Human beings are social creatures; we crave intimacy, closeness and support, and in a very real sense, we depend on our nearest and dearest to survive. And everyone wants to know whether a promising relationship will work out, or if an established relationship will last.
So there are a vast array of methods that claim to predict basic compatibility in love, some much more reliable than others. (Yes, we love astrology around here… but when it comes to what really works, we can do better.)
Learning about attachment styles can be the most useful way to navigate new partnerships and revitalize existing ones. They’re a simple, reality-based framework for even the most complex human associations, in intimate partnerships, friendships, families, and even at work.
The real question may not be who you love so much as how you love – and how you respond to the love you’re offered.
Attachment Theory 101
Our earliest relationships are with our primary caregivers, and those relationships shape our whole lives. Babies and little children are completely dependent on their parents or other adults for survival. Those adults are our first teachers about what it means to be us.
The importance of healthy early relationships has been known worldwide and for all time, of course, but it was first articulated as a formal concept in medical literature by British psychologist John Bowlby, beginning in the 1950s.
His studies of homeless children in Europe after WWII led him to conclude that a secure, stable early upbringing, where trustworthy caregivers consistently provide for the child’s emotional needs, leads to rewarding relationships later on.
But when the child’s emotional needs aren’t met, or aren’t met consistently, or are actively disrespected, they are likely to have problems connecting with others as they grow up.
Children whose caregivers don’t provide adequate, consistent, secure support tend to become adults with insecure attachment styles – patterns of thought and behavior that can interfere with fulfilling intimacy.
Needs and Narrative
It’s important to take a nuanced view of what it means to be supported and provided for in early childhood. If our caregivers didn’t meet our needs as babies, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re abusive or terrible people.
A hardworking single mother, for instance, could be the first to admit that she isn’t present for her children as much as she’d like to be. Loving adoptive parents who welcomed a child after the most critical phase of that child’s attachment development could have faced an uphill battle in trying to show them that the world can be safe. With the best of intentions, even caring parents may adopt childrearing methods that cause confusion in a child’s nervous system – and so forth.
Babies don’t see much nuance, but adults can and do. Even if you know with certainty that your caregivers loved and supported you, attachment injuries can still occur – and it isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.
What are the four attachment styles?
Yep, four – a whole lot simpler than keeping all the signs of the zodiac in your head. The main types of adult attachment are secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.
Not everyone will fit every category perfectly; most of us represent a blend of attachment styles that may manifest more strongly in different types of relationships.
However, the broad strokes are often enough to help understand your lover – and yourself – that much better.
It’s thought that our attachment styles form within our first 18 months of life. If we spend those months with caregivers who are responsive and attuned to our needs, meet them consistently, and keep us safe while allowing us freedom to explore the world, we’ve hit the jackpot – and a secure attachment style is the payoff.
Securely attached people tend to build deep, long-lasting relationships of all types. They understand their emotions and express them easily. They often have good radar for who’s trustworthy and who isn’t. They’re self-reliant and comfortable being alone, and also welcome quality intimacy.
All those attributes are fundamental skills, learned very young, from a base of trust and stability.
If you have a secure attachment style… Congratulations! If you keep a gratitude journal, add it to the list. You’re capable of functional interdependence, so relationships will be easier for you than for many.
If your partner has one of the insecure attachment styles, their behavior may not make much sense to you. What comes easily to you is hard for them. Patience, consistency, and demonstrating that you’re reliable in both word and deed is essential.
An anxious attachment style may result when a child’s primary caregivers do provide for their emotional needs – but not consistently. If a caregiver adult is nurturing at some times but absent or withholding at others, the child may grow up believing that they have to “perform” for safety and security. Their attachment style tells them that they are wholly responsible for whether or not they deserve love.
Adults with anxious attachment can be very attuned to their partner’s needs while neglecting their own. They hunger for approval and care. They are highly sensitive to rejection, scared of being alone, and prone to becoming overdependent on others.
This is a stressful way to live and love! Not only for the anxiously attached person’s partner, but for themself. Anxiety creates narratives that aren’t necessarily true, but can take over reality – undermining relationships of all kinds.
If you have an anxious attachment style… Start with yourself. You may have been looking outward for validation and security your whole life, but with a solid core of resilience, you can be the one you’ve been looking for. Therapy that focuses on building a skillset for managing challenging feelings can help tremendously.
Anxiously attached people tend to gravitate towards partners with avoidant attachment style, which can be a recipe for hurt and frustration all around. Seek securely attached partners whenever possible, and let yourself learn what trust feels like.
If a child’s primary caregivers provided food and shelter but were otherwise absent, chilly, dismissive of their feelings, and/or placed an excessive emphasis on self-reliance, the child may learn that wanting nurturing is futile. They become independent to a fault to avoid being hurt, and struggle alone.
In an adult, this is known as avoidant attachment. Signs in relationships include trouble showing emotions (or even feeling them at all), refusing any kind of help, avoiding true intimacy out of fear, and dismissing their partner’s normal human needs as excessive or clingy.
It’s very easy for avoidant people to externalize their issues and see their partners as the problem, especially because Western culture at large venerates the independent, self-reliant “rugged individualist”. That narrative is just as harmful as any other narrative that isn’t true, though – and it can be difficult to navigate.
If you have an avoidant attachment style… know yourself. It can be very hard for you to trust anyone, so even though you may know you need therapy, finding the right practitioner can seem daunting. But finding the right counselor is more important than the style of counseling for you – to practice building trust and skills in a safe space. And remember, it’s OK to want love!
Avoidant people often seek out anxiously attached people, because their total focus and attention can make them seem “safe” – like they won’t ever leave. However, that same focus and attention can quickly become stifling. These relationships aren’t necessarily doomed, but they require honest collaborative work.
Anxious-Avoidant (or Disorganized) Attachment Style
Unfortunately a child’s early caregivers may be a source of fear, not loving kindness. A child whose basic needs aren’t cared for at all, who grows up feeling unsafe more often than not, and/or has traumatic experiences associated with a primary caregiver may develop anxious-avoidant attachment.
Adults with this attachment style will often switch back and forth between anxious and avoidant styles, depending on circumstances (or sometimes for no apparent reason at all). They aren’t operating from a solid base of trust in reality itself, since theirs was so unpredictable and unkind at a crucial time.
This attachment style is often comorbid with personality disorders, severe anxiety, depression, and CPTSD, and the combination is a recipe for deep confusion and unhappiness – for the anxious-avoidant person and their loved ones alike. Healing from the original trauma is essential.
If you have an anxious-avoidant attachment style… In recent years, the effects of childhood trauma on the brain have finally begun to receive attention from clinical research. It turns out that PTSD can do many troubling things to someone’s mind – including causing disorganized attachment – and a lot of experiences can cause it. For you, hands-on trauma-focused therapy like EMDR may be essential for reprogramming the trauma response that’s keeping real intimacy away.
If your partner does, the best thing you can do is demonstrate consistency, care and love, while also maintaining healthy personal boundaries – safety for them and yourself.
When you’re dealing with insecure attachment styles – in others and in yourself – always remember that those thoughts and feelings are trying to keep you safe. They’re a child’s way of coping with a world that didn’t show up for them, and when that child was very small, it may have seemed to work for a while.
Flourishing, budding and blooming as a whole adult in the real world, open to love and trust while also loving and trusting yourself – that’s the best vision of “growing up” that we can think of. And it starts with self-knowledge, the window that lets the light in.
Want more? Sign up for our newsletter