When it comes to the mysteries of love, we all want to believe we have free will over the partners we choose. However, there’s a lot more to attraction than meets the eye, much of which has to do with attachment theory.
Clients often come to our practice after noticing troubling, recurrent patterns in their relationships. Maybe they’ve had multiple relationships fall apart for similar reasons, keep dating the same type of person repeatedly, have a hard time opening up and trusting in relationships, or have found themselves attracted to emotionally unavailable partners and they don’t understand why.
To gain a deeper understanding of why these patterns may be occurring, and to demystify those infamous laws of attraction, it’s important to understand attachment theory for adults and to know your own attachment style. Attachment theory teaches us that our early environment with our caregivers shapes how we love and are loved throughout our lifespan. According to Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love, these early experiences form an instructional blueprint that is stored in body memory and becomes part of our basic relational wiring and our sense of safety and security.
Our early attachment experiences go on to shape our adult attachment style and how we interact in romantic relationships. Understanding yourself and your attachment style can have profound implications on your ability to create and sustain meaningful romantic relationships.
What is Attachment Theory?
The psychologist John Bowlby first created attachment theory in the 1950’s as a way of describing our intrinsic need for connection, a need research has proven is as crucial to our development as food and water. Attachment theory science and research taught us a lot about human development as it pertains to the relationships we form with others. As helpless infants, we’re wired to instinctively bond with our caregivers because our very survival depends upon it. Our brains are biologically engineered for closeness and connection with others. It is an innate need within us to share our lives with someone.
As infants, we develop attachment behaviors like cooing, smiling and crying to keep our caregivers close and bonded to us. When infants and children are in distress or in need, they seek out their parent, caregiver or primary attachment object for safety and reassurance. As children, we establish a connection with caregivers in whichever ways we can. How our parents or caregivers respond to our needs for connection, freedom and safety is what ultimately determines our attachment style. Our styles of attachment in our earliest relationships shape how we’ll be in our later relationships.
Attachment Theory Types
Attachment theory teaches us that the kind of parenting we receive as children predicts attachment behaviors later in life. These behaviors fall under 4 distinct attachment theory types, also called attachment styles. The 4 attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious-avoidant attachment.
These 4 attachment theory types vary based on how we had to adapt to our primary caregivers and their emotional availability (or lack thereof). These adaptations helped us survive as children so that our caregivers would take care of us. However, if your parents lacked the responsiveness and emotional attunement you needed as a child, you may have developed an attachment style that makes adult relationships challenging. Let’s look at how each attachment style is formed and their common characteristics.
A secure attachment is developed when most of your emotional needs as a child were met by at least one of your caretakers. At least one caretaker of securely attached individuals was warm, consistent, emotionally available and flexible. They provided you with freedom to explore and be independent but also created a safe home base for you to return when comfort or guidance was needed.
Caretakers of children with a secure attachment tend to be comfortable with both closeness and space and provide a balance of both in their relationship with the child. They encourage emotional expression from their child and are supportive of sharing vulnerable emotions but do not burden the child with negative emotions of their own. Emotional support only goes one way with the parent supporting the child.
Adults with a secure attachment style find it easy to trust and are flexible and generous in relationships. They feel confident they can work through issues with their partner and don’t worry about the relationship ending because of minor disagreements. Individuals with a secure attachment are able to communicate their feelings and expect the same from their partners. They understand relationships take work and do not have unrealistic expectations of perfection from their partner.
Secure Attachment in Relationships
Securely attached adults are reliable, set clear boundaries, express their needs and wants and are able to respond to the needs and wants of their partners. They are comfortable with closeness and independence and tend not to take the need for space or reassurance from their partner too personally. Securely attached individuals tend to choose partners who are emotionally available and treat them with respect. They can also accommodate being with partners that do or do not have a secure attachment style.
An anxious attachment style is developed when love from at least one of your caretakers was unpredictable and felt unstable as a result. You may have had a parent who was loving one minute and dismissive and disengaged the next, leaving you wondering what you did to trigger their negative reaction. Or you might have felt abandoned by a parent as a child due to divorce, separation, death, mental illness, or any number of other circumstances. Even having parents who worked a lot and weren’t able to be super attentive or consistent with their love can result in an anxious attachment.
