Have you ever wondered why your relationships have not worked out? Or why other people seem to believe that “relationships are such hard work” when they seem so simple and easy to you? What about why your friend keeps picking the same type of wrong person to date even though she knows better? Or why you keep thinking about that ex and wondering what they are up to, even though the relationship was painful for you? It’s about attachment.
Attachment Theory is a well documented and researched concept that explains the nature of emotional attachment between humans. Attachment Style refers to the way we perceive and connect with others. It’s at the root of all our interactions with people. What follows is a basic overview of the topic to expose you to the concept and why it helps to know about it. Our attachment styles have considerable influence on us.
As an adult, your attachment style impacts you in the following ways:
The way you feel around other people
The type of people you are drawn to
The way you connect with other people
The way you cope with “threats” to your connections to other people
The way you ask for love and attention
The way you deal with loneliness
The way you deal with closeness
The concept of attachment style has been researched and documented in psychology circles since the 1950s. You may have heard the term more recently, as information about attachment style has entered the mainstream conversation. It can be immensely helpful to understand your own attachment style and how it impacts your relationships.
How are attachment styles formed?
Our attachment styles are developed when we are very young, based on how we are treated by our caregivers. Basically it comes down to how safe and seen we felt.
There are 2 main categories of attachment: secure and insecure.
If caregivers are well attuned to us, we form a secure attachment.
If our caregivers are not well attuned to us, we can develop an insecure attachment.
There are several subtypes of insecure attachment style that are explained further below.
But first, what does “attuned” mean?
When caregivers are well attuned to their child, it means that most of the time, the caregiver:
pays consistent attention to their child
responds favorably to their child
is sensitive to the child’s unique temperament & needs
is responsive and works to meet their child’s physical and emotional needs
creates a safe “home base” for the child to venture into the world from
Our default attachment styles are typically formed by age 3 or so and fairly cemented by age 6. Our style is based on our interpretation of our experiences with caregivers in these early years, especially in the first 18 months of life as our brains are soaking up immense amounts of data.
Attachment styles do (can) evolve and shift over time depending on the relational experiences we encounter in life. More about creating change to your attachment style in the next attachment article.
What are the various attachment styles?
As mentioned, there are two main styles of attachment:
Secure (it’s speculated that about 55% of U.S. adults have a secure style)
Insecure (it’s speculated that about 45% of U.S. adults have an insecure style).
Insecure Attachment has 3 subtypes:
Anxious/Preoccupied attachment (20% of U.S. adults)
Avoidant attachment (20% of U.S. adults)
Disorganized/Anxious-Avoidant attachment (5% of U.S. adults)
The percentages are only estimates. Most of us are on an attachment spectrum and can dip into aspects of each style depending on the situation. For example, a person can feel very securely attached to their best friend of 11 years, but insecure in their attachment to a mother-in-law of 11 years.
What do these attachment styles mean about us?
Our attachment style informs our internal working model of how we see ourselves and how we see others. It creates the core lens through which we perceive the world. As you read the styles, reflect on how you generally feel in most situations.
The internal working models of each attachment style are:
Secure - I’m good and okay. Other people are mostly good and okay and safe. I trust that I am loveable and I feel safe loving others.
Anxious/Preoccupied - I’m NOT good or okay but other people ARE mostly good and okay and safe. I’m the problem. I’m not good enough. I can’t safely trust that others will love me.
Avoidant - I’m good and okay but other people are NOT mostly good or okay or safe. I can only depend on myself. I can’t count on others. Other people are not safe to love or to count on receiving love from.
Disorganized/Anxious-Avoidant- I’m NOT good or okay and other people are NOT good or okay or safe. I can’t trust anyone. I don’t even know how to feel safe within myself or trust my decisions.
How did I get this attachment style?
The caregiving/parenting we receive leads to our attachment style. No parents are perfect, and perfection is not required to create a secure attachment. “Good enough” parents foster a sense of trust and approval and safety most of the time. But parents also have their own attachment styles that can impact the way they form relationships (or don’t) with their children.
