Attachment Styles in Relationships
Hey baby. What’s your attachment style?
That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you.
Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so.
But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.
When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space.
This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day?
I wrote this article to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them.
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first. You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Attachment Styles in Relationships
Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout.
Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.
But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships.
Adult Relationship Attachment Styles
The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center.
With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles:
Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.
Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them (and because anxious partners often choose partners with avoidant attachment styles, their worries aren’t entirely unfounded). They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.”
Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length. Learn about how to heal an avoidant attachment style.
Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood.
Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static
Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship.
Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve.
This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners.
If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help.
Attachment Issues in Adults
When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.
But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences.
Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires.
Attachment Styles In Relationships
If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful.
And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.]
I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.
Episode Show Notes:
[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships
- Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
- There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant.
- None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal.
[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?
- People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
- Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
- There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.
[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles
- Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
- Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment.
- If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.
[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults
- Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
- Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
- Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.
[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.
- It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
- Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.
Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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