Adult attachment theory is crucial to understand both psychology and relationships.
By the end of this article you will know what are the four attachment styles, where do attachment styles come from, how to recognize the different attachment types and what type of attachment makes for the best relationship.
- What’s an Attachment Style
- The Four Attachment Styles
- #1. Secure Attachment Style
- #2. Anxious Attachment Style
- #3. Avoidant Attachment Style
- #4. Fearful Attachment Style
- Attachment Theory: Summary
What’s an Attachment Style
Based on the original researchers of attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969), we can define an attachment style as such:
An attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space
Albeit most people refer to attachment styles when they talk about relationships, they don’t necessarily pertain to relationships.
You can be attached to a friend, an animal, a person who doesn’t have any emotional bond to you, or, of course, a parent or a child.
When Attachment Theory Started
Attachment theory was first started by John Bowlby in 1988. Quite surprisingly, there was no previous comparable theory for emotional attachment.
And it was quite a revolution.
Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, places Bowlby ahead of Freud when it comes to humans’ contributions to our understanding of psychology.
Where Do Attachments Come From
There are different takes on how attachment styles, depending on what they give more weight to:
- Genetically and/or pre-programmed at birth
- Through parent/child interaction
- With life experience
More Freudian authors like Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, says that we develop our attachment styles depending on how our parent cared for us during childhood.
Other authors like Steven Pinker and Jerome Kagan stressed the importance of later life experience.
While Bowlby himself and Lorenz believed that we are all wired to attach via our genes.
All Influences Matter
Well, as it’s often the case with complex personality trait, it’s very possible, and likely, that it’s a mixture of them all that contribute to our attachment styles.
Genes, life experience, and parental caring (plus more) all contribute to shape our attachment style.
And the proof that genes and parental care are not the be all end all lies in the fact that around 25%-30% of adults change attachment styles based on life experienced and romantic history.
That’s also great news because it means you can change your own attachment style to achieve healthier intimate relationships.
The attachment system is a patter of emotions and behavior that sets off when our loved ones move away from us.
It is already evident in children.
When their mother goes away and a child starts crying, that’s his way of “bridging the gap” and re-establish contact.
The same happens with adults and their romantic partner.
Attachment Styles in Children
Attachment styles can already be recognized in babies.
For example, this is how the different attachment types reacts when the mother leaves the room:
Anxious: becomes extremely distressed when mommy leaves the room. When the mother returns, he is ambivalent: angry and happy at the same time.
It takes him longer to calm down, and when he finally pacifies he angrily push the mother away, often followed by more tears.
Secure: is visibly distressed when the mother leaves the room. But when she comes back, he is happy and calms down.
Avoidant: when the mother leaves and come back, he acts as if nothing happened.
But it’s only a facade: researchers show that the baby’s heart rate is as high as those who show extreme distress. And their cortisol levels—an indicator of stress—are also high.
It is a well-known fact that parental caring (or lack of it) has a strong influence in our psychological development.
In the early days of attachment theory researches it was believed that the mother’s caretaking style was the main determinant of the adult attachment style.
Today we know that there is indeed a statistically significant link between caretaking style and attachment style.
And this scene from Terms of Endearment shows the best way to make your child insecure (together with other psychological issues):
The Four Attachment Styles
Your attachment style is measured on two different variables:
- Craving (or avoidance) for intimacy and closeness
- Anxiety (or lack thereof) towards your relationship and your partner’s love
And when you plot those variables on the two axis, you get 4 quadrant. Each quadrant represents an attachment style.
If you are not yet sure which attachment style you are, take a free test here:
Attachment Styles Distribution
Amir Levine, author of Attached, says that 50% of people have a secure attachment, 25% an avoidant attachment, 20% anxious attachment, and the rest falls into the fearful category (with unhealthy traits from both).
#1. Secure Attachment Style
The secure attachment type is the most sound and grounded.
Secure attachment types enjoy intimacy and are not afraid of opening up. Their relationships tend to last long and they are the ones with the highest relationship satisfaction.
Secure types play little games because they tend to have a very healthy and mature mindset, similar to the following:
Secure: “here I am, I like you. If you don’t like me, it will hurt a bit but I’ll understand. And if you also like me then there’s no need to hide and play games”.
You can work on yourself to become more secure and we’ll talk about it in another article.
What Gives People a Secure Attachment
There are many factors that increase the likelihood of a child being secure, including:
- Mothers sensitive to child’s needs
- Easy temperament as baby (makes it easier for parents to be responsive)
- Good maternal conditions—marital satisfaction, low stress, no depression and social support
- Fewer hours with a non-parental caretaker
- Genetic predisposition
- Life experiences (avoiding big romantic traumas)
Secure Attachment Style Example
Now you might be expecting an example that’s all about being calm and rational.
And that might indeed be a secure attachment type.
But secure people are people just like everybody else. They also get angry, tense and emotional. So I’ll give you a better example.
The example of a secure attachment type in a very tense, highly emotional situation:
Don’t be fooled: the fact that he is emotional does not preclude he might be a secure man
What makes it secure?
