Therapists, life coaches, and relationship experts often talk about a partner’s attachment style and how it impacts the relationship. “Attachment” has become a buzz word for explaining dating behavior.
It has nearly reached the point of pop culture saturation as the term “narcissist.” Like the term narcissist, it’s not always used correctly or fully understood.
I was fortunate enough to study attachment theory in the process of obtaining degrees to become a licensed mental health therapist.
Although I no longer practice as a therapist, I can take you through the basics of attachment theory and how it works in adult romantic relationships.
This theory is useful in understanding the hows and whys of human behavior — our own as well as our partners.
What is the Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was developed by psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby in the 1950s. They theorized that caregiver responsiveness in the first five years of life correlated with later relationship behavior.
Ainsworth and Bowlby studied how caregivers responded to the needs of their children and how the children responded to their caregivers as a result. Researchers found that attachment theory has real-world application.
Hazan and Shaver (1987) would go on to conduct research based on Ainsworth and Bowlby’s work to show that attachment styles were still relevant in adult romantic relationships.
You might be surprised to learn that the first five years of your life could explain your relationship history. Attachment theory is based on the idea that children have certain basic needs, and how their parents respond to those needs impacts their foundational trust and security.
In other words, children gauge how responsive the adults around them are to their needs, and this forms the basis of how they view the world and the people in it.
This could be why psychology has the reputation for blaming a child’s parents for all their problems. That’s not exactly the case. Instead, researchers studied cause and effect to determine how particular human behaviors developed.
For instance, at some points in history, parents were encouraged to let their children cry it out rather than comforting them. Instead of creating independence in the children, it created trust issues and anxiety.
Parents believed the experts, but the experts didn’t have all the information or realize how this early non-responsiveness could later impact a child’s ability to attach securely in relationships.
While understanding attachment theory can be useful for caregivers, it’s equally useful for adults with already-established attachment styles to learn how to form healthier relationships.
There are four primary attachment styles in attachment theory. You’ll likely notice yourself and others from these descriptions.
I’ll give a short explanation and then direct you to further in-depth reading if this sounds like you or your partner.
Secure attachment is the ideal. Children who attach securely had caregivers who were consistently responsive to their needs and provided a nurturing, safe environment where trust could easily form.
Children who have a secure attachment style feel safe, confident, and trusting.
Because their parents gave them that early stability, these children grow into adults who are confident exploring the world around them. They’ve learned early on that they can trust that their needs will be met.
Anxious, or preoccupied, attachment style occurs when caregivers are inconsistently responsive to their child’s needs. This creates insecurity and anxiety in the developing child.
What’s interesting is that anxious attachment style can also develop in children whose caregivers were overly involved in their lives to the point that these children were used to meet the caregivers’ unfulfilled relational needs.
In both cases, the child learns not to trust the adults around them. This forms the foundation for their later relationships.
Avoidant, or dismissive, attachment style forms when caregivers inconsistently responded to, and even shamed, the child’s needs.
These caregivers often encourage independence, dismiss emotions, shame emotional expression, and uphold strict household rules. These children learn that they need to be perfect to earn affection.
The result is children who are distrustful and shy away from intimacy. They cultivate perfectionism, self-reliance, fierce independence, and rigid emotional walls to deal with the fact that their needs weren’t valued, validated, heard, met, or understood.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment
Fearful avoidant attachment style forms when parenting is inconsistent and when the child fears one or more caregivers.
This attachment style can form when a single parent is inconsistent or when abuse is present in the home.
Children with fearful avoidant attachment have a strong desire for love and affection but do not trust their caregivers to meet their needs. This attachment style creates an underlying sense of unworthiness. It can even lead to depression and anxiety in adults.
How Attachment Styles Affect Relationships
To better understand our relationships, it’s important to understand attachment styles and how they impact our ability to attach to romantic partners.
A person with a secure attachment style who partners with another securely attached individual will likely have the strong foundational support to manage a healthy relationship. For people with any other attachment style, there’s a learning curve necessary to form healthier romantic relationships.
The first five years of life are foundational for trust. Partners who have trust issue with no discernible cause are often demonstrating an anxious, avoidant, or fearful avoidant attachment style.
In other words, they learned early on that other people cannot be trusted. This can create jealousy, suspicion, and an unwillingness to ask for help.
It’s more than just expecting the other person to cheat. Trust issues in relationships could manifest as a people who don’t trust their partners to stay.
They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall because they have learned that people are, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, prone to abandoning them.