Since young children tend to think they are the cause of everything that happens in their world, you blame yourself for the switch in your parent’s affection and internalize that there must be something unlovable about you that you need to change to get their consistent love and affection. As a result, you learned how to be very attuned to the needs and emotions of others while not expressing any of your own. You made yourself and your desires small to try to win your parent’s love. You may have taken care of your parent(s), physically and/or emotionally rather than the other way around.
Anxious Attachment in Relationships
Anxiously attached adults tend to be preoccupied with worries about the relationship when they are in one and may feel incomplete without a partner. Those with anxious attachment styles have a strong fear of abandonment and are hypervigilant about their own perceived shortcomings. They have the ability to sense even the slightest shift of mood in their partner and will often worry they did something wrong to upset them. They may even attribute the change in mood to a lack of interest in them or the relationship and act out as a result.
When an adult with an anxious attachment style feels the relationship is in trouble or that their partner is pulling away, they may perform to win back their partner’s love or they may engage in protest behaviors. Performing might look like being extra nice and accommodating, going out of their way to make their partner feel special, or using sex to bring them closer. Protest behaviors might include shutting down emotionally, pouting, pushing their partner away, or even breaking up with their partner. These are not true desires but misguided attempts to get their partner to reassure them by fighting for their affection.
Anxiously attached individuals tend to avoid speaking their needs for fear of upsetting their partner and risking the end of the relationship. They are overly accommodating of their partner’s needs, often at the expense of their own. They tend to take on the interests of their partner and conform to what they think will please their partner. Adults with an anxious attachment style need frequent reassurance that their partner still loves them and wants to be in the relationship, sometimes when things are going well but especially when they are not.
Avoidant attachment, also called dismissive avoidant, is developed when at least one caregiver was overly detached OR overly enmeshed with the child. Parents of avoidantly attached individuals often focus on achievement, success and academic excellence more than fostering the emotional bond between them and the child.
Your caregiver(s) may have worked all the time or been cold, distant or emotionally unavailable. They may have been rejecting or dismissive when you expressed vulnerable emotions like fear, hurt or sadness (e.g. “stop that crying”) and rarely expressed vulnerable emotions themselves. Anger, stress and irritation may have been the only big emotions you saw them express.
Your caregiver(s) may not have noticed or acknowledged when you were in emotional distress and needed comfort. Or they may have actively shut you down when you needed comfort from them, pushing you towards independence and self soothing or teaching you to stifle your emotions instead. You may have felt shame or judgement about needing emotional support or help from them and eventually stopped going to them for connection and comfort.
Alternatively, your caregiver(s) may have been overly controlling and involved in your life. They did not respect or allow your boundaries or have many of their own boundaries. You were often expected to care for them emotionally, either directly by comforting them, or indirectly by altering your behavior to reduce their anxiety or anger. You felt guilty when you could not or did not want to care for them emotionally. You may have felt overwhelmed by your parents needs, demands and involvement and preferred alone time to spending time with them. You could not go to them for emotional connection and comfort without feeling burdened by their own needs and emotions.
In both of these environments, the child doesn’t feel seen or nurtured by their caregivers and their caregivers were misattuned to their needs. Avoidant attachment individuals had to learn how to self soothe and auto regulate from a young age rather than seeking comfort in connection with others. As a result, they learn that relationships are not safe or comforting and they pull away from their parents or romantic partners, especially in times of stress.
Avoidant Attachment in Relationships
Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to have a lower tolerance for closeness and need more space and independence than the other attachment styles. Dismissive avoidant adults have developed defenses against having to depend on anyone and they find happiness and fulfillment outside of relationships. They may be workaholics who don’t have time for relationships or they may fill their free time with hobbies, friends, and casual dating rather than deeply intimate long-term relationships.
Dismissive avoidant adults may find it hard to stay centered while in connection with others and need space when feeling overwhelmed to regulate their emotions. They dismiss their own and others’ vulnerable emotions, preferring to stuff them away or gloss over them rather than give them space and really feel them. They may numb their feelings with drugs, alcohol, work, or sex as a way to avoid feeling the true depth of them.
