Knowing your attachment style helps you navigate your relationships more easily and to understand yourself and others better and learn how to develop healthier attachments. Recognizing which attachment style you’re leaning toward can move you to greater satisfaction in your relationships.
Explaining the attachment theory
Attachment goes back many years. Newborns bond with their mothers through skin-to-skin contact, being held, nurtured, and through the feeding of breastmilk here the infant is instantly dependent on its mother. And should a child go to another caregiver, there will be an attachment to that person.
While attachment and dependency are a given here, it’s not the only attachment the child will form. We form attachments mainly with our caregivers but also with romantic partners and friends. Our attachment style shows up in the workplace too, although not as strongly.
Different attachment styles
The three main attachment styles are: secure, anxious, and avoidant. After the fourth style was added in the late 20th century, the avoidant was split into two: dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.
As a child, you are dependent on your caregivers for your survival. This can be your mother, father, grandparents, etc. depending on who raised you. You not only need them to physically care for you but also emotionally. This is where the attachment style first takes shape.
If your needs are being met by both the physical presence of your caregiver and through emotional acknowledgment and support, you tend to form a secure attachment style. In this case, you can rely on your parent or other to be there for you emotionally and physically. You are confident to explore your surroundings without fear, feeling safe and trusting.
The anxious attachment style develops when you experience emotional and/or physical neglect. If your caregiver is inconsistent with their emotional and physical response to your needs, you learn that it’s not as safe to trust the person you are attached to and your surroundings. Hence, you become anxious about your needs being met, afraid that they won’t.
If your caregiver acts distant, is unresponsive to your needs, emotionally or/and physically unavailable, an avoidant attachment style can be formed. You learn that it is not safe to get close and to get attached so you stop trying to reach for intimacy.
Attachment in adulthood and changing attachment styles
Your attachment style is affected by your relationships throughout your life, not only by those in childhood. Therefore, your relationships during your teenage years and your adulthood can move you from one attachment style to another, or intensify the one you already have.
If you, for example, have a secure attachment style and get into a relationship later on in life with a partner who is not responsive to your needs, your attachment style can change. If that person neglects you physically or emotionally, your need for intimacy isn’t fulfilled. Going further, if you experience abuse of any kind, gaslighting, or/and manipulation, this can create trauma.
This wound can affect how you relate to others and your view on relationships, as well as on yourself. Usually, those who have a secure attachment style are less likely to fall into destructive relationship patterns, however, finding yourself in a harmful partnership can happen to many of us. Even those with a secure attachment style.
On a positive note, this means that you can also go from having an anxious or avoidant attachment style and move into a secure one. It’s common that people who are anxious about relationships to meet a partner with a secure attachment style and form a beautiful, intimate relationship. The same goes with an avoidant attachment where the right partner can help decrease your fear of intimacy and move into safety.
The goal is the same for all categories: to feel safe.
Understanding the anxious attachment style
For a person with an anxious attachment style, dating and relationships can be exhausting. With a constant need for reassurance, worries, obsessive thoughts, and the fear of losing the bond, the worry often takes over the joy. You might experience many highs and lows in mood, constantly being on edge, and difficulty concentrating on anything other than your relationship.
What happens is that the attachment system in your brain is highly sensitive. This means that you are more receptive to subtle queues when things are not going well or when your partner or friend is distant. As the fear of losing the relationship is strong, you need a lot of reassurance to feel at peace and secure. Only then can you go back to a normal, secure state.
Understanding the avoidant attachment style
There are two categories that fit into this style: dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. The first one is highly independent and doesn’t want any intimacy and is extremely independent. He or she doesn’t seek intimacy and usually has a lot of short-lived relationships without too much closeness. They are often seen as free spirits. Having their freedom taken away is one of their biggest fears and having an intimate relationship threatens that freedom.
The second category relates to someone who wants to have deep, intimate relationships but is scared of getting close. This causes a lot of back and forth and a rollercoaster in behaviour, affection, and emotion. The constant dilemma is fueled by the fear of getting close and then being abandoned. An anxious-avoidant person finds it difficult to often regulate emotions which can cause more fights, conflicts, and tension.
