‘Attachment theory’ appears to have nudged its way into mainstream discourse in recent years, with more and more people showing an interest in it.
This is an area of psychology which is all to do with the emotional attachments between humans. Attachment theory argues that the emotional bonds we have with our caregivers go on to impact our future relationships later in life, including how we deal with conflict, our expectations regarding intimacy, and the partners we are attracted to in the first place.
A basic understanding of the four different attachment styles, and the ability to recognise which style we lean towards ourselves, can be greatly beneficial for our current and future relationships. Whilst your attachment style won’t explain everything about the nature of your relationships, it will probably explain a great deal and can help us to better understand our patterns of behaviour and our emotions.
The History of Attachment Theory
The theory of attachment was originally developed in 1907 by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst. Bowlby was seeking to understand more about the anxiety and distress experienced by children who had been separated from their parents.
His work was expanded upon by psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who conducted a study in the 1970s. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to being briefly left alone, and then reunited, with their mothers. Based on the responses the researchers observed, Ainsworth identified three different styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent (also known as anxious) attachment, and avoidant attachment. Later still in 1986, researchers Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style called disorganised attachment based on their own research.
The Four Adult Attachment Styles
Our attachment stylecan affect our relationships in many ways. From our partner selection, to the way we handle conflict.
Each of the four styles are associated with certain traits, although I believe it is more helpful to think of attachment styles as a “a sliding scale” rather than fixed boxes, as behaviours differ from person to person.
Here is a brief overview:
- Ambivalent/anxious attachment style
People with this style highly value their relationships but often worry that their partner is not as invested in the relationship as they are. They often experience anxiety and have a strong fear of abandonment. If they do not get the reassurance they desperately seek from their partners, they may become clingy and demanding.
- Avoidant attachment style
People with this style tend to be very independent and want to avoid emotional closeness. They do not like to be depended upon by others and may feel suffocated in relationships. These individuals often have a fear of commitment.
- Disorganised attachment style
People with this style often exhibit a mixture of both styles above. They areoften drawn to close relationships, yet they are simultaneously fearful of them. This style tends to be characterised by fear, mistrust, and inner conflict.
- Secure attachment style
The secure attachment style is the most common type of attachment, with studies suggesting it equates for around 50% of the population (Peter Fonagy et al, 1992). People with this style have less anxiety, tend to have good emotional regulation, and higher self-esteem. As a result, they tend to have longer-lasting relationships with less conflict.
Changing your attachment style
If you identify with one of the insecure styles above, do not despair. Because attachment styles are a sliding scale, it is possible to move closer towards a secure attachment style if you are willing to put in the work. Self-awareness is a great first step and here are three other things you can do:
Effective communication is essential in a relationship. Learning to see yourself and your partner through an attachment lens can increase your understanding of some of the struggles you both might face in your relationship and talking about this together can be really helpful.
- Consider working with a therapist
Therapists can help to educate you further about attachment, point out instances of secure or insecure attachment, help you reflect on your needs in relationships or process through negative reactions to relationships, and support you as you begin connecting with others in secure ways.
- Do further research
We’ve only scratched the surface on this extensive topic, so I would suggest reading the book ‘Attached’ by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller, as it provides readers with a quiz to do to find out their own style, as well as advice for building stronger, more fulfilling relationships.
The most important take-home message here is that if you struggle to feel secure within your relationships, you don’t have to resign yourselves to enduring those same emotions, attitudes, or patterns of behaviour throughout your life. It is possible to change and begin to develop a more secure attachment style as an adult, regardless of past experiences.