How The 4 Attachment Styles Affect Relationships + How To Know Which Is Yours

Photo: getty
What Are The 4 Attachment Styles & Which Is Yours?
Love

If you’ve ever struggled to connect with someone you’ve just started dating, or felt like you and your long-term partner squabble about everything, your different attachment styles could be the reason your relationships never quite seem to go according to plan.

Everyone has a particular psychological “attachment style” they formed as a child that dictates how you give and receive love in a relationship, whether it’s from romantic partners, friends, or even your own children.

Attachment styles are the unique way in which you form bonds with others. This way of looking at how people form relationships is known as attachment theory.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory, pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby, is defined as "a psychological model attempting to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans," which isn't meant to be a general theory of relationships, but rather a way to address "only a specific facet: how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat."

RELATED: The Devastating Way Your Childhood Bonds Can Make-Or-Break Your Adult Relationships

In particular, this theory explores the way the quality of the experiences you had connecting with your parents as an infant, as well as how safe you felt in their care — both psychological and physiological needs that help babies survive — impact the way you form relationships as an adult.

There are four main attachment styles.

They define the way people react to the world around them.

Depending on the quality of your attachment to the earliest caregivers in your life, you may now approach relationships from one of these four orientations:

  • Secure attachment style
  • Ambivalent attachment style
  • Avoidant attachment style
  • Disorganized attachment style

In romantic relationships, whichever of the four attachment styles you formed during childhood shapes how you perceive and respond to your partner.

This is what drives many of your behaviors relating to dating, relationships and your love life overall, which is why understanding your attachment style and being able to recognize the attachment styles of others, makes dating, falling in love and sustaining healthy relationships and marriages easier.

1. Secure Attachment Style

Secure attachment is somewhat of an ideal scenario, and in a way, your natural biology is geared toward it. If your parents had the capacity for secure attachment, your family life most likely gave you a great basis for what healthy relationships should look and feel like.

With secure attachment, a child’s parents were naturally and consistently responsive to them as a child, and also to one another. They were protective, present, and supportive. Children raised in these environments are typically autonomous, able to express their needs clearly and easily, and emotionally resilient.

How to tell if you or your partner have a secure attachment style:

If your partner has a secure attachment style, they are likely to be well attuned to your needs, as well as expressive in regard to sharing their own. They are trusting — with discernment, of course — but tend to look toward the good in people, rather than assume someone will hurt them.

A securely attached partner will be comfortable with their significant other going off on their own, whether it’s with friends or just spending time away from them for a little while. They will do their best to build the relationship on a firm basis of trust, speaking openly and honestly about their needs. They also tend to resolve problems in the relationship quickly, with less anger and reactivity, and are not hindered by giving or receiving love.

2. Avoidant Attachment Style

In some families, avoidant attachment can occur when one or both parents are rejecting, neglectful or only give their child time and attention when there’s a specific task at hand, such as learning to read or throw a football properly, struggling to attune themselves to their child’s state of mind or emotional needs otherwise.

Children in these households are also often left alone too much.

As a result, these children become adults who are strongly left-brain focused. They may have a difficult time accessing or understanding the emotional states of both themselves and others since they tend to be more task and goal-oriented.

The great news about this attachment style is that they’re fantastic workers! Sometimes, however, this can lead to work-life balance issues, as they struggle to form connections with people on a deep emotional level.

How to tell if you or your partner have an avoidant attachment style:

Partners who have adapted toward an avoidant attachment style might require plenty of alone time, even when they’re with or around their significant other. They’re also likely to repress their needs or feel like they handle them better alone since that’s how they were raised.

People with avoidant attachment style might even miss social cues altogether. They may not realize their partner is trying to initiate intimacy, which may lead to hurt feelings in the case of one or both parties.

They often appear as “lone wolves,” since they tend toward activities that don’t require much interaction, but a loving partner can help them open about their needs and feelings.

How to love a partner with an avoidant attachment style:

To nurture an avoidantly attached partner, look for activities you can do together, such as dancing or cooking with each other, versus hours spent alone gaming on the computer.

RELATED: Here’s Your Attachment Style & What It Means For You

3. Ambivalent Attachment Style

When parents seem to switch their attention and emotional support on and off without warning, an ambivalent attachment style can form. Love and attention are there, but the parents are unpredictable and inconsistent, leaving the child unsure whether or not their needs will be met at any given time.

