What are you like in your relationships? Do you tend to worry that your partner is cheating on you just because they haven’t answered your text? Do you maintain a sense of confidence in the face of conflict with others? How do you feel when you’re alone?
How we relate to other people — that is, how we interact with them and include them in our lives — generally reflects how we connected with our early caregivers. This describes attachment theory, a psychology theory developed by the psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her psychiatrist colleague John Bowlby. Attachment theory posits that our early relationship patterns with caregivers influence how we connect with other adults later in life. While this mainly describes how we relate to our romantic partners, it also applies to friendships and work relationships.
Still curious about attachment theory? Read on to learn more about the different types of attachment and how they play out across adulthood.
What is an attachment style?
Your attachment style is how you routinely interact, connect, and engage with the people around you. It describes how you emotionally react to the behaviors of other people. These reactions are often a habit or a pattern that’s difficult to change, as they seem to happen immediately and without thought.
Attachment theory states that your attachment style develops as a result of the way that you interacted with your early caregivers. As infants and children, we rely on adults to take care of us. How they take care of us matters — whatever we experienced in the early years of life instructed us about how people treat others. In a way, our attachment style unconsciously plays out what we saw the adults around us doing when we were young.
According to Ainsworth and Bowlby, there are distinct categories of attachment style. While everyone feels differently about their relationships with others, generally there are four standard attachment styles.
What are the 4 types of attachment?
There are two broad categories of attachment styles: secure and insecure, with three types of attachment making up the insecure attachment style.
- Secure. The secure attachment style describes individuals who easily trust others. They don’t hesitate to fall in love or become close with those around them. Relationships do not cause them anxiety and they don’t try to avoid connection with others.
- Anxious. People who have an anxious attachment style are constantly afraid of being left out or left behind. They tend to cling to those that they love and fear abandonment. This is because they’re insecure about their relationships, sometimes not believing that they deserve a loving relationship and that makes them anxious.
- Avoidant. Avoidant attachment displays itself as a high desire for independence. People who have the avoidant attachment style may feel overwhelmed by intimacy or feel suffocated when they’re around others. Sometimes they’re seen as closed off or unavailable.
- Fearful-avoidant. People who are fearful-avoidant are both highly anxious about abandonment but also want to avoid becoming close to loved ones. This attachment style is sometimes called the disorganized attachment style.
While these are well-known attachment categories and generally accepted by society, it’s worth stating that you might not fall perfectly into any of these styles. Psychological categorization is helpful for many people to guide their thinking but it does not give room for the wide spectrum of human behaviors and emotions.
How are attachment styles formed?
Attachment theory believes that the adults that raise you form your attachment style. As an infant, you’re constantly observing the world around you and these observations shape your brain’s connections. Your brain learns your caregiver’s behaviors and treats them as truth, a north star — no matter if those behaviors are healthy or unhealthy.
If your parents showed you as a baby that getting close to others will end up in emotional pain, you may have issues feeling comfortable in intimate situations. On the other hand, if your parents show you that trusting others and feeling close to them is a positive experience, you might not have trouble falling in love one day as an adult.
That said, your attachment style is not permanently one way or the other and your parents aren’t the only factors in how your attachment style forms. Environmental factors, major life events, or impactful relationships also impact how you like to connect with others. With attention and practice, you can develop a different type of attachment style. Working with a therapist is a great way to learn more about your attachment style and reflect on how it serves you in your adult relationships.
What is the most common attachment style?
The most common attachment style is the secure attachment style. The majority of adults find it comfortable to get closer to other people, romantically or platonically. This means that most parents are responsive to their children’s needs and connect with them in a positive manner — which says a lot, considering how varying parenting styles can be!
According to a study conducted by Hazan and Shaver, 56% of adults have a secure attachment style. 25% of adults have the avoidant attachment style and 19% have the anxious attachment style. Fearful-avoidant attachment style is relatively rare.
What is your attachment style?
There are many ways to determine your attachment style, including through online quizzes. Reflecting on how you like to engage in relationships may lead to insight, including answering the following questions:
- Do I like to be in relationships or do I like to be alone?
- Do I fall in love? If so, what does that look like?
- In relationships, what makes me the most upset?
- What’s the best relationship I’ve ever had? What made that relationship work so well?
- Who do I generally like to be around? Who do I not like being around? Why is that?
- What’s my relationship like with my parents?
Working with a qualified therapist is an excellent way to determine your attachment style. Many therapists use attachment in their treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions, as your mental health often impacts relationships. Finding a high-quality therapist to discuss your relationships with may help you better understand your attachment style — and how to have stronger, closer relationships.
What are the signs of attachment disorders in adults?
Insecure attachment styles may lead to attachment disorders in adults. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a mental health condition that describes emotionally withdrawn behaviors in adulthood. Disinhibited social engagement disorder displays as acting inappropriately trusting or close to others, even if it’s a stranger. However, you don’t have to have either of these disorders for insecure attachment to impact your wellbeing. Because humans are social creatures, connection to others is paramount for our health — if we aren’t connecting with others in healthy ways, this may cause anxiety or distress. Relationship conflict may also arise with insecure attachment, which could impact everyday emotions. And those with secure attachment aren’t given a free pass, they might have conflict too!
Incorporating attachment styles into self reflection or your therapy journey can be an engaging way to learn more about yourself. You might learn something new about yourself or make sense of a past relationship. You might even start thinking about how to strengthen future relationships!