We’re all born as helpless little creatures who depend on our caregivers for everything. Human infants are vulnerable beings who rely on others to keep them fed, safe, comforted … everything really.
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Five decades of research show that your earliest emotional bonds with the person most responsible for your well-being — often your birth parent — can directly affect the health of your future romantic relationships. Babies whose caregivers can regularly be relied on for comfort and devoted attention tend to have more stable relationships later on. Infants whose caregivers are less attentive are more likely to have more difficulty forming healthy relationships as adults.
It’s called “attachment theory,” and it’s a long-studied concept that’s getting a lot of attention these days. Clinical psychologist Coda Derrig, PhD, says it’s one lens we can use to better understand who we are and why we behave the way we do with the people we love.
“Your attachment style from your infancy can influence your relationships with others. But as humans, we’re complex creatures,” Dr. Derrig says. “There are a lot of other factors at play as well. We all have multiple experiences that influence our ability to form healthy relationships over time.”
We talked with Dr. Derrig about how attachments are formed, the four attachment styles and how your style can impact your adult relationships.
What is attachment theory?
There is a long list of scientific literature that categorizes how we form emotional attachments to our primary caregivers in order to ensure our safety and survival.
The most famous study comes from a 1969 experiment called the Strange Situation, which gave rise to the four styles of attachment we know today. In the study, babies and their birthing parent played in a room together. The parent left and then returned a few minutes later. The baby’s reaction was then monitored.
From that study, the four attachment styles were identified:
- Secure attachment: Babies became upset when their parent left and were comforted by their return.
- Anxious attachment: Babies would become very upset when their parent left and would be difficult to comfort upon their return.
- Avoidant attachment: Babies would barely react — or not react at all — when their parent left or returned.
- Disorganized attachment: Babies had more erratic or incoherent reactions to their parent leaving or returning, such as hitting their heads on the ground or “freezing up.”
The baby’s reaction to their parent’s departure and return says a lot about how the baby is used to their caregiver attending to their needs, Dr. Derrig notes. And those experiences as youngsters are likely to affect the way they relate to others in their adult lives.
Babies who are securely attached understand their parent is someone they rely on, so they become concerned when they go and are comforted by them coming back. On the other hand, babies who learned that their parents aren’t going to be attentive to their needs are less worried about their absence and less comforted by their return. They’ve learned they can’t rely on their caregivers to provide them with what they need, so the parent’s presence (or absence) isn’t as meaningful to them.
The 4 attachment styles
There are four styles that grew out of the Strange Situation experiment. One is secure attachment. The other three — anxious, avoidant and disorganized — are considered insecure attachment styles.
Each style exists on a spectrum, so you may not find yourself identifying completely with any one style. Or your style may fall into one category but be more or less extreme in how it affects the quality of your relationships.
Dr. Derrig breaks down the four attachment styles and how they can impact your romantic relationships as an adult.
Secure attachment style
Secure attachment is what we all strive for. Babies who form secure attachments to their primary caregiver are more likely to become adults who confidently seek out healthy relationships with others and are reliable and loving partners themselves, Dr. Derrig says.
How does it form? Babies form secure attachments when their caregivers consistently fulfill a baby’s physical and emotional needs. Babies who are securely attached prefer their primary caregiver over other people and are calmed by their presence.
What does it look like in adult relationships? People with a secure attachment style are more readily able to form long-lasting and healthy relationships with others. They’re more likely to trust their partner and be emotionally available to them.
How common is it? Studies show that about 58% of adults are securely attached.
Tip for people with a secure attachment style: Dr. Derrig says that a secure attachment style doesn’t mean you can take for granted that your relationships will be smooth sailing. “If two securely attached people are in a relationship, they’re starting out from a better position, but relationships take work for everyone, no matter your attachment style,” she says.
Anxious attachment style
Also known as preoccupied attachment or anxious-ambivalent attachment.
An anxious attachment style is a form of insecure attachment that forms between a baby and an inconsistent caregiver. From their perspective, the baby can’t be sure when and if their parent is going to be emotionally and physically available to them.
How does it form? Babies whose primary caregivers aren’t consistent in meeting a baby’s needs are more likely to form an anxious attachment. Anxiously attached babies learn that they may or may not get the attention they need, so they aren’t easily comforted by their caregivers.
What does it look like in adult relationships? A partner with an anxious attachment style may be seen as “clingy,” “needy” or not trusting. People with an anxious attachment style can be consumed with concern that their loved ones will abandon them, and they may seek constant reassurance that they’re safe in their relationship.