Secure attachment comes from fairly consistent, loving, attentive parenting. At least one caregiver was reliable and treated you like you mattered.
Your basic needs were met, physically and emotionally. You had a low level of stress overall as a child. Your thoughts and emotions were allowed and respected.
Your caregivers addressed family stressors with some openness and provided tools to manage them together.
Anxious/preoccupied attachment comes from inconsistent parenting.
Sometimes the caregiver was attentive and caring and sometimes they were inattentive or misattuned. Emotional sensitivity and attunement was very unpredictable. Love and approval was uncertain.
You may have been left to manage your thoughts and feelings on your own with some frequency. It was hard to know if you really mattered. It may have felt like you only mattered in certain ways, like with your behavior or achievements.
Your basic needs were mostly met, and your childhood may have been “fine.” But you lacked consistent emotional attentiveness and this led to you becoming focused on the ways to best get love and care (like getting good grades, being athletic, taking on certain roles in the home, etc.).
Your caregivers may have traveled or worked a lot, had significant mood swings or mental health challenges, been aloof or individualistic, struggled in their relationship/marriage or been a single parent with little resources and emotional energy to offer. You may have been separated from your caregiver in early years.
Alternatively, your caregivers might have been over-protective or intrusive. They may have used the parenting relationship to get emotional support or satiate their own attachment needs. Caregivers may have used parenting as a way to feel better about themselves or try to appear a certain way to outsiders, as in being a “perfect parent.”
Avoidant Attachment comes from having consistently distant parenting, perhaps neglectful.
You might have been shamed for having needs or emotions. You may have felt there was no space or tolerance for your needs and feelings in the home. You might have been raised to be reserved or “tough” and independent.
Your caregivers might have been strict and avoided most displays of emotion. They may have been distant and pulled back or seemed unavailable when support was most needed. There might have been a lack of love or emotion in the house, a general separateness or coldness.
Your feelings and needs might have been demeaned. Your home might have contained some verbal or physical aggression (witnessed or experienced). You might have lost a parent or experienced foster care/adoption.
Your caregivers may have struggled with workaholism, chronic stress, substance abuse, or had extreme emotions that made you feel scared or controlled.
Disorganized/Anxious-Avoidant Attachment comes from chaotic parenting. It is the most difficult one to parse out as a subtype, the least common, and very painful to live with.
You did not know what to expect from your caregivers most of the time. You didn’t know when or if your caregivers would meet your basic needs.
You likely grew up in a situation where you feared the people you had to depend on. You might have been walking on eggshells to stay under the radar. You learned to shut your emotions & needs down to keep yourself safe. Your caregivers were mostly inattentive and neglectful. You may have experienced or witnessed abuse, either physically or emotionally or both.
You realized that you could not rely on your caregivers but you also were unable to rely on yourself due to the chronic inconsistency of daily life. You had a biological urge to feel safe with your caregivers but could also recognize they were not safe or trustable. You felt confused and alone.
Your caregivers may have had mental illness or substance use or a personality disorder. You were largely left to your own devices as a child with no ability to form a secure external or internal foundation.
You may have been in multiple caregiving environments or been in foster care.
What is my attachment style?
So at this point, we have covered how attachment styles are formed, what the various attachment styles are, what they mean about our internal working models, and how you got your particular style. You may feel overwhelmed with information and simply curious to be certain what your attachment style is.
There are many tests and quizzes out there. Here are 3 that are trustable:
This one developed by psychologist R. Chris Fraley, PhD. It does a sold job touching on the essential aspects that define a person's attachment style. It takes about 4 minutes and requires no email address for results.
This quiz by Dr. Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., an expert on adult attachment and trauma. This one is particularly helpful if you had some difficult or traumatizing experiences in childhood. It takes about 4 minutes and she does require an email address to get your results.
Amir Levine & Rachel Heller, authors of the book Attached (which I recommend for further reading) created a thorough and more lengthy quiz which is inside the book. They post a short version of their attachment quiz related to romantic relationships on their website.
How does my attachment style impact my relationships?
Now that you have an overview of attachment style, let’s look next at how your way of attaching impacts your relationships.