Why do we behave the way that we do in relationships? While some people seem to naturally crave a lot of connection and affection, others prefer independence and feel stifled by intimacy. How do these differences develop?
One popular theory in psychology is that a person’s approach to relationships is shaped during their earliest years in response to how they were treated by their primary caregivers. This first experience of attachment in early childhood shapes how a person will relate to others as adults—called an attachment style.
“Our earliest working model for attachment begins with our first relationship, which is with our caregivers,” relationship and sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, explains to O.school. “This relationship primes our sense of self, and what we come to expect from the world. Our beliefs about whether we are worthy or deserving of love, whether people can be trusted, whether we are safe, and whether our needs will be met by others all begin with what happens (or doesn’t happen) in our relationships with our primary caregivers.”
Called attachment theory, the concept was first developed in the mid-twentieth century by developmental psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied the effects of parent-child relationships. In the early 1990s, psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver then applied Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theories to adult romantic relationships.
The four attachment styles
According to attachment theory, every individual will tend to form either secure attachments and or insecure attachments. There are three main adult attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. An additional fourth attachment style, called fearful-avoidant, is essentially a combination of the anxious and avoidant styles. (Anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant attachment all fall under the umbrella of insecure attachment.)
“Your attachment style determines whether you connect to others in a healthy or unhealthy way,” relationship therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, tells O.school. “This style of connection is established in childhood and continues into adult relationships.”
Secure attachment style
People who grew up with an attentive, reliable caregiver tend to be able to form secure attachments as adults. As young children, their crying and needs were often immediately met with love, support, and comfort, which allowed them to develop trust in others. “When we have relationships with at least one primary caregiver that allows us to feel that we can rely on them to attend to our needs for closeness, emotional support, and protection, we develop what is called a secure attachment style,” Francis explains.
People with a secure attachment style feel comfortable forming romantic connections with others, Tawwab explains, and don’t have trouble being close or vulnerable with others. They’re able to rely on others and allow others to rely on them.
According to Hazan and Shaver’s research, about 56% of people have a secure attachment style.
Anxious attachment style
Those who grow up with inconsistent caregivers—meaning that, sometimes caregivers are around to attend to their needs and sometimes they aren’t —tend to develop an anxious attachment style. These kids could never tell if their caregivers would be around to give them love and support, which can feel scary and confusing. As adults, people with an anxious attachment style thus tend to worry a lot about the security of their relationships, Tawwab explains. They feel anxious about whether their partner actually wants to be with them because their inconsistent experiences with caregivers have made it hard to trust others. People usually describe these folks as clingy or needy; they might obsessively check for texts from their partners, crave direct forms of affection or validation, and be really sensitive to any perceived neglect or signs of disinterest.
“What is happening behind the scenes is that the desire to have some control over their relationship dynamic helps soothe their internal anxiety that people could leave at any time,” Francis says. “Inconsistent engagement makes people question their value, and so folks with an anxious attachment tend to be very self-critical and often worry they aren’t lovable.”
About 19% of folks have this attachment style, according to Hazan and Shaver’s research.
Avoidant attachment style
Kids whose caregivers were hardly available at all or were generally distant and unsupportive tend to develop an avoidant attachment style. “When we have caregivers that did not seem very attached to us, we develop an avoidant attachment style, which often manifests in a belief that you are ultimately on your own and need to take care of yourself,” Francis explains. “Instead of waiting for their desires to be unmet or for them to be rejected or abandoned by others, folks with an avoidant style maintain enough emotional distance to try and feel less impacted by the behavior of others.”
According to Tawwab, people with avoidant attachment styles are the ones who tend to “push others away or look for reasons to avoid connection.” People tend to see them as aloof, uncommitted, or perhaps even cold, but this behavior is, at its core, a survival mechanism to avoid getting hurt.
Hazan and Shaver found about 25% of adults have an avoidant attachment style.
Fearful-avoidant attachment style
Some kids grow up with a much more chaotic household with a lot of change, a lot of fear, or perhaps abuse, and they develop what’s called a disorganized attachment style (the childhood term) or fearful-avoidant attachment style (the adult term). Essentially, these folks have both high anxiety and high avoidance tendencies—they desperately crave affection and intimacy, but they also deeply fear it and actively push it away. According to a more recent study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, it’s a statistically much rarer attachment style that’s been linked to riskier sexual behaviors, violent behavior in relationships, and severe mental health issues.
How to change your attachment style
Attachment theory is a helpful framework for understanding the ways you tend to show up in your relationships. There are plenty of online tests you can take to assess your attachment style, though often many people can read the descriptions and immediately recognize themselves in one of them.
If you do have an insecure attachment style, whether anxious or avoidant or a combination of the two, don’t panic—these are just patterns of behavior learned from experiences, and once you’re conscious of them, you can start to shift them. You can change your attachment style and learn to become more secure in your relationships with a little effort and intention.
Here are a few ways to change your attachment style:
1. Journal about your tendencies in relationships.
“The beautiful thing about relationships is that we can always develop new skills and tools to make things different,” Francis says. To start, she recommends journaling as a way to really understand the nuances of your attachment style and why you show up the way you do in relationships: “[Track] the beliefs that are hypercritical about yourself and others. What are your beliefs about your value to others? What do you worry about when you and your partners disagree? What do you do when your feelings have been hurt? Becoming aware of your own internal patterns is an important step to making a change.”
2. Make it a joint effort.
Once you know your attachment style, you can convey to your partners what your instincts are in intimate relationships and explain why you might tend to behave in a certain way. That way, it’s easier for you to both work together to soothe your attachment insecurities (whether anxious or avoidant) and not exacerbate them.
3. If you have an avoidant attachment style, practice letting others in.
“If you are avoidant, it helps to practice being vulnerable by opening up to people in small ways,” Tawwab recommends. “For example, being more forthcoming about your feelings and telling others things that are happening in your life.”
4. If you have an anxious attachment style, spend some time processing your past experiences.
“If you are anxious, it helps to differentiate your anxiety in your present relationships from those in the past. For example, practice treating each situation as a new experience instead of lumping every experience together,” Tawwab says. This might be another good subject to journal about—recognizing how each relationship you’ve been in is distinct and reminding yourself that there’s no reason to assume that a current partner will treat you the same way as a past connection did.
5. Work with a therapist.
“It can be hard to see our own patterns and simultaneously change our instinctive responses at the moment. For that reason, I always encourage folks to seek the support of a therapist (either individually or as a relationship unit, like as a family or with your partners) who is well versed in the tenets of attachment theory to help you explore how you can develop a more secure base. Working intentionally in this way is my top recommendation for attachment work,” Francis says.
6. Keep learning.
Francis recommends the books Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller and The Attachment Theory Workbook by Annie Chen to continue learning about attachment styles and how to develop more attachment security.
It’ll take a little time and emotional work, but learning to feel secure and content in your relationships is a worthwhile goal. It’s vital both for the success of your relationships and for your own peace of mind while you’re in them.