Jenna Peterson, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, couples therapist, premarital counselor, therapist and life coach at Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She has a friendly, light style, and uses effective, evidence-based techniques to help you achieve your most important goals for your life and your relationships.
What Are Attachment Styles? Why Do They Matter?
Attachment styles impact the way you “do” relationships. Do you tend to push your partner away when it gets emotional? Do you get anxious when your partner walks away from an argument? Do you do both? There are four different patterns of adult attachment styles that start in childhood and continue into our adult relationships. Take this mini attachment style quiz to find out which one you are — and how to manage it!
Attachment theory, based on the research of John Bowlby, began as a way to understand children and the different bonds they form with their caregivers as “patterns of attachment.”
However, we now understand that attachment styles show up in adult relationships as well and can have a negative effect on a relationship if not understood and attended to appropriately. As a marriage counselor and couples therapist, I often keep attachment styles in mind as I'm working with couples eager to improve their relationships.
The Four Attachment Styles. (Which are you?)
Secure Attachment Style
Those with secure attachment tend to have the ability to trust and feel trusted by their partner with ease. They view their partner as their “secure base” and tend to feel comforted in an intimate relationship. In romantic relationships, they can express themselves and their feelings. A securely attached person is also likely to be self-aware and have an understanding for what triggers them. Additionally, they have empathy for others too.
Paradoxically, a secure attachment style makes it easier to have space in a romantic relationship. A person with secure attachment can be left alone by their partner for a period of time without feeling abandoned. Or if they do feel anxious or concerned, they talk about their feelings openly (and appropriately).
Though securely attached people seek to get to resolutions when problems occur, that doesn’t mean they don’t argue with loved ones. People with this attachment style may get angry and frustrated with their partner, but they try to resolve issues with their partner’s needs in mind. They also tend to calm down more quickly after conflict.
At the core of a secure attachment style is self-love. [More on this topic, read: “What is self-love?”]
Avoidant Attachment Style
People with avoidant attachment usually prefer to not argue at all and may walk away from conflict, rather than engage. Shutting down and becoming silent can be common for people with this attachment style.
Even though people with an avoidant attachment style may seem like they don't care, the truth is that they often feel threatened and overwhelmed in emotionally intimate situations. Therefore, they may distance themselves emotionally from others and withdraw once a situation requires vulnerability.
Though people with avoidant attachment styles may long for closeness and intimacy with their partner, the urge to protect themselves and avoid feeling painful emotions become the ultimate motive for their behavior.
Anxious Attachment Style
An anxious attachment style usually involves a person who deeply desires closeness with their partner in order to soothe the anxiety that distance creates. People with anxious attachment styles often make bids for attention and connection (which is good!) but sometimes to the point where they may be perceived as “needy” in romantic relationships.
A person with an anxious attachment style may become insecure and jealous of their partner if they perceive that they're not getting what they need, particularly around emotional support. They may feel fearful when their partner leaves for extended lengths of time. Although they desire closeness and connection, their attempts to communicate their pain may be perceived as angry or even hostile by their partner. [Check out, “Getting Anger Under Control”]
Unfortunately, because people with insecure attachment styles tend to worry and struggle with trust, they may accuse their partner of inappropriate behavior, with or without evidence. People with this style may feel as if they show their partner love far more than they get in return.
Disorganized Attachment Style
Disorganized attachment tends to have a mixture of avoidant and anxious attachment styles (it's also known as “fearful avoidant” attachment). People with this attachment style often pull their partner in, but when they start to feel vulnerable, shut their partner down.
It is difficult for a person with a disorganized attachment style to feel secure in a relationship, sometimes even when their partner is supportive and caring. A disorganized attachment style may demand attention and intimacy from their partner, then withdraw and shut down once they receive it.
Though it can be challenging, it may help to understand that people's attachment styles are rooted in early childhood experiences. Keeping this in mind may help you to have empathy for your partner' attachment style.
What is Your Attachment Style? What is Your Partner's Attachment Style?
In reading through these attachment style descriptions (aka, our mini attachment style quiz), you may have noticed already that you have one attachment style and your partner has a different one. That is very common! As a couples therapist and marriage counselor, I often work with couples with different attachment styles. I know this can make understanding and communicating with one another all the more difficult, but it's a solvable problem.
Different Attachment Styles in a Relationship: Tips For Bridging The Gap
- Strategy 1: Express Yourself – Do you know what your partner needs from you in order to feel fulfilled and supported? Have you told your partner what you need? If not, that’s a great place to start. Sit down together with some paper or a whiteboard and write down what each of you need.
- For instance an example might be, “I’d like you to tell me I look nice, or compliment my appearance more often.” Or, “I’d like you to initiate sex more frequently.” The more specific you can be, the better!
- If things start getting tense, take a cool down and come back to the list when you feel calm. If you can hear what your partner needs from the relationship you can better understand how your attachment styles are coming into play!
- Strategy 2: Recognize Your Attachment Style – Start to notice what attachment style you are and when it comes up. When it does, explore it!
- Did I just walk away from a fight? What made me walk away? What would I have needed to stay in the room and continue the conversation?
- Or, when do I feel most anxious about my partner? Why am I so upset when I don’t hear back from my partner for a few hours? What could my partner do to make me feel more secure in this moment?
- Strategy 3: Be Understanding of Each Other – If your partner has a different style than you, that's okay! Just because your partner has a different attachment style doesn't make them wrong or unfeeling, just different. Having empathy for your partner's truth goes a long way in creating an emotionally safe relationship. Also, be compassionate with yourself if your own attachment style comes out negatively. Don’t beat yourself up if you continue old attachment style patterns. Just use it as a learning experience and try your best to communicate your needs, even when it’s hard.
(FREE ADVICE FROM A MARRIAGE COUNSELOR: Before you do any of these exercises, each partner has to agree not to get defensive, and do their best to hear what their partner needs. This isn’t a time to list grievances and tell the other what they’re doing wrong, but to tell your partner directly how they can make the relationship even better for you. If you try to have this conversation and it disintegrates into a fight, this could be a sign that it's time to see a professional couples counselor.)
If you try these strategies you may have an easier time understanding your partner and also yourself. By paying attention to how attachment styles come up in your life, you can increase your overall awareness and more easily replace old patterns with new ones, keeping your partner’s needs in mind.
Over time, as you both work on empathy, responsiveness, and taking ownership of the way you show up in your relationship, you can create a safe, secure attachment that feels good for both of you.