Our attachment styles can explain some of the biggest mysteries when it comes to relationships. For example, why would someone…
Push their partner away at a time when they need them the most?
Continue to nag their partner when it just makes things worse?
Say they “don’t need a relationship” only to keep looking for someone new?
Attachment theory can help explain this and more. “Attachment theory explores the way we love, and traces the origins of these love styles. This understanding is essential in toppling dysfunctional patterns to form and sustain secure attachments in our relationships.” says Orange County Health Psychologist’s Dr. Parul Patel, who is a licensed psychologist specializing in couple’s therapy.
So, to help you improve your relationship — and enhance your understanding of yourself — here’s a look at how attachment styles manifest in relationships. We’ll also examine how to use them to your advantage.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory was introduced by psychiatrist John Bowlby and refined by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. Since then, it’s been a popular way to look at how we navigate relationships. The main premise is that how we approached relationships with our caregivers as infants and children influence how we interact with our intimate partners today.
To understand attachment theory, let’s first imagine ourselves as babies. We need the adults caring for us to meet our needs, so we cry out to get their attention. We do the same when we’re toddlers: We scream for our parents, whether it’s because we’re wet, hungry, or just want them to notice us.
The problem is, adults don’t always respond in healthy ways. Many parents will respond immediately and with love — but others don’t.
When you are raised by parents who don’t meet your needs often enough as a child, you develop what’s called an insecure attachment style. That means you learn to cope by using all kinds of negative behaviors and patterns of thinking.
But if you are raised by parents who do meet your needs, you develop a secure attachment style. Because your parents are reliable, you don’t have to resort to extreme measures to get attention.
According to attachment theory, our attachment style from childhood becomes how we approach our intimate relationships as adults.
The different attachment styles can be roughly divided into three: secure, anxious, and avoidant.
Secure attachment style
People who developed a secure attachment style had parents who reliably met their needs. Their parents actively listened to them and were comfortable with connection. Surprisingly, the bar for developing secure attachment is low: These parents are only attuned to their babies 20-30% of the time, says attachment expert Diane Poole Heller.
Nevertheless, roughly 56% of us make it to adulthood with a secure attachment style. So what does that mean for adult relationships? Securely attached romantic partners are able to stay present and connected. They have higher emotional intelligence and can express their emotions constructively.
Securely attached people also tend to pair up earlier in life. In fact, some estimate that 40-50% of the dating pool older than age 40 is insecure (i.e., anxious or avoidant) simply because most of the secure ones are taken as time goes by!
Still, there’s no guarantee that every securely attached person will end up with a secure partner. If you are securely attached but have an insecure partner, it is helpful to address the dynamic that will typically ensue, according to Patel.
“A secure partner can offer reassurance, compassion, and understanding,” says Patel. “At the same time, the secure partner would need to practice and model healthy boundaries and self-care. It might be helpful to seek professional support to help the anxious/avoidant partner to do the work to address what comes in the way of forming secure attachments.”
Anxious attachment style
If your parents were inconsistent in meeting your needs as a child, you likely developed an anxious attachment style (also known as ambivalent). People with this attachment style often had parents who were either self-absorbed, intrusive, or on-again, off-again when it came to parenting.
Once anxiously attached people get to adulthood, they may cling to their partners in intimate relationships. Because they fear abandonment, they constantly monitor their partner for signs of disconnection. They might inherently distrust their partner and/or misread cues in negative ways.
An anxious partner can be difficult to reassure. In this case, be consistent with your attention and do your best to follow through on your promises. On the other hand, if you are anxiously attached, try to find ways to practice receiving from your partner. Also, work on developing your self-esteem so your sense of control comes from within, rather than someone else’s behavior.
Avoidant attachment style
People who develop an avoidant attachment style typically had parents who consistently did not respond to their needs. Their parents could have been vacant, rejecting, neglectful, shaming, or at the extreme, even abusive. As a result, those with parents like this learned to disconnect from their own feelings. It was just too hard to continue to have needs when they were not being met.
Those with an avoidant attachment style put a high value on their autonomy as adults, even when they’re in a relationship. They might insist on alone time or space from their partner. Because they are emotionally disconnected, they also may have a hard time empathizing with their partner.
The avoidant attachment style also breaks down into two types: dismissive and fearful-avoidant (aka disorganized). Dismissive avoidants tend to fall into the description above while fearful-avoidants may also employ some strategies from the anxious attachment style in addition to avoidance (hence the term disorganized).
If you are in a relationship and have an avoidant attachment style, there is a strong chance you will pair with someone who is ambivalent, or anxiously attached. This is a classic push-pull dynamic where one person (the avoidant) pushes their partner away while the other (the ambivalent) continues to seek closeness.
As with other insecure attachment styles, if you are the avoidant partner, you must be willing to do some work on yourself.
Says Patel, “I often say to the people I work with that there are no shortcuts and no magic solutions. Change is effected by doing the work of introspection, self-observation, commitment, determination, willpower, self-care, reparenting, patience, keeping the awareness, challenging oneself, working with a professional, and being willing to have tough conversations and creating new pathways.”
Alternatively, if your partner is avoidant, Patel suggests that you remind yourself of your partner’s attachment style and why it may be present. “At the same time, you may want to gently invite your partner back to the table,” she adds. “Psycho-education and seeking couples therapy would help such a dynamic.”
Learn more about your attachment style
Once you understand your attachment style, a whole new world can open up for you and your partner. You can begin to change the way you relate to each other and create a more healthy connection.
However, attachment theory is nuanced, and a professional can help you recognize the parts of the pattern within yourself that you can’t see. Contact us by calling 949.528.6300 or emailing info@OCHealthPsych.com to set up an appointment.
Note to psychology professionals: The need for mental health services has significantly increased, and as such, we are hiring new providers. Orange County Health Psychologists welcomes applicants from licensed professionals of all backgrounds who have a passion for excellence in mental health care. For more information, see our Careers page.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists
About Parul M. Patel, Psy.D.
Dr. Parul Patel is a licensed psychologist with over 15 years of experience. She received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Systems, from Alliant International University.
Dr. Patel specializes in couples therapy. She helps to shift pain-causing patterns, and to heal from emotional distress, violence, contempt, control and abuse, loneliness and lack of intimacy, or the weight of childhood or past trauma. She works with individuals, couples and families on their journey of recovery from relationship wounds.