionally to others and our behaviors and interactions with them.

Attachment disorders are the psychological result of significant social neglect — they’re mood or behavioral disorders that affect a person's ability to form and maintain relationships. Social neglect is defined as not having enough social and emotional caregiving during childhood, which prevents bonds from being built. Formerly considered one diagnosis, the fifth version of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has two attachment-related disorders: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED).

That was a lot of psychology talk, but the main takeaways here are:

  1. Attachment styles are not in the DSM and are not diagnosable.
  2. We all have an attachment style. We don't all have attachment disorders.

The concept of attachment styles has endured and gained popularity over time for a reason: It helps give folks language to describe the unique ways they show up in their relationships. It can also challenge folks to look to their past experiences to help them understand why they are the way they are — which, overall, is a helpful thing.

The Four Attachment Styles

Please, please remember that your attachment style is here to help inform you how you relate and show up in your relationships. Changing your attachment style isn't the goal — the goal is to understand and use that understanding to help make choices that support how you want to connect and attach to important people in your life. So, if you’re someone who has asked, “How do I switch from anxious to secure attachment,” you’re not going to do that overnight. Still, you can work on understanding what your attachment style is and how you can shift behaviors to lean more toward secure attachment.

1). Secure Attachment: The ability to form loving and secure relationships with others.

Someone securely attached trusts others, is trustworthy, loves others and accepts love from others, and can pretty easily get close to others. A securely attached person isn't afraid of intimacy — and they don't freak out if their partner(s) need space or time away. Plus, they can depend on others without being dependent. Additionally, securely attached folks are typically in touch with their feelings. Sounds pretty great, huh? Research shows that approximately 56% of adults have a secure attachment style.

Caregivers or parents of kiddos who develop secure attachment are typically available, accepting, responsive, and sensitive to their needs. They pick them up, play with them and reassure them when it's needed, creating a safe space for the kiddo to learn that they can express any emotion and someone will be there to support or help them.

2.) Anxious Attachment: Fear. Of. Abandonment.

This shows that someone feels insecure about their relationships, craving constant validation as evidence that they won't leave. This type of attachment style is associated with neediness or clingy behavior. Research shows that about 19% of adults are anxiously attached.

Caregivers or parents of kiddos who develop anxious attachment respond to needs sporadically, creating a fearful and demanding child, trying to build consistency in their caregiver's response. There's a lack of predictability, which manifests into a fear of abandonment as an adult. It makes sense, right?

"Clingy children may grow into clingy adults," Rhona Lewis from Healthline reports about anxious attachment. She continues, "…[they] are more likely to become demanding and possessive in relationships and even codependent. They're constantly second-guessing whether they've done too much — or too little — for their relationship."

3.) Avoidant Attachment: This form of insecure attachment is characterized by a fear of intimacy — emotionally and/or physically.

Folks with this attachment style have trouble getting close and trusting others, and often, relationships can make them feel "suffocated." This person prefers to be independent and rely on themselves, and themselves only — as protection of not becoming "too intimate." About 25% of adults have an avoidant attachment style.

Often, folks with this attachment style will have caregivers who had trouble accepting and responding sensitively to their needs. Instead, they minimized feelings, rejected demands, and didn't show up to help with complex tasks or situations. In some cases, the child is expected to help the parent with their own needs.

Have you ever met someone who won't commit or invest themselves into relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or otherwise? That's most likely an avoidant attachment style at play.

4.) Fearful-Avoidance aka Disorganized-Insecure Attachment: It's complicated.

This complex attachment style is a combination of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles — which makes this person want affection badly and want to avoid it. They crave being loved by others but are hesitant to form close romantic relationships. Generally, folks with this attachment style also struggle with emotional regulation.

While the first three attachment styles are considered "organized" because the child learns how to behave and then "organizes" their strategy accordingly. But, with this style, a child's strategy is disorganized, and so is the behavior that follows it. Someone who develops this style typically has a caregiver that rejects, ridicules, or even frightens them as a child. In response, the child becomes aggressive towards their caregiver/parent, refuses care, or simply becomes incredibly self-reliant.

Am I stuck with my attachment style because of my parents/caregivers?

Short answer, no.

While Bowly believed that the attachment style you develop in childhood stays with you for life, more recent research suggests that having awareness and utilizing certain types of psychotherapy can lead to significant changes in your attachment style. (YAY, THERAPY!)

Dr. Diane Poole Heller, who has done tons of research around this area, says, "we are fundamentally designed to heal, even if our childhood is less than ideal. Our secure attachment system is biologically programmed in us. So it is our job to find out what's interfering with it so that we can become more secure individuals or create tendencies to become more dominant in our life and in our relationships."

Once you understand your attachment style, you can notice your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding it and how it shows up in your relationships. Then, you can have a conversation with your partner(s) and other important people in your life about your attachment styles and how they may be interacting.

Knowing and understanding your attachment style can feel like a massive answer to many complex questions about ourselves. For example, if you have an anxious attachment style and typically drive partners away, learning why you inherently feel that way can help relieve a lot of shame.

Conversely, you may feel a lot of shame around knowing you have an insecure attachment style. Taking the time to be kind to yourself, noticing how you may be feeling or reacting in your relationships without judgment, and getting curious about the “why’s” can help you build a deeper understanding of how your attachment style functions in your relationships.

That understanding can give you the knowledge (and power) to focus on more effective coping mechanisms and communication tools instead of feeling like "the problem" in your relationships.

Here's another example — suppose you are someone with an avoidant attachment style and constantly run away from intimacy. In that case, it's helpful to understand why you do that so you can voice to partners, "I am feeling the urge to run away from this conversation right now. Can you be patient with me while I process these emotions?"

Knowing and understanding — without judgment — why we react the way we do, lets us nurture our inner child by letting ourselves feel our feelings and ask for what we need in a respectful, kind and secure way.

Photo by: Polina Tankilevitch /Pexels

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