Understanding the secure attachment style
When you have a secure attachment style, you feel safe in the world. You feel safe with others and have no problems sharing your feelings. You are comfortable with intimacy and you can act lovingly toward others. You see that relationships bring good things and are happy to form romantic relationships, friendships, and relationships with co-workers. It is also easier for you to communicate and be honest, and you can work through conflict in a mature and loving manner.
Activating and deactivating strategies to avoid or bring back the closeness
Both the anxious and avoidant have activating and deactivating strategies. Someone with an anxious attachment style often turns to protest behaviour. This includes silent treatment, keeping score (words and actions of love, etc.), not replying to messages and phone calls (especially if feeling ignored prior), and going to bars with single friends to evoke jealousy, etc.
The main purpose of this is to establish contact and get a reaction from the other person as a reassurance that the other person still loves them. Communicating straightforwardly does not come easy for a person with an anxious attachment style as the fear of losing the other and the relationship takes over much of the logical thinking. It is mainly survival.
For the avoidant, deactivating strategies can look like not responding to calls or messages, or checking out mentally, emotionally, and/or physically. Keeping secrets, pulling away when the relationship is going well, flirting with clothes, refusing to say “I love you” and expressing feelings for the other.
As you can see, in both cases, it becomes more challenging to establish true intimacy.
Dependency on other people – a biological fact
As soon as you form an attachment with a partner or a friend, you automatically develop a dependency on that person. In a romantic relationship, you affect each other’s biology. You regulate each other’s blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and the level of hormones in the body. Your partner affects your emotional well-being and theirs. In friendships, dependency is usually not as high but still a part of the relationship.
Avoiding dependency might seem like the right answer but it also robs you of the feelings of true intimacy and beautiful love. Walking through life with someone is a more joyful experience, even if you are already happy on your own. In fact, the “dependency paradox” shows exactly that.
Studies have been made both with children and infants, as well as adults, showing dependency can be beneficial. Knowing that you can depend on your partner, or for children on a caregiver, gives you the confidence to be even more independent. The studies showed that people are more likely to accomplish their goals when having a supportive and dependable partner. Your self-esteem tends to increase and you feel more confident to go after your goals.
Knowing this might help people with an avoidant attachment style realize that having an intimate relationship is often to their benefit. It can lead to even more freedom, accomplishment, and benefits for one’s health and mental and emotional well-being.
There is a healthy level of anxiety and anticipation in all relationships
There is a healthy level of anxiety when you start dating which is important to note. It’s new and exciting and anticipation and thinking about the other person is a part of dating. In friendships, you wish to see the other person and share intimate moments with them. Although the nature of these two looks slightly different, in both cases there is some sort of closeness needed for the relationship to proceed.
Healing, working on self-esteem, and engaging in the right kind of relationships
Having an anxious attachment style can cause a lot of strain on relationships, especially if the other person has a different style. The anxious-avoidant dynamic is very common and is also often toxic. Can a relationship work between anxious and avoidants? It can. If you are both willing to communicate honestly and work on healing, making sure that you are attentive to each other’s needs, it requires work, but it can be done.
If you find yourself fitting the anxious category, remember that this can be changed. Take your time getting to know a person before going into a relationship. You can use your vigilance to your advantage since you can see queues, hence also red flags, more easily. Taking your time before entering intimate relationships will help start breaking a destructive pattern and decrease attachment anxiety. Not being rash in decisions and assuming the worst, waiting before reacting, is highly beneficial for the person with an anxious attachment style.
In friendships, communicate your needs. Practising healthy communication is equally as important here. As in any relationship, we need to first realize what it is that we long for and what we need to feel safe and happy. We also need to be sensitive to the other person’s needs.
The bottom line is that your attachment style affects your life in big ways. It determines a lot of how you interact with the world and what kind of relationships you have. Learning which attachment style you have and realizing that it can change with the right people, personal work, and the environment, will help you have healthier and happier relationships.
You can be a mix of secure-anxious and avoidant-secure. You can’t always be put into a box, and the attachment style can change. To get closer to the relationships you want, work on healing your past wounds and traumas, your self-esteem, and self-love.
A lot of the research for this article is based on the book “Attached – The new science of Adult Attachment and How it can Help You Find and Keep Love” by Dr. Amir Levine MD and Rachel Heller.