What Are the 4 Attachment Styles?

And how do they impact relationships?

Couple holding hands and talking while walking on city street

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With or without the help of a great marriage counselor, there’s no shortage of ways to work on bettering your understanding of the role your own experiences play in the ups and downs of your relationships. One of the most talked about methods these days is attachment theory. Though the study of emotional bonding has roots in childhood development, it is often used to help adults—particularly those in romantic relationships—understand why they act the way they do with their partners. 

Attachment styles are set up for us early on before we’re really conscious that anything might be happening, and then we take those expectations with us throughout our lives,” says Lindsey Hoskins, Ph.D., and licensed couple and family therapist. “We see a lot of similarities between the way parent-child relationships operate and the way that intimate relationships operate.”

Meet the Expert

Lindsey Hoskins, Ph.D., is a licensed couple and family therapist and the founder, president, and principal therapist at Lindsey Hoskins & Associates. Her practice is based in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Beginning with British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the mid-1900s, decades of research has been conducted to further understand attachment theory. Read on to learn more about the concept, including the four attachment styles, how these attachment styles impact relationships, and what you can do to change your attachment style. 

What Is Attachment Theory? 

Bowlby’s research began with a seemingly simple quest: He wanted to understand why babies become upset when they are separated from their caregivers. “Bowlby noticed that, across different mammal species, when a parent leaves the immediate proximity of a child and the child can’t see or hear the parent or know that they’re nearby the infant tends to experience some sort of distress,” explains  Hoskins. Because these behaviors were not just confined to human babies, Bowlby concluded that the reaction must serve some sort of evolutionary purpose, and thus be innate to human existence, rather than an entirely learned behavior. 

Bowlby theorized that there is a primary attachment figure—sometimes more than one, in the case of human infants—and that figure provides all the things an infant who is incapable of surviving on its own needs to survive and feel safe (protection, support, care, nourishment, etc.). “Evolutionarily, infants who are successful in maintaining a close relationship with their primary attachment figure are more likely to survive, and infants who aren’t able to do that are less likely to survive,” Hoskins adds. Ergo: Attachment bonds are a Darwinian necessity. 

As the years progressed, psychologists Mary Ainsworth and Harry Harlow expanded on this research, looking into ways caregiving styles and practices impact the development of attachment. “If we’re socialized in childhood to believe that our parents are reliable, we’re safe, and our needs will be met if we express them, then we will believe that as adults,” explains Hoskins. “But if we’re socialized as children to believe that parents are unreliable or are going to shame us for expressing feelings, then we’ll take those expectations with us into our adult relationships.” 

This research eventually culminated in the articulation of four attachment styles, which are the direct result of, and often explained by, early child-caregiver relationships.

What Are the Four Attachment Styles? 

Secure Attachment Style 

“Secure is the healthy attachment style,” says Hoskins. “The others are unhealthy in different ways.”  In secure scenarios, a child perceives their parent or caregiver as attentive, responsive, loving and reliable. “The child can receive reassurance and validation from the parent without any conflicting messages, and this leads a child to feel safe, comforted, and valued,” Hoskins goes on to add. Parents who demonstrate this behavior most likely developed in secure scenarios themselves.

Avoidant Attachment Style 

Sometimes called dismissive-avoidant or anxious-avoidant, this attachment style results from a parent-child relationship where the child was often left to fend for themselves. “They're expected to be more independent than is developmentally appropriate for their age, and they're sometimes reprimanded for behaviors that the parent perceives as needy or dependent,” says Hoskins. In these scenarios, parents are often neglectful, disinterested, or busy focusing on other things. Parenting styles that prioritize performance metrics (grades, success in athletics, physical beauty, etc.) over how a child feels can also result in an avoidant attachment style.

Anxious Attachment Style 

The anxious attachment style results from parent-child relationships where the parent's responses are inconsistent. Sometimes needs are met, and other times they are ignored, with no real discernible logic for why. “This creates an inability to predict what’s going to happen when a need exists,” says Hoskins. “Since children thrive on stability and predictability, these inconsistent responses are very confusing and destabilizing.”

Disorganized Attachment Style 

Sometimes referred to as fearful-avoidant, this rarer and more recently articulated attachment style occurs when very intense negative experiences (trauma, abuse, neglect) occur in childhood. “Children may experience fear of their parents, which is confusing because it’s counter to the instinct that a parent should be a safe and trusted presence,” says Hoskins. The duality of fear and comfort in the caretaker can lead to very chaotic, or disorganized, behaviors.

 How Do Attachment Styles Impact Relationships? 

Below, Hoskins breaks down the characteristics of people with each of the four attachment styles–and identifies how these characteristics may positively or negatively impact a relationship.

Secure Attachment Style 

  • Good at identifying, articulating, and regulating emotions
  • Regular communication of love and commitment 
  • Prioritizes making their partner feel valued
  • Able to ask for support and look for support from appropriate resources
  • A healthy level of self-esteem 
  • Not often jealous 
  • High levels of trust 
  • Tends to seek out partners who also exhibit the secure attachment style

Avoidant Attachment Style 

  • Consistently avoids intimacy (both physical and emotional)
  • Focused on independence
  • Uncomfortable expressing feelings
  • Dismissive of others and their feelings or needs
  • Difficulty trusting others 
  • High need for alone time, might describe themselves as introverted 
  • Commitment challenges 
  • Often creates and maintains a lot of distance in relationships 
  • Doesn’t form lasting relationships and might be a “serial monogamist
  • May engage in stonewalling or dismissiveness when the relationship starts to feel too serious 

Anxious Attachment Style 

  • Often clingy
  • Highly sensitive to criticism, whether real or perceived 
  • Often finds it hard to be alone 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Requires constant feedback, validation, and reassurance 
  • Fear of rejection and abandonment 
  • Feels unworthy of love or a healthy relationship 
  • High need for the approval of others 
  • Problems with jealousy and mistrust 
  • Commonly develops a co-dependent relationship
  • Often seeks out avoidant attachment style and vice versa

Disorganized Attachment Style 

  • Mix of avoidant and anxious attachment styles
  • Intense fear of rejection 
  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • Will often exhibit contradictory behavior or send mixed messages in relationships
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Difficulty trusting others 
  • May suffer from mood disorders, personality disorders, or other mental health challenges
  • May exhibit substance abuse or self-harm issues

How to Find Your Attachment Style 

Per Hoskins, exploring attachment styles within the confines of a relationship is “healthy and productive to do together as long as both people want to do it,” but pretty much all individuals will benefit from doing the work on themselves. “Thinking about early life experiences with your parents and what that might have in common with the experiences you’re having in adult romantic relationships can be really edifying,” she adds. “It’s a good opportunity to learn about yourself.” 

To find  your attachment style, Hoskins encourages paying careful attention to your emotional experience within relationships. What do you enjoy? What do you worry about? What are consistent problems, criticisms, or destructive behaviors? Asking yourself questions like these, and perusing the above descriptions, will help you understand the manner in which you form connections.

You Can Change Your Attachment Style 

“One of the reasons why we’ve spent so much time researching this is that it is changeable, and there are ways to improve one’s experience of relationships,” says Hoskins. People with avoidant or anxious attachment styles can become more secure as the result of a relationship with someone with a secure attachment style, but the reverse is also true—attachment styles can also change for the worse if your experiences are not consistent with your expectations. 

“There are also a lot of things you can work on at the individual level to create secure attachments,” Hoskins adds. Processing trauma, building self-esteem, practicing assertiveness and self-acceptance, identifying triggers, learning to self-soothe, and increasing conflict resolution skills are all ways to reach a higher level of relationship security.

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