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Attachment Styles Theory: 4 Types and 19 Signs & Ways You Attach To Others

If you have noticed that you have the same relationship patterns, then it might be due to your attachment style. Here’s what you need to know.

attachment styles theory

Most of us thought that how we pick a partner has to do with connection and physical attraction, which isn’t wrong. These are also factors in how we choose our partners. However, our attachment styles are also another huge factor!

Attachment theory and research by Bowlby

Bowlby’s attachment theory is a psychological approach to emotional attachment styles. It was created by John Bowlby in the 1950s, who researched attachment by looking at the effects of separation between infants and their parents.

He thought that the extreme behavior that infants have when they are separated from their parents as part of evolution. When babies cry, scream, and cling to their parents, he thought that enhanced their chances of survival.

They believed that a person’s attachment behaviors are instinctual responses to the possibility of losing a survival advantage that comes with being cared for by a parent.

He thought that infants who engaged in these kinds of behaviors were more likely to survive. And these instincts were part of natural selection and have been reinforced through the generations.

These behaviors are what Dr. Bowlby calls the “attachment behavioral system.” This system guides people in their patterns and habits of forming and maintaining relationships. [Read: Overly attached boyfriend – 28 signs, why he’s hooked, and how to fix him]

It makes sense that a child’s attachment needs is related to the caregiving the child receives in their early years. The infants and children who received love and support from their parents are much more likely to be secure.

However, the ones who experienced neglect or inconsistency would feel a lot of attachment anxiety in their relationship with their parents, and then later with other people in their lives. [Read: The fear of losing someone you love – Why you feel it and how to overcome it]

What is Ainsworth assessment?

Most emotional attachment research uses infants and young children in their studies. And Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist, created an assessment technique derived from the attachment theory of Bowlby called the Strange Situation Classification. The goal of this is to figure out how attachments might vary between children.

Dr. Ainsworth studied the security of attachment in one and two-year-olds using this Strange Situation paradigm. She wanted to determine the nature of attachment behaviors and styles of attachment. [Read: Love vs. attachment – is there a vital difference between the two?]

So, she conducted experiments to observe the different attachment forms between a mother and her infant. The studies were set up in a room with one-way glass so the behavior of the babies can be observed without it being known. 

The Strange Situation procedure observed the infants’ behavior in eight different episodes that were around three minutes each. Here is how they looked at it;

-Mother, baby, and researcher 

-Mother and baby alone

-A stranger joins the mother and infant

-Mother leaves baby and stranger alone

-Then the mother returns and the stranger leaves

-Next, the mother leaves and the infant is left all alone

-Stranger returns

-Finally, the mother returns and the stranger leaves

After all of these procedures were complete, the baby was scored based on their behavior. They scored the infants based on for factors:

-How close the baby is and how much it wanted contact with the mother

-How well the baby maintained contact and wanted to be close to the mother or stranger

-Resisting contact and being close with the stranger or mother

The results of this study resulted in classifying four primary attachment styles that were present in the infants. But it is theorized that people carry these styles into their adulthood as well!

[Read: How an avoidant attachment style could doom your relationship]

What is attachment style?

These attachment styles develop from childhood, it’s how we respond to relationships, and what we do when we’re hurt, feeling threatened, or abandoned.

You may have thought that your relationship throughout childhood with your mom or dad isn’t an influencing factor in your future relationships with others, but they really are important.

How does attachment theory work?

Attachment is a natural thing that follows us through life. It helps us to feel safe and comfortable with a particular person, and it allows us to give and receive love freely. The attachment theory also states that there are four characteristics that follow firm attachment.

This usually begins when we’re babies, but sometimes, the attachment styles can also be molded when we were children, and still depended on our caregivers to provide for us and take care of us.

The first is a need to be near people that we form an attachment to.

The second is needing to return to that person for comfort or a sense of safety when things get rough.

Thirdly, the person we are attached to, helps to give us confidence to go out and explore the world, knowing that we have someone we can return to, and they serve as our secure base.

Finally, when we are away from the person we’re attached to, we may become anxious. 

You can see that these are four things which a child certainly goes through when away from their main caregiver. It’s also something we experience when we fall in love and become attached to our romantic partners. 

[Read: Emotional attachment – 25 reasons and signs of healthy and unhealthy love]

How are infant attachment patterns formed?

