Have you ever wondered why every time you’re about to get close to someone, you shut down emotionally? Or why your jealousy flares even when you know you’re being irrational? On the other hand, perhaps you’re the type of person who slides easily into a relationship and wonders, Why all the drama?
It turns out, we each have an attachment style — or styles.
Attachment is the strong emotional connection we form with others to fulfill our basic human needs. When we’re children, we’re dependent on caregivers for our health and well-being. And then for all that adulting we have to do later, we crave a support system that mimics what we had in childhood.
“People need other people — we are fundamentally social animals,” explains Gabriela Martorell, a development psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University.
But exactly how does our style form? More than half a century ago, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory: How our parents or guardians cared for us in our first 5 years played a pivotal role in our emotional development.
And from that, we developed an attachment style that informs how we behave in intimate relationships, including close friendships, romantic partnerships, and even with family.
They’re divided into two camps: secure and insecure. And the insecure category has several subtypes. Remember, you can also have a combination of styles.
Later research expanded on Bowlby’s concepts. Our attachment style formed in those first 5 years actually has a lasting impact, including on our romantic partnerships.
… so that’s why all the drama.
You may have gotten your braces removed and grown out your bangs, but chances are you still have close to the same attachment style you did as a child. While you’re not necessarily bound to one attachment style for life (more on that later), our adult style typically mirrors the one we developed as a kid.
Learning about attachment styles can be illuminating, it might even make you involuntarily mutter, “Aha!” under your breath. But try not to assign guilt as you read.
Remember, none of us have control over the way we were raised. The best we can do as adults is make an effort to understand our own stories and use that information to grow as partners and friends.
What it looks like: A lucky 60 percent of us have a secure attachment style. For these people, it’s a walk in the park to show emotion and affection in a relationship while simultaneously maintaining a sense of autonomy and independence, i.e. not letting the relationship become all-consuming.
They’re generally able to work through and move forward from conflict with ease. Secure folks aren’t the type to read through their partner’s phones or freak out when they don’t receive a text.
How it forms in childhood: A secure attachment style forms when caregivers quickly and sensitively give a child the support they need while still giving them space to develop their own autonomy. When parents recognize and attend to their child’s needs on a consistent basis, the child trusts they are there for them.
What it looks like: Those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may have doubts about the relationship’s strength, feel unreasonably jealous, or harbor constant fears that their partner is going to leave.
The anxious-preoccupied tend to overanalyze their relationship. They may obsess over their partner’s social media, thinking there’s hidden meaning to a post when in fact nothing is wrong. To keep worry at bay, they may over-communicate, texting all day long or needing to know where their partner is at all times.
How it forms in childhood: You may have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style if your caregivers were inconsistent and unpredictable with their attentiveness. With this style, caregivers tend to be overprotective and/or excessively hold and touch the child.
Often anxious-preoccupied children imitate this overbearing behavior in their own relationships.
What it looks like: A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may see themselves as independent and refrain from asking for help. They might deny themselves emotional intimacy because they don’t want to be perceived as needy, and they may reject such openness from others.
This is the type who has a seemingly endless string of semi-serious partners to whom she refuses to fully commit. Or maybe it’s the ex who wasn’t comfortable expressing vulnerability with you.
How it forms in childhood: When caregivers dismiss the emotional needs of a child, or treat them in a detached, aloof way, the child might eventually stop communicating their emotional needs altogether, as they believe it has no effect. This helps explain why dismissive-avoidant styles often have trouble expressing emotion and affection to their partners.
What it looks like: People with a fearful-avoidant style often crave a close relationship but feel unworthy of love or afraid of losing the intimacy once they have it. Because of their insecurities around love, they tend to avoid intimacy and suppress feelings that do arise.
The fearful avoidant might feel intense feelings of love for a new partner but right when things start to get serious they start to panic and search for reasons the relationship could never work.
How it’s formed in childhood: If your caregivers subjected you to abuse, neglect or rejection, or if they were volatile or unpredictable, causing you fear as a young child, you may have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
What it looks like: Similar to the fearful avoidant style, people with a disorganized attachment style want and crave love but experience severe stress and fear in relationships. They’re often overcome with low self-esteem and talk themselves into believing that no one will love them.
If they are in a relationship, they may rely heavily on their partner to ease their stress or anxiety. Yet, they may never feel at ease in a relationship because of a lack of trust and a fear of abandonment.