Anxious people often crave constant reassurance. Avoidant and fearful avoidant people often try to keep their distance in order to avoid being hurt. They’re the type to leave before they can be left in order to avoid the feeling of rejection.
Those early foundational years also impact commitment styles in relationships. Securely attached individuals don’t struggle with commitment as much as the other attachment styles.
Because they have trust and a sense of safety, it’s easier for them to commit. Not so for the other styles.
Those with anxious attachment style often attach too soon — going all-in on new relationships in order to give an illusion of security. Those with avoidant attachment style do their best to avoid commitment or the appearance of commitment at all costs.
Interestingly, the fearful avoidant types do a combination of both anxious and avoidant styles. They may commit quickly but then run hot and cold on the relationship in an effort to manage their insecurity and vulnerability. They are the ones that rush in but then later distance themselves to get back a sense of control.
Those who don’t have an early secure attachment style will need to learn it to maintain a healthier relationship. This is a steep learning curve that requires constant practice to achieve.
Understanding attachment triggers can help a person manage their feelings, reactions, and even communication with a partner.
Conflict resolution is another area where attachment styles impact romantic relationships. We often learn communication from our initial caregivers.
Later, we might develop out communication based on our education, the region where we live, and the type of people we’re exposed to on a regular basis. While securely attached individuals feel safe to share their feelings and trust the relationship, other attachment styles balk at this level of vulnerability.
Look at it this way: When you feel safe, you can relax. You’re not worried about what’s happening next. But people who aren’t securely attached don’t feel safe in relationships.
They’ve learned that their needs are unlikely to be consistently met by other people. While this makes some of us fiercely resilient and resourceful, it can be extremely damaging to our ability to rely on others.
If you never feel completely safe in a relationship, it’s hard to open up and share feelings, discuss the future, or even be completely honest with a partner. It can also make it hard to address conflict without feeling attacked or going on the attack.
The anxiously attached are trying not to lose the connection they so desperately crave. They might tend toward conflict avoidance or could go in the other direction and initiate conflict out of strong anxiety and insecurity.
The avoidantly attached person is trying to maintain a sense of connection without letting anyone close enough to hurt them. They are more likely to try to hurt others before they can be hurt themselves. The fearful avoidant types have massive anxiety related to being abandoned combined with a fear of commitment. These types can react to conflict in a variety of ways. Confrontation makes them feel attacked and sends them on the attack, but they might usually try to avoid it at all costs.
People who are insecurely attached may struggle to effectively communicate in relationships. When inconsistency was a part of their childhood experience, they may have experienced unmet needs and even a dismissal of those needs.
It can be challenging to express what you want and need — or to even be able to acknowledge what those needs might be — if the base assumption is that wants and needs won’t be satisfied anyway.
Learning about attachment theory and how it applies to relationships can help the insecurely attached person learn to better communicate about their triggers, reactions, feelings, and needs.
Of course, it takes a willing partner who can listen and attempt to understand to avoid exacerbating the attachment issue with further invalidation. Talking about both people’s attachment styles can help a couple navigate a healthier relationship.
Applying Attachment Theory — A Conclusion
I always thought I was anxiously attached. It took years to understand I have all the hallmarks of fearful avoidant attachment. I sincerely want to connect, but I don’t trust relationships. I want commitment, but I find falling in love to be terrifying.
Identifying these issues has helped me address the areas of my life that still need healing. Working with a trauma therapist has been an essential part of my process.
Now, I can communicate about my tendencies and triggers while more effectively managing them as they present themselves in relationships.
I’ve learned to become more securely attached in relationships. It’s been a process, but it is possible. Learning that the early formation of distrust is not the current reality is important, but to do this, it’s equally important to cultivate healthy relationships — not just romantic ones either.
I surround myself with friends I can trust. I make sure that I don’t keep toxic connections in my inner circle. I’ve created safe environments where I can fully be myself, and it’s taught me that some relationships are safe.
In fact, I’m learning that lesson over and over again with every healthy connection in my life. I no longer see the world as a scary place where people will try to hurt me.
I understand that love, affection, and connection are essential parts of life — parts people miss out on when they try to protect themselves from happy feelings to avoid the possibility of hurt and rejection.
By understanding how we attached in those early years, we give ourselves a better chance of healthy, lasting relationships now and in our future.
Why listen to me? I’m Crystal Jackson and I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and individuals and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships, self-improvement, and psychology. My work has been featured in large publications such as Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, and Mamamia.