As we said, attachment styles are strongly influenced by early relationships with a person’s caregivers. But other close relationships can also affect an attachment style. Any significant relationship in someone’s life, such as grandparents, babysitters, siblings, or others, can influence a person’s style. 

Here are the factors that help determine someone’s type of attachment.

[Read: Ambivalent attachment style – is it a recipe for heartbreak?]

1. Neglect and abuse

If a child had parents who were neglectful or abusive, then they will probably be fearful and avoidant of people. The parents are often inconsistent with how they respond to their children. 

They might provide care and comfort sometimes, but at other times, they are the cause of trauma, anxiety, and fear in the children. This confusion contributes to a person having mixed and disorganized attachment behaviors.

2. Responsiveness

If parents are positively responsive to their children’s needs, then a person will feel more secure. On the other hand, if the parents do not respond well to their kids’ needs, then someone might develop avoidant behaviors. [Read: Being raised by narcissists – 18 harmful ways it affects your life]

When children learn that their parents don’t care about their needs, they stop hoping that they will support and care for them. Then they just avoid turning to them at all for anything.

3. Consistency

Parents who are consistent with their caregiving are going to raise children who feel secure in life and in relationships. However, if they are inconsistent with responding to the children’s needs, then the children will likely develop anxious or ambivalent behaviors toward relationships.

The main stages of attachment

The most important thing to come out of Bowlby’s theory was the confirmation that a child has to develop a relationship with one parent or primary caregiver in order to have a normal development route socially and emotionally. 

The main stages of attachment are:

1. Pre-attachment

Starting from birth to around six weeks of age. At this point, a baby shows no preference in terms of their caregiver. 

2. Indiscriminate 

From six weeks up to seven months of age. This is when a child starts to show a preference between caregivers, secondary and primary. 

3. Discriminate 

From seven months upwards, when a child attaches to one person more than everyone else. 

4. Multiple 

From 10 months onwards, a child learns to bond with other people. 

Psychology of attachment styles

As you can probably imagine, how well a child was taken care of by their parents or primary caregiver deeply affects their overall psychology. The treatment they received early in their life affects whether or not they see the world as a safe and secure place or a scary one. [Read: Insecure attachment – the different types and how they affect you]

This positive or negative worldview also affects almost all of their relationships – especially their romantic ones. It becomes a part of who you are and how you interact with your world.

The four attachment styles and what they mean

Of course, these attachment styles can vary between people since we’re all different, we’ve all grown up in different environments and processed emotions in various ways.

But there are only four attachment styles, so, if you start to identify your own attachment style, you’ll be able to see how it affects your relationship and what you need to do to change it.

Who thought that relationships could be this complex?!

1. Secure Attachment

With secure attachment, adults with this attachment style are more satisfied in their relationships. When you’re a child, if you have a secure attachment, you see your parent as a safe area to be around. You’re free to explore the world and be independent. [Read: Emotional attachment – 25 reasons and signs of healthy and unhealthy love]

So, as you grow up and enter adulthood, you’re more likely to share these positive behaviors with your partner. You feel secure and connected with them, which allows you to explore with your partner in a safe space.

When someone with a good attachment security is in a healthy relationship, they provide support when their partners are stressed. In addition, if they themselves are feeling stressed, they’ll look for support and comfort from their partner.

These relationships tend to be open, equal, and honest because both people feel safe and independent. What happens is that people with secure attachment styles often engage in healthy, safe, and stable relationships. [Read: The 15 signs of a healthy relationship]

2. Anxious Preoccupied Attachment

It is believed that attachment of this form is completely different from Secure Attachment. People who identify with Secure Attachment are usually anxious in relationships and form a fantasy bond. A fantasy bond is this illusion where you have a false sense of feeling safe when in reality, you’re not.

Basically, you do all the actions of showing love but you don’t actually emotionally invest in the relationship *which can be unhealthy!*. You don’t actually feel satisfied with love, instead, you feel more desperate for love, and because of this, you’ll be seen as more clingy, which results in your partner pushing you away.

So, usually, people with this attachment tend to be insecure and desperate when in reality, you’re just scared. You don’t actually know how your partner feels about you, and this makes you feel unsafe, and therefore affects your behavior in relationships.