How it forms in childhood: A disorganized attachment style is often rooted in unresolved trauma. This may be trauma you experienced as a child or it could be inherited from a parent who faced severe emotional hardship in their own life.
You may also have a disorganized attachment style if your caregiver had a personality disorder and was therefore unpredictable in their parenting strategies.
While you generally carry your attachment style from childhood with you into adulthood, your style can be influenced by the people you have relationships with.
For example, say you typically have a secure attachment style. But then you end up in a relationship with a dismissive-avoidant type. Because you never know what the other person is thinking or feeling, you might start to become more insecure, overanalyzing everything they do or building up your own walls internally to protect yourself.
And the reverse can happen. Time spent in partnership with someone who has a secure attachment style can help you feel more secure — if you weren’t already a calm cucumber.
“Being in a healthy relationship for a long period of time, where we gradually learn we’re safe and loved,” says Martorell, “can overcome earlier bad experiences and shape romantic attachment style into a more positive form.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that attachment styles are exacerbated in times of stress. For example, if you’re an anxious-preoccupied type, you might not exhibit that behavior all the time. But then you have an argument with your partner, and you start obsessing over what happened, and feeling extra needy for their reassurance.
Likewise, if you typically have a secure attachment style, but also identify with some traits of one of the insecure subsets, a sudden life change or time of adversity might cause you to feel less secure in your relationship.
Which might have you wondering, “How can I get that, too?”
The truth of the truth is that attachment styles tend to stay relatively stagnant throughout a person’s life, but there has been some research about styles changing.
In one study, long-term couples did intimacy-building exercises, such as answering questions about one another and doing partner yoga. Researchers found the exercises helped the avoidant partners align closer to a secure attachment style.
Another study showed insecure attachment styles tend to become less insecure, to varying degrees, as we age. The authors noticed that the older people get, the less time they have for relationships that don’t serve their happiness. The result of investing more in positive relationships was a higher degree of security.
Here are some ways you can start to work toward a more secure attachment style.
Pinpoint your attachment style
This is a great starting point for working toward a more secure style. “If someone with an insecure attachment is not even aware that they have an issue or where the issue stems from,” says Sophia Reed PhD, a national certified counselor and relationship blogger, “then it can be difficult for them to work on it.”
Learn from your secure friends
“As a result of consciously interfacing and connecting with individuals who are able to connect in a safe, trustworthy way,” explains clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD,“the individual with the insecure attachment style can slowly, but surely, learn that it is safe to attach to another person.”
Of course, you don’t have to ditch your current relationship in search of someone with a secure attachment style. If willing, both people can work together to set boundaries, open the lines of communication and help each other feel more secure, regardless of their attachment style.
Communicate with your partner
Couples can help each other by maintaining safe, open, regular communication. “By consistently setting and maintaining relationship agreements, the secure partner models the very type of behavior and inner security that the insecure person lacks and craves,” Manly says.
“When the secure person consistently ‘shows up’ in the relationship in an honest, straightforward way, the insecure partner’s brain has the opportunity to rewire with new thoughts and patterns that say, ‘I am safe. I am loved. I am secure.’”
If you’re the secure person in the relationship, Manly says it’s important to set clear and rational boundaries, even if these may upset the insecure person at times.
“One of the worst things a secure person can do,” Manly adds, “is to give in to an insecure person’s excessive dependency or fearful behavior.”
Go to therapy
To get to the root cause and pinpoint your triggers, Reed suggests seeing a professional. A therapist can also teach communication techniques and coping strategies for dealing with difficult emotions.
She also recommends couples counseling as a way to learn how to better communicate with your partner.
There are tons of attachment style quizzes to choose from online but we like this one because it’s free, short, doesn’t have annoying ads, and plots your attachment style on a quadrant. This helps gives dimension to your specific style. If you fall in the secure quadrant, for example, you’ll learn if you edge more toward an anxiety or avoidant style.
Keep in mind they offer two options: a lengthier and a shorter version. We like the short version because it doesn’t require email sign-up.
You can also read the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love, to learn more about attachment theory in general.
Exploring attachment theory can be tough, especially if it means unpacking painful memories from your childhood or past relationships. But awareness of our attachment style can make us more self-aware.
When we know our triggers, we can find ways to work through our emotions, communicate better, and navigate or set boundaries.
In short, doing the work can make your current relationship — or future ones — feel more secure and satisfying.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.