Even if you have no idea what “attachment styles” are, you’ve experienced them in your Massachusetts marriage. If you’ve been involved with someone who routinely texts “Where are you?? Let me know asap!” when they haven’t heard from you in a couple hours, or worried your partner is cheating based on, well, nothing at all, then you’ve seen attachment theory in action.
The Origins of Attachment Theory
British developmental psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the attachment theory to explain the importance of the bond between infants and their primary caregivers. This bond, or attachment, affects how people explore the world around them throughout their lives. Mary Salter Ainsworth, a Canadian developmental psychologist and colleague of Bowlby, later refined attachment theory in her research, articulating the different ways infants responded when separated from and reunited with caregivers.
Put another way, attachment styles describe different ways people regulate their emotions, says Elisabeth Goldberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist in upstate New York.
“It’s really about understanding your relationship to an object, usually a person or yourself,” Goldberg says. “Under acute distress, people regress to coping mechanisms that helped them in the past.”
The way attachment styles are named and numbered varies a bit, but here’s a breakdown of the four most common types:
1. Secure Attachment
People with a secure attachment style likely had caretakers that were emotionally there for them when they formed their attachment. As adults, such people are more likely to trust others and speak up about their needs, and importantly, they know what their needs are. In relationships, they feel comfortable with their partners, and giving partners space doesn’t make them feel anxious or insecure.
“The studies I’ve seen say that in the US, 50 to 60 percent of people are categorized as secure,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Annie Chen, author of The Attachment Theory Workbook: “The rest are split in the various insecure camps.”
Having secure attachments doesn’t mean a person never gets jealous, however, says licensed marriage and family therapist Dave Grammer. A couple with a secure attachment still gets angry at each other and argues, but when it comes down to it, they trust each other to be open and honest and work through whatever comes up.
Dismissive-avoidant types value their independence and might not seem to need or want acceptance from others. They often seem emotionally distant and might be uncomfortable with expressions of emotions, whether it’s their own or those of others.
They might never let partners get close enough to develop truly meaningful relationships. When a partner gets fed up and says, “Look, I’m going to leave,” a dismissive type might respond, “Pfft, I knew it, good riddance,” Grammer says.
“Dismissive/avoidant types can be extra-hard to change,” Grammer says. “Whereas fearful types are avoidant but anxious about it, dismissives feel like they can never be that close in the first place.”
This is one of the three attachment styles considered “insecure.” People who are the anxious-preoccupied style often have low self-esteem and crave a lot of attention andstyle usually stems from an early home environment in which parents are unavailable or in and out of the child’s emotional life.
People with this attachment style can be nervous and freaked out in relationships, Grammer says. “OMG, is she still interested? She didn’t call me back right away!” is a typical reaction for people who have this style, Grammer says.
Anxious/preoccupied types often need to spend every waking moment with their partners and it’s never enough, Grammer continues. They might be quick to say “I love you” to a new dating partner or want to move in together right away. A good example of the anxious/preoccupied type is the character Ted on How I Met Your Mother, psychologist Jade Wu wrote for Scientific American. In one episode, Ted asked a girlfriend to get rid of dogs she had inherited from past relationships because the link to past partners made him feel threatened, Wu noted.
“As an adult, you have an expectation that partners need to take care of you, and it’s often not easy for them to do so,” Goldberg says. “This type might start fights and act jealous because they don’t know how to communicate their needs.”
Changing these tendencies won’t result from a partner giving enough reassurance, however, Grammer says. This type has to learn to trust the reassurance the partner is giving.
“A lot of this comes down to self-esteem: If I believe I’m worthy of my partner’s love, then I can trust them when they say they’re not going anywhere,” Grammer says.
Also referred to as the “disorganized” attachment style, the fearful/avoidant can be complicated and unpredictable. People who experienced trauma as children might have this attachment style because the person who was supposed to take care of them and provide comfort didn’t, at least some of the time. Behaviors associated with this style tend to be a combination of anxious and dismissive types, Goldberg says. They often crave emotional intimacy but also tend to shove it away (as in, “I hate you, please don’t leave me.”).
They send contradictory messages and often perceive themselves as giving a lot more than they’re getting.
“They like to see themselves as compassionate, altruistic and generous, but tend to be resentful about not getting their own needs met,” Goldberg says. Yet they also have trouble communicating or even identifying what those needs are.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s easy to misdiagnose your own attachment style, Chen says.
“We have blind spots in how we see ourselves,” she says. Assessment tools such as attachment style quizzes help but are still imperfect.
“I only recommend self-diagnosing to the extent that it helps you think about yourself and your patterns and behaviors in relationships, rather than as a hard label,” Chen says.
Even if you’re unsure where you fall within the four styles, it’s valuable to consider how you became the way you are, what happened in your past, what you can work on, and what you can give yourself credit for, Goldberg says. “If you work within your personality, then attachment styles can be very malleable,” she adds.
For instance, insecure attachment styles should be thought of as more of a guide than a personal failing.
“People put themselves down as needy or clingy, but if you need someone to check in more often for you to feel secure, that’s okay,” she says.
There’s a common refrain in therapy that’s useful when talking about attachment styles, Goldberg says: “Name it, tame it, reframe it.” In other words, once you learn your patterns of behavior, you can work on changing them.
It’s easy to understand why understanding a partner’s attachment style is useful. If someone has a fearful-avoidant style, for example, the first step is to identify their relationship goals and be explicit about how their attachment patterns might get in the way of those goals.
“From there, get support to tolerate more interactive emotional intensity a little at a time,” Chen says.
Rather than lashing out in anger and saying, “I hate you! You contribute nothing to the discussion,” to your partner, acknowledge you’re angry and figure out why. Ask yourself what you and others can do to correct that feeling. Would an apology help? Would checking in more often with you help? You have to know what you’re feeling and what your needs are before you can communicate them to your partner, Goldberg says.
If you have a tendency to flee during an argument, for another example, communicate to your partner that you need space for the next hour and are going to take a walk rather than silently storming out, Goldberg says.
Identifying attachment behaviors, per Grammer, is also helpful so you can call each other out on stuff. But doing so with compassion is key. You don’t want to turn armchair attachment assessments into weapons to lob at each other, such as, “There’s your rage, you always do this!” or “This is just you being insecure again.”
It’s all about recognizing where they might be coming from and trying to approach them in the most helpful way. Keeping this in mind, you can respond with empathy rather than exasperation.
Instead of saying to a jealous partner, “What do you mean, you think I’m cheating? That’s absurd,” Grammer says, it’s helpful to remember the story they might be telling themselves could, for example, be “I’m not good enough, so of course they want to find someone better than me.”
“If you can recognize behaviors that aren’t appropriate or helpful, it gives you an idea how to challenge it a little bit,” he says. “When a partner needs time or space, for example, give it to them, but let them know, ‘We’re not going to avoid this forever, but we’ll wait a bit until you’re ready.’”
Also important is to not let a little self-awareness sabotage your growth. Don’t use attachment styles as a crutch to maintain unhealthy relationship behaviors, like, “Oh well, that’s just my attachment style, the world can deal with it!”