1. Embraces emotions
To begin with, he’s not afraid of his own emotions. He doesn’t hide them, neither to himself nor to her (hiding emotions, after all, is a way of playing games).
He’s not afraid of asking her “will you stay with me”, which is very vulnerable and something that only a man who’s not afraid of rejection can pull off.
3. Welcomes intimacy
He talks to her very openly about the two of them together in a relationship. Only a man who’s not afraid of intimacy and commitment can do that.
4. Little fear
But he is also secure enough to know -and to say- he’ll get over it if she decides to go.
In a situation that is so emotionally charged, he is still relatively in control. And lets her go without doing any further drama or going crazy.
What about the other attachment types?
An anxious might have started screaming without making any factual points.
Or he might collapse, telling himself she doesn’t want him and he must be bad.
An avoidant would have enjoyed the sex and either be OK with her leaving or, at least not, have promised to stay together for ever. Also an avoidant would have never shared his feelings so openly.
That being said, The Notebook can be quite of a corny movie, apologies to the male readers :).
- Read here for secure attachment drill down.
#2. Anxious Attachment Style
The anxious attachment type can get close -and actually craves getting close-.
Sometimes too much and/or too early.
But at the same time that they want to get close they’re constantly worried about their relationship status and are afraid their partner might not feel the same.
The are very sensitive to their partner moods and tend to be temperamental. With their doubts, worries and mood emotional swings they make relationships very fiery. And often not in a good way.
Anxious Attachment Style Example
There are tons of anxious examples in the movies because they make for big entertainment.
This one of from La Dolce Vita.
What makes it anxious?
1. Craves intimacy
She wants so badly.
She’s jealous and afraid of other women. Irrationaly so. And she’s worried about her relationship.
3. Mental cycles
The takes so much of her energies. She can see how passionate and absorbed she is. She probably spends her whole day thinking about him and their relationship.
4. Mood swings
She goes from threatening to planning a romantic and loving time together. If you’re into crazy, an anxious partner will certainly make you happy :).
5. Needs reassurance
She has probably a very low opinion of herself and needs constant reassurance. Low self esteem is one of the reasons -albeit not the only one- that in the long term anxious women have difficulty hanging on to secure men (read how low self esteem dooms your relationships).
Read more about:
#3. Avoidant Attachment Style
Avoidant attachment types are uncomfortable with intimacy and being too close, and they keep partners at arm’s length.
They don’t open up fully in their relationships and need their own space not to feel suffocated.
From a neurological point of view, researches seem to point to avoidants having the same need for closeness and intimacy as anybody else, but they suppress those needs. One of the ways they do so, is by focusing on the negatives of their partners.
In the end, avoidants tend to be less happy in their relationships and to make their partners less happy as well.
Avoidants tend to be defensive and avoiding to get close is also a form of avoiding pain and rejection.
Avoidant Attachment Style Example
Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment is an example of avoidant.
Notice how he tries to make a silent exit as soon as the family reunites:
Jack Nicholson might have been an avoidant in real life as well, and not just in the movies.
Why is it avoidant?
He is uncomfortable being introduced to the family. That would mean “making it official” and strengthening the ties.
And he makes a quick exit.
#4. Fearful Attachment Style
The fourth attachment type is also sometimes referred to as “disorganized” or fearful.
It takes the worst of the avoidant and the anxious but luckily it’s much less frequent (4-5% of the population).
They have a low opinion of themselves and find it hard to get close to their partners.
Unluckily I don’t have in mind a movie example for a fearful attachment style. If you have any idea lemme know in the comments, I would be very happy to look into it.
Attachment Styles And Differentiation
Schnarch defines differentiation as:
“Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become important to you”
Differentiation is a concept developed by Murray Bowen as part of his Family Systems Theory (Brown, 2013 for an overview).
How is differentiation relevant to attachment styles?
Well, anxious people have low differentiation and tend to see themselves as one with their partners (enmeshed)
Anxious types instead feel too much differentiation and seek too much differentiation.
The secure attachment types tend to strike a better balance:
From de Azevedo Hanks, 2016
(opens in a new tab)
However, that differentiation of the avoidant can sometimes be a front.
For example, as a teenager avoidant, I always sought differentiation from my family by rebelling and starting verbal disputes.
But it wasn’t healthy differentiation, it was more of a defensive differentiation, partly motivated by the resentment of the parents’ judge role (also see Harris, 1967).
Being secure means being comfortable in who you are, as an individual, while also welcoming and enjoying emotional bonds with others.
Why You Should Learn About Attachment Theory
Don’t let that “theory” in “attachment theory” fool you.
Attachment styles are quite well researched and proven, and their consequences are very real.
Different styles influence all that matters the most in relationships: emotional bond, emotional safety, duration and even one’s own mental health.
With this article you will arm yourself with the knowledge you need to shape the best relationship you can.
Attachment Theory: Summary
Attachment theory will lead you to a better and deeper understanding of people.
But it will also give you a very practical understanding on how to get better relationships.
To do so it is very important to understand your attachment style first and to be able to recognize other’s attachment style as you date them.
You can begin by taking the attachment quiz here.