How common is it? Research indicates that about 19% of adults have an anxious attachment style.
Tip for people with an anxious attachment style: Dr. Derrig warns that people who have an anxious attachment can drive away their partner with their neediness. That can create even more feelings of insecurity in future relationships.
“People with an anxious attachment can benefit from what we call ‘rituals of separation,’ where the partners agree that before they go out for the day, they give each other a kiss. They say, ‘I’ll see you tonight.’ They send a text during the day to say they’re thinking of each other. Whatever it is, they make a conscious effort to acknowledge that they’re leaving and also that they will be back,” Dr. Derrig explains. “That can help a person with an anxious attachment to feel confident their partner will not abandon them.”
Avoidant attachment style
Also known as dismissive attachment or anxious-avoidant attachment.
Avoidant attachment can look like an adult who is a “lone wolf” or overly self-sufficient. People with an avoidant attachment style are likely to not delve much into emotional conversations, either in regard to their own feelings or those of others. An avoidant attachment style often stems from a relationship between a primary caregiver and a baby that’s marked by a lack of emotional support or connection.
How does it form? Avoidant attachment is most likely to form when a caregiver doesn’t provide a baby with sufficient emotional support. The caregiver’s responsiveness to the baby most likely ends with caring for their physical needs, like feeding and bathing, but the caregiver doesn’t provide the emotional comfort the baby also needs. In that environment, the baby learns not to rely on others to care for their emotional needs.
What does it look like in adult relationships? Adults with an avoidant attachment style can be seen as self-reliant and emotionally guarded. They’re unlikely to seek emotional comfort or understand how to comfort their partner.
How common is it? Research shows about 23% of adults have an avoidant attachment style.
Tip for people with an avoidant attachment style: Dr. Derrig notes that people with an avoidant attachment style often distance themselves from others and assume others will disappoint them. Actively observing your own emotions and considering how you pull away from others will require a lot of work. But that effort can be an eye-opening way to help understand your style and learn to let others in.
Disorganized attachment style
Also known as fearful-avoidant attachment.
Disorganized attachment is the most extreme and least common style. People with disorganized attachment can be seen to act irrationally and be unpredictable or intense in their relationships.
How does it form? Disorganized attachment often forms through a particularly tumultuous childhood — often one that may be marked by fear or trauma. It typically stems from an erratic or incoherent relationship with the baby’s primary caregiver.
What does it look like in adult relationships? Adults with disorganized attachments are likely to live with mental health disorders or personality disorders that prevent them from developing healthy relationships with others. They’re likely to crave close relationships but push others away when they show them attention.
Tip for people with an avoidant attachment style: Dr. Derrig says some people who have a disorganized attachment style can often benefit from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of talk therapy that’s especially helpful for people who experience very intense emotions.
How attachment styles affect adult relationships
Your attachment style — and how it meshes with your partner’s style — has a hefty impact on your ability to develop a healthy and mutually affectionate relationship.
Research has shown that attachment styles can affect:
- Communication between partners.
- The risk of relationship violence.
- Overall marriage quality.
Research also shows that your attachment style has a big impact on the attachment you’ll form with your own children.
“If you interview a birth parent and determine their attachment style, you’ll have a good sense of how their infant will attach to them,” Dr. Derrig states. “We raise our children the way that we best know to relate to people, so your attachment style can easily be passed down and repeated over generations.”
How do I know my attachment style?
There’s no shortage of information online that will claim to help you understand your attachment style. There are websites and quizzes galore where you can read up on your style and analyze your upbringing and your relationships.
Dr. Derrig suggests treading cautiously, though, as much of the information you’ll find may not be so scientifically based.
Reading up on attachment styles and considering patterns in your relationships is a good start. But to really understand yourself and heal any attachment wounds, Dr. Derrig advises therapy as the best route.
“If you’re concerned about how your attachment style is affecting you and your relationships with others, the best way to really get to the bottom of it is through psychotherapy,” she states. “Talking with a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable about attachment theory can help you understand your experiences and develop new ways of coping in your relationships. Being aware of your attachment style makes you more likely to be able to do something about it.”
Also, labeling yourself or your partner as having a particular attachment style can lead to over-simplifying the complex web of interactions that we experience as humans. There are countless reasons that explain why we are the way we are. If your partner is emotionally walled-off at times, rushing to blame an insecure attachment style isn’t necessarily helpful for either of you.
“Who we are and how we relate to others is always more complicated than one variable,” Dr. Derrig says. “Relating to other people is probably the greatest gift and the biggest challenge in our lives.”