Attached at the hip? How attachment styles play out in your relationship
Attachment styles: what is an attachment style and why is it important in relationships?
Your attachment style is a pervasive feature in your engagement approach with the people around you. An attachment style can be described as the way you relate to other people1. Originally developed and examined between infant and caregiver relationships, research into attachment theory has evolved to explore how this becomes a template for adult intimate partner relationships.
Attachment theory was initially proposed by John Bowlby, who was interested in the highly distressed response of infants separated from their caregiver 2. Coming from a psychoanalytical background, Bowlby noted that this pattern of behavior was prevalent across a wide range of species, not just human. He proposed that being in close proximity with your caregiver was an evolutionary mechanism to ensure survival, and thus saw the attachment behavior system as a core motivational system for survival2. Researching and experimenting with colleagues, they determined that there were three basic categories of response: secure, avoidant and anxious.
Bowlby believed that the infant-caregiver relationship characterized the human experience ‘from cradle to grave’, influencing researchers Hazan and Shaver (1987) to take it a step further and apply Bowlby’s ideas to adult romantic relationships2. They confirmed several features are shared by both types of relationships; attached infant-caregiver and attached adult relationships can both be seen as functions of the same attachment behavioral and motivational system. Since then, research into attachment theory has been greatly expanded and, because of the social and cognitive mechanisms which are activated during development, attachment styles tend to be quite stable.
Building on the research and different perspectives, researchers and psychologists gave rise to variations of attachment theory based on Bowlby’s work as a starting point. One of the most widely recognized models of adult attachment is the Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) model, laying out at its core, secure and insecure styles. These are then further separated into secure, anxious and avoidant styles3. To get right into the heart of the matter, these dimensions are further characterized as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful- avoidant. Now let’s see what each of these actually mean, and how it plays out in your relationship.
Attachment theory: relationship attachment styles defined
Before breaking it down, it is important to understand that these characteristics are viewed dimensionally and it can vary in degrees from person to person, with room for different individual positioning within a spectrum. These find genesis in an infant’s relationship with their primary caregiver, which then forms one’s approach to adult attached relationships and becomes a template of relating to others. This is your instinctive attachment style.
However, keep in mind that people are sentient beings, capable of change and growth throughout their lives. Although according to attachment theory, these responses are hard-wired into our emotional and cognitive functioning, people can adapt and change their attachment styles in adulthood for more functional and fulfilling relationships.
Now let’s take a look at the different types of attachment styles:
A secure attachment style is viewed as the healthiest of the four adult attachment styles and securely attached adults are generally happier and more fulfilled in their relationships. Having experienced a secure foundation in the relationship with their primary caregiver, they tend to feel secure and encourage positive relationship dynamics in adulthood, such as independence, support, and honesty3. They are comfortable to depend on others and equally support those around them, being emotionally present and engaged.
This reflects that the adult felt safe in their primary attached infant relationship, their caregiver being emotionally available, attuned to their needs and consistently there. Now in adulthood, a securely attached individual responds from a positive, confident and secure perspective, facilitating a strong sense of identity and close connections1. They tend to develop thriving and intimate relationships.
Statement sentence: “I don’t find it hard to be close to others, and don’t worry about being alone or rejected”.
On the flipside of secure attachment, there are three different styles which fall on the insecure attachment spectrum.
1. Anxious-preoccupied attachment style
Children who developed an ambivalent/anxious attachment tend to become adults with a preoccupied attachment pattern. Coming from a place of insecurity, they seek out approval, battle to trust in relationships and fear rejection, which can come across as what is described today as a ‘clingy partner’. Looking to their partners to complete or rescue them, they are motivated by fear of abandonment and can interpret actions as affirmations of their insecurities rather than believing or trusting their partner and their love3.
This can, in turn, become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing their partner away, and existing between an uncomfortable juxtaposition of dependency and anxiety. This interaction pattern arises from the primary caregiver who was emotionally unavailable and insensitive, resulting in distrust and self-doubt in adulthood.
Statement sentence: “I want to be close to my partner, but feel uncomfortable being too real with them. I’m worried that I value the relationship more and they will leave me”.
2. Dismissive-avoidant attachment style
Children who experienced avoidant attachments with their primary caregiver can go on to develop dismissive attachment styles in adulthood. A key characteristic of dismissive avoidance is emotionally distancing from your partner, striving to create ‘pseudo-independence’, easily denying emotional connection and shutting down emotionally.
These adults pride themselves on being self-sufficient, but to the detriment of emotional intimacy. Often work and other projects are placed as a higher priority than romantic relationships, and in relationships, freedom is very important, some even choosing to be single rather than place themselves in a vulnerable position in a relationship. Avoidant parenting style gives rise to this type of pattern - a caregiver who was emotionally unavailable and not present and connected, thus forcing their child to take care of themselves from a very young age. Adults with dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be inward and emotionally shut down.
Statement sentence: ”Relationships are not that important, I can look after myself ”.
3. Fearful-avoidant attachment style
Growing up with the experience of a disorganized attachment in one’s primary caregiving relationship can result in a fearful attachment style in adulthood. Differing to a dismissive style, they desire close relationships, however when they become too close, they revert back to childhood trauma and withdraw 1. As a result, they desire to be both not too distant or too far from others. Rather than shutting down their feelings this causes high levels of anxiety, and can result in disorganized responses, the emotional rollercoaster seen in dramatic and turbulent relationships3.
Desiring to be connected but simultaneously fearing abandonment and hurt, they swing between connection and disconnection without a consistent understanding or strategy of how to get their needs met. This results in an ambivalent state that is difficult to balance out. This style is sometimes the result of childhood trauma or abuse, craving safety from a caregiver who is also the source of pain, resulting in a disorganized adult emotional response system.
Statement sentence: “I really want to be close to my partner, but fear that they will hurt me so can’t trust them”.