For example, if you don’t hear from your partner for a couple of hours, you assume they’re cheating on you! [Read: Fear of commitment – 47 signs, whys and ways to get over your phobia]

3. Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Now, this is also the opposite of Anxious Preoccupied Attachment in the sense that instead of being desperate for connection, you’re emotionally distant from your partner. 

So, instead of focusing on your partner, you focus on yourself, which usually comes across as cold and self-centered. People with this attachment style gravitate to isolation and have this illusion that they’re independent.

You usually live a more private and internal life, by rejecting the love from others and emotionally blocking yourself from others.

These people are experts at shutting down their emotions whether they’re in heated situations or not.

For example, if you’re dating someone with this attachment style and you address your emotions with them, they might simply say, “so?” So, regardless of how the other person is reaching out or reacting, they put the emotional wall up. [Read: How to be emotionally available so you can find love]

4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment

In this fourth attachment style, you’re too afraid to be with someone, but you’re also too afraid to be alone. Essentially, you’re scared of closeness and distance. However, this isn’t easy. You want to express your emotions while, at the same time, pushing them away.

Though, it’s impossible for people with Fearful-Avoidant Attachment to shut their emotions off. So, what ends up happening is they become overwhelmed and freak out. 

These adults may have an emotional outburst when they realize what happens. They want the emotional connection, but they also don’t want to get hurt. What usually happens is they have no game plan for when this happens. [Read: How a fearful avoidant attachment style keeps you from harmony]

As an adult, they end up in dramatic and unhealthy relationships. It’s like they live in a Turkish soap opera. They’re scared of being abandoned by this person while also struggling with being intimate with them. So, there’s always this issue with timing, it seems. You’re always a bit off with your partner.

Although these are the primary emotional attachment styles, researchers have discovered another one that is less talked about, but important nonetheless. It’s called the disorganized-disoriented attachment style. This is when a child or person has no predictable pattern of attachment behaviors. 

Signs and characteristics of secure attachment

If you are wondering what a person is like who has a secure attachment type, here are some of the signs and characteristics to look for.

1. They trust people

Not only do they trust other people, but adults with a secure attachment are also trustworthy themselves. They will always support you and are faithful to people. [Read: How to trust again and give someone your heart when you are scared]

2. They open up easily

Because they have a stable and secure childhood, they don’t need to suppress or hide their feelings. They open up about their background and personal details of their lives. They are also comfortable sharing their needs.

3. They are honest

A securely attached person has no reason to hide things or play any games. They are an open book and are honest about everything. Also, they don’t pretend to be someone they are not just to impress others.

4. They can commit to other people

Commitment doesn’t scare them at all. In fact, they actually enjoy commitment. They aren’t afraid of intimacy in relationships and are uninterested in things like one-night stands or casual flings. [Read: Fear of commitment – 47 signs, whys, and ways to get over your phobia]

5. They have empathy

When someone is secure in their attachment, they have the ability to feel other people’s feelings. They can see situations from points of view that are not their own. In other words, they have empathy and act accordingly.

6. They respect boundaries

Boundaries are a part of a healthy and long-lasting relationship. Even when people are committed, they should still have boundaries. So, not only do they set their own boundaries, but they also respect the boundaries of other people too.

Signs and characteristics of an insecure attachment style

Now let’s look at the insecure attachment style and how it manifests in someone’s personality and relationships.

1. Fear of abandonment

Those who feel anxious because they think people will leave them is usually a big sign of people with insecure attachment styles.

They constantly fear being dumped or being single. They might even put up with abusive behavior from their partner because they don’t want to be rejected. [Read: Abandonment issues and how it affects your relationship]

2. Takes everything personally

Since these kinds of people have a history of abandonment and trauma, they take everything personally. They think that everything reflects their worth.

In other words, they think they are responsible for their partner’s moods or happiness.

3. Need constant reassurance

They are desperate to get rid of their fears, and that manifests in their need for constant reassurance from their partners. It is important for them to receive praise and words of affection from other people. They actually crave attention.

4. Low self-esteem

When someone doesn’t feel good about themselves, then that usually leads to insecure attachment patterns.

They don’t think they are worthy of love, so they desperately cling to anyone who shows them the smallest amount of affection or attention. [Read: How to build self-esteem and love life with simple life changes]

5. Dependent on others

Their happiness is just entirely within their relationship. They rely on their partner for their self-esteem, morals, and beliefs.

