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What is an Attachment Style?

An Attachment Style is the specific way that someone relates to other people in relationships. According to attachment theory, which was first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment styles are formed at the very beginning of life, and once established, tend to stay with you throughout your life.

Our attachment style as adults are thought to mirror the dynamics we had with our caregivers as infants and children. They show up in our daily lives in how we respond emotionally to people, and often dictate our behaviors and interactions with them in a variety of relationship scenarios.

What are the Different Types of Attachment Styles?

There are four distinct adult attachment styles, and each differs regarding closeness, dependency, avoidance, and anxiety.

Secure Attachment
Secure attachments are low on avoidance and low on anxiety. People with secure attachment are comfortable with intimacy, not worried about rejection, and are not preoccupied with their relationships. A person with secure attachment may say something like “It is easy for me to get close to others, and
I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”

Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachments are low on avoidance and high on anxiety. People with anxious attachments crave closeness and intimacy and are very insecure about their relationships. A person with anxious attachments may speak about themselves by saying “I want to be extremely emotionally close with others, but they are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t love or value me and will abandon me. My inordinate need for closeness scares people away.”

Avoidant Attachment
Avoidant attachments are high on avoidance and low on anxiety. People with avoidant attachment are uncomfortable with closeness and primarily value independence and freedom. They are not worried about their partner’s availability. Someone with avoidant attachment may speak of themselves by saying something like “I am uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust and depend on others and prefer that others do not depend on me. It is very important that I feel independent and self-sufficient. People want me to be more intimate than I am comfortable being.”

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
Fearful-avoidant attachment is high on avoidance and high on anxiety. People with fearful-avoidant attachment are uncomfortable with intimacy and worried about their partner’s commitment and love. A person with fearful-avoidant attachment is prone to saying things like “I am uncomfortable getting close to others, and find it difficult to trust and depend on them. I worry I will be hurt if I get close to anyone.”

How Attachment Styles are Formed

Attachment styles are developed in infancy based on our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Researchers believe that an attachment style is formed within our first year of living, and usually occurs between 7 to 11 months of age. It is thought that each attachment style comes from a different style of parenting:

  • A Secure Attachment style forms when a child’s caregivers meet their needs, and are emotionally and physically available to them.
  • An Anxious Attachment style is due to inconsistent parenting and a lack of rapport between infant and caregiver.
  • An Avoidant Attachment style comes from parents who are strict and emotionally distant, who do not tolerate the expression of feelings, and who expect their child to be independent and tough.
  • A Fearful-Avoidant Attachment is often seen in people who have been physically, verbally, or sexually abused in their childhood.

How Attachment Styles Can Affect You

Each of the “insecure” attachment styles, comes with its own specific challenges for communicating and compatibility:

Anxious Attachment – People with this attachment style tend to suffer from low self-esteem, a strong fear of rejection or abandonment, and clinginess in relationships.

Avoidant Attachment – Adults with this attachment style appear confident and self-sufficient, but they often have trouble with emotional or physical intimacy, and building healthy relationships.

Fearful-Avoidant – In adulthood, people with this attachment style are extremely inconsistent in their behavior and have a hard time trusting others. These individuals could suffer from other mental health issues, such as substance abuse, depression, or borderline personality disorder.

Though these are distinct styles, it is common for adults to have a combination of traits rather than fit neatly into one attachment style.

Can Attachment Styles Be Changed?

Although effort is required, individuals with attachment issues can develop a secure attachment style over time, however those suffering from the most sever attachment styles may find the process the most challenging.

Seeking Therapy for Attachment Issues

Attachment therapy is usually a brief, process-oriented form of psychological counseling where the client-therapist relationship is used to build or rebuild a trusting, supportive relationship that will help prevent or treat any underlying anxiety or depression. An attachment-based approach can be used in individual, family, couple, and group therapy, with both children and adults.