As a result, children with ambivalent attachments are often waiting for the “other shoe to drop” or to be suddenly abandoned.

How to tell if you or your partner have an ambivalent attachment style:

If your partner is ambivalently attached, they may often look for the negatives in your relationship, even when there’s nothing wrong. They might act out because they may assume that you’re going to do something disappointing, even though you haven’t done anything to deserve their trepidation.

In a sense, this is a means of protecting themselves from the inevitably of rejection. Unfortunately, it can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on the “on again, off again” parenting style they grew up with at home.

These are people who tend to over-focus on other people and under-focus on their own sense of self. They tend not to be particularly self-reliant, since they have an inbuilt belief that everyone else’s actions affect them, and others must meet their needs in order for them to feel nurtured.

Ambivalently attached people crave relationships and closeness, but may also simultaneously reject them out of fear.

Their biggest fear is that their own behavior will ruin what they have, but they also don’t know how to stop themselves from needing constant reassurance.

Because they anticipate rejection, they are quick to look for slights or signs of distancing in their partner’s behavior, and they often misinterpret those actions.

How to love a partner with an ambivalent attachment style:

To encourage a partner with an ambivalent attachment style, be as reassuring as possible. Ambivalently attached partners need to be reminded — gently — when they are complaining excessively, dismissing your caring behaviors, or acting as though they expect to be abandoned.

Let them know you are there for them. This helps give them plenty of love and affection and calms their overactive, insecure attachment system.

4. Disorganized Attachment Style

A disorganized attachment style is common for children who grow up in a household where one or both parents were scared or “scary.” This can mean that the children dealt with abuse or erratic behavior that kept them from feeling safe, or simply that their parents radiated a “sense of fear” due to unresolved trauma or issues in their own lives.

A child’s natural instinct is to go to their parents when they’re upset or afraid — it’s a big part of biological survival.

However, when your parent is the one threatening or scaring you, your desire to run toward and away from them at the same time can create a “disorganized” attachment that lasts into adulthood.

As kids, people with a disorganized attachment style frequently received contradicting signals of “come here, go away,” leaving them confused as to what was expected of them and feeling helpless and set up for failure.

As adults, some people with this attachment style may develop nervous system over-activation, known as emotional dysregulation, which causes them to view relationships as dangerous. They may possess a strong desire for intimacy, but a hefty fear of it as well.

How to tell if you or your partner has a disorganized attachment style:

If your partner has a disorganized attachment style, they may shut down and become upset, confused, or easily overwhelmed whenever a problem becomes complicated, even if it’s a simple issue like picking a place to eat.

This may lead them to either act out or “retreat” emotionally.

In their mind, they’re already doomed to failure, so working to problem-solve is pointless.

How to love a partner with a disorganized attachment style:

In order to better connect to a partner with a disorganized attachment style, provide them with a reliable sense of safety and pay attention to what helps to bring them out of depressed or overly anxious states. This can be any number of things, like giving them a hug, going for a walk together in the garden, letting them read by themselves for a little while, or even engaging in play with a pet.

Reassuring a partner with a disorganized attachment style and providing them with a safe haven in your relationship will help them to learn to trust you, as well as other people in their lives, too.

Can your attachment style change?

While not everyone will naturally achieve a secure attachment style, with a little hard work, it is attainable for everyone. 

Adults with insecure attachments can change their attachment style to form secure bonds and relationships.

One way is to date someone with a secure attachment style. Insecure partners will find safety in a secure partner and learn healthy coping mechanisms, therefore taking steps toward changing their own attachment style.

In lieu of (or along with!) spending time with a securely attached partner, there are certain steps you can take to change your own attachment style that include practicing self-awareness, communication, and mindfulness.

Why Attachment Styles Are Important

Whatever attachment styles you and your partner have, learning more about them is a great way to connect with one another on a far deeper and more intimate level.

As partners. we are in the front seat to witness what might be most helpful for our significant others to move toward secure attachment and vice versa so we can enjoy healthier, more intimate, long-lasting relationships.

RELATED: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship (And Even Reveals Exactly Why People Break Up With You)

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

Diane Poole Heller, Ph. D. is a psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples understand and decode the attitudes and behaviors that were instilled in them from childhood so they can enjoy enduring love, intimacy and happiness. Connect with her on her website to take a free attachment styles quiz, or pre-order her upcoming book, The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.