In other words, they don’t have a strong self-image and don’t know that the only person who can truly make them happy is themselves.

6. Obsessing over physical closeness

This type of person might equate love to physical intimacy. They might crave physical closeness on an unhealthy level and will make bad choices in order to get it.

The ironic thing is that they think this need will bring them closer to their partners, but usually, it pushes them away.

How to recognize your attachment style

It may be easy for some people to recognize their adult attachment style after they read the signs and characteristics. But if it’s not easy for you, then you should try to enlist the help of people who know you well. Even better, try to find a therapist who can help you identify it. [Read: Why do I always choose the wrong guy and make the same mistakes?]

The point is that you should do some deep reflection on your behaviors in your relationships. Look at what went right and wrong in all of your past partnerships and see what you could have done differently. *there are also many quizzes on the internet that you can take in order to find out what your style is*

How attachment types manifest in adult romantic relationships

You might have noticed some repeating patterns in your romantic relationships. Maybe you have never really given it much thought, but if you look back, you can probably see what they are. It just takes a little effort to analyze your behavior. [Read: Obsessive love disorder – What causes it, 21 signs, and how to get over it]

You might keep ending up attracting the same kinds of partners or experiencing the same kinds of situations or problems with them.

For example, you might get clingy and jealous. Or maybe you want to be with someone, but then when things get serious or emotionally intimate, you want to run away.

If you have noticed any kinds of unhealthy and emotionally challenging behaviors in your romantic relationships, you should try to figure out the way you attach to people in intimate relationships. The negative attachment styles may cause real problems with other people in your life.

How do attachment styles affect adult relationships?

If you know anything about relationship dynamics, you’ll probably have heard of love languages. These are ways in which we learn to show our love and appreciation and how we feel loved.

For instance, a person with a love language of words of affirmation will show love to their partner by telling them how they feel.

In turn, they feel loved when their partner does the same. Problems occur when both partners have different love languages and misunderstand the differences. [Read: Words of affirmation as your love language? How to use them & 20 examples to do it right]

The same goes for attachment styles. 

Every single person on the planet has a different attachment style, so the chances of meeting someone with the same romantic attachment style as you are pretty slim. Even if you identify as secure, there is a chance that you will have a little avoidant in your makeup too.

This means that both partners need to be aware of how each side reacts and how they feel. Communication is key!

The way we are brought up and how we are shown love in our childhood years has such a huge impact on how we show and receive love when we’re older.

When relationships lack communication and care, it can lead to major problems and one partner, possibly both, feeling totally under-appreciated and unloved. [Read: How to show someone you love them using more than just mere words]

The sad fact is that there probably is no lack of love or appreciation, it’s simply that we learn to show these things in different ways, and we learn to read them differently too. 

It’s almost like we’re all speaking and acting in our own specific code! [Read: How to handle insecurity in a relationship and learn to love better]

Can your attachment style change?

No matter which of the specific attachment styles describes you, are you able to change it? Yes, but it takes work and the style you have. Even then, certain triggers may cause you to retreat back to your current attachment style. 

If you are very conscious of your particular style, do some work identifying why that is the case for you, and changing your attachment style is possible.

For instance, people with an anxious attachment style that stems back to one of their parents leaving the family home when they were very young, can learn to change their attachment style in the romantic relationship.

Change happens by communicating with your partner, being part of a loving and trusting relationship, and learning to speak out when you’re feeling triggered.

Change won’t happen overnight, but, in time, it is possible to learn to change how you react to specific triggers which change your main attachment style over the long term. 

So all said and done, yes, you can change your attachment style with time and effort. Your attachment style is not necessarily permanent unless you allow it to be. Becoming aware of your style is the first step.

Now that you know, it’s time to confront your emotional issues and work towards developing a secure attachment style. [Read: How to change directions in your life]

Talk to your partner about it 

If you’re in a relationship, talk to your partner about this. They’ll support you and help you through the process. 

Now, if you’re not in a relationship, try to look for people with secure attachments, whether you have a secure attachment or not. You need to be given the chance to work on developing a healthy relationship with someone already stable.

[Read: 24 sad signs of a unhealthy relationship that ruins love forever]

Now that you know more about attachment theory and what the four attachment styles are, which one do you fit in? Don’t worry, now that you know, you can make positive changes.

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...