Those with an avoidant attachment style may desire closeness and deep connection when they don’t have it but then get overwhelmed by too much of it when things get serious in a relationship. This may lead them to cut the relationship off or pull away abruptly, leaving their partner confused and hurt. When things start to get too close, they may do things to create physical or emotional space in a relationship like pulling away, shutting down emotionally, working or hanging out with friends more, starting fights, comparing their current partner to idealized ex partners, or even cheating.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may find yourself moving really quickly and having strong feelings in the beginning of a relationship, only to feel suffocated and doubtful about your partner once deeper intimacy has been established. You might ignore your partner’s shortcomings in the beginning then hyperfocus on their flaws as things get more serious. This helps you sustain emotional distance in a relationship and eventually may lead to you ending it. Torrential passion is reduced to claustrophobia time and again as you move on to the next person.
Anxious-avoidant attachment, also known as fearful avoidant attachment, describes someone who has both anxious and avoidant tendencies. The caregiver(s) of someone who has an anxious-avoidant attachment style probably behaved inconsistently. They may have been warm and attuned sometimes and abusive and rejecting at other times. Or they might have been intrusive sometimes and neglectful at other times.
For instance, you may have had an alcoholic or mentally ill parent or step-parent who was loving one minute and explosive and abusive the next, leaving you constantly on edge, wondering which side of them you would see that day. They may have used you for emotional support as a child but were not supportive of your emotional needs. The key is that you never knew what to expect and learned that connection is unsafe, confusing and unpredictable.
Anxious-Avoidant Attachment in Relationships
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, you crave intimacy yet find it difficult to trust others. You experience anxiety after growing close with someone and are fearful of getting hurt, used, abandoned or overwhelmed so you tend to pull away and avoid your feelings. You may even find yourself in abusive relationships over and over again, either as the perpetrator or the victim of abuse.
Attachment Theory and Relationships
Attachment theory teaches us that we all develop relationship attachment styles based on the way we were loved as children as well as the way we saw our parents loving each other. These attachment theory types dictate who we do and do not feel chemistry with. Our brain automatically connects the feeling of love to the styles of attachment our parents modeled to us, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy that modeling may have been. This may lead to an endless cycle of dating one doppleganger after the other without the knowledge of how to break free.
If you find yourself with a partner who doesn’t meet your basic attachment needs, or who has a dramatically different attachment style than your own, it can lead to a chronic sense of tension or anxiety. You might be wired to feel chemistry with partners who you’re the least likely to be compatible with or with whom you re-enact the same wounds of childhood repeatedly. Our attachment style in relationships isn’t logical and often drives us towards people who feel familiar, even if that familiarity is unhealthy.
For example, if your parents were unpredictable and inconsistent in their affection for you, it’s likely you will be attracted to partners who are inconsistent or emotionally unavailable because this will replicate the experience of your childhood. If someone who is emotionally available and consistent pursues you romantically, it might not feel like love because it doesn’t match the attachment you had with your caretakers. You might know that you “should” be with them but feel that the chemistry is missing and the relationship seems boring.
Research shows that people with an anxious attachment style tend to gravitate towards partners with an avoidant attachment style. If you’re anxious, you thrive in partnerships that are stable, supportive and long-lasting yet you find yourself drawn to those who are often unable to meet your needs. What is comfortable and familiar is not always what is healthy for us when it comes to adult attachment. Therapy with an attachment-based therapist can help you change this pattern and start choosing and loving partners that are healthy for you based on your attachment style in relationships.
Understanding My Attachment Theory Type
Which of the above 4 attachment theory types describes your attachment style in relationships? How about your partner’s style of attachment? If you’re uncertain, a simple attachment style quiz can help. Understanding attachment theory and your attachment style is a huge step towards creating the kind of healthy relationship you crave.
The good news is, regardless of your attachment style, you and your partner can both move towards being more secure. We all have our go-to attachment styles which we can easily default to if not being conscious about it. However, research has shown that attachment style can be fluid and flexible. You can break your anxious or avoidant patterns by experiencing a stable, connected, and supportive relationship with a partner who is willing to grow and change with you.
Being with a partner who is able to meet your attachment needs enables you to become more securely attached. Even if you aren’t in a relationship, you can work towards becoming more securely attached on your own and recognizing partners that may or may not be a good fit for you based on your respective attachment style.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your relationships and move towards a more secure attachment, any of the therapists at Couples Learn can help. All of our couples therapists have advanced training in attachment and helping you uncover patterns in love that are leading to unhealthy relationships.
At Couples Learn, we offer online couples therapy and online individual therapy for relationship issues to help empower you to create the love you deserve. Book a free 30 minute consultation with one of our marriage counselors today!