Our attachment style is shaped and developed in early childhood by our relationships with our parents.
According to the attachment theory, first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, we mirror the dynamics we had with our parents — or primary caregivers — as infants and children.
As a therapist who specializes in relationships, I’ve found that attachment style discussions are not typical until much later on in life, when we must start to examine our relationship patterns and connecting dots.
The 3 main attachment styles: Which one are you?
Attachment theory is nuanced, like humans are. Although it is a spectrum of four styles, common parlance refers to only three: anxious, avoidant and secure.
Understanding which style you fall under — and the specific details surrounding it — can help you take control of how you relate to other people, particularly in stressful situations.
1. Anxious attachment style
Anxious attachment is characterized by a concern that the other person, whether with a significant other, friend or family member, will not reciprocate your level of availability.
This is generally caused when a child learns that their caregiver or parent is unreliable and does not consistently provide responsive care towards their needs.
I am anxiously attached. My parents came to America with very little money. They worked a lot and were more worried about paying the bills than creating a safe emotional space where secure attachments grew.
Anxious attachment types have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluate others positively. As a result, they strive for self-acceptance by tying their worth to approval and validation from their relationships.
Knowing this about myself has been a game-changer in my current relationship. Instead of demanding, wanting more, feeling rejected and unwanted, I can take ownership and remind myself that how I feel may not be the reality.
2. Avoidant attachment style
My partner Vanessa leans towards an avoidant attachment style. Children who fall under this category tend to avoid interaction with their parents, and show little or no distress during separation. The child may believe that they cannot depend on the relationship.
An avoidant attachment style shows up in adults who hold a positive self-image and a negative image of others. They prefer to avoid close relationships and intimacy in order to remain a sense of independence and invulnerability. It’s a way to hide and not truly show themselves.
The avoidant struggles with intimacy and expressing feelings, thoughts and emotions. They are often accused of being distant and closed off. The closer someone gets and the needier they seem to become, the more an avoidant withdraws.
Knowing that Vanessa has more of an avoidant attachment style makes me understand and listen to her more, instead of immediately jumping to blame.
3. Secure attachment style
People who are securely attached appreciate their own self-worth and ability to be themselves in their relationships. They openly seek support and comfort from their partner, and are similarly happy when their partner relies on them for emotional support.
During the childhood years, their caregivers made sure they felt valued, supported, heard and reassured. Here are some ways securely attached kids show up as adults:
- They are able to regulate emotions and feelings in a relationship.
- They have a strong goal-oriented behavior when on their own.
- They don’t struggle with opening up and trusting others.
- They are comfortable being alone and use that time to explore their emotions.
- They have a strong capacity to reflect on how they are maneuvering in a relationship.
Secure attachment is what everyone is swimming towards, including Vanessa and me. But it takes awareness and practice.
The good news about attachment styles
We can become more and more securely attached as we experience healthy attachment habits in our adult relationships.
Because Vanessa is aware of her tendency to be avoidant, for example, she’s able to reflect on her emotional responses and see that they are mostly a knee-jerk reaction she’s adopted for protection. Then she can challenge herself to choose differently based on the kind of connection she truly wants.
We both give each other the space and the loving boundaries that we expect from each other.
Rewiring yourself to be more securely attached has to be a lifestyle, an everyday thing. Because as humans, we snap back if we are not intentional and just live by our default.
We all have our stories; no one has a perfect childhood. And it’s not about blaming or living in the past. It’s about looking at who we are now, and healing and evolving to become more secure.