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Do you find yourself running into the same issues every time you’re in a new relationship? Maybe you always find yourself putting distance between you and your partner, or you avoid long-term relationships altogether for fear of getting hurt. Or maybe you’re always anxious for validation, and you worry your partner doesn’t love you as much as they say.
If any of these traits sound familiar, it could have something to do with your “attachment style,” part of a theory about how different people feel secure in their relationships. Understanding attachment theory (and how you fit into it) might give you some helpful insights to your love life.
First developed in the 1950s by British psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory began as a way to describe the various bonds between children and their parents, according to Verywell Health. A child who feels abandoned or neglected, for example, will interact with a parent differently than a child who feels comforted and secure. In the following decades, psychologists and researchers expanded on attachment theory, eventually categorizing it into four main different attachment styles: anxious attachment; avoidant attachment; fearful-avoidant attachment; and secure attachment. (Secure attachment is ideally what you want to look for in a social or romantic relationship.)
Since its inception in the ’50s, attachment theory has found its way out of academic and parenting circles and into the dating world. Today, some adults like to learn their attachment style to explore how their childhood may have impacted their adult relationships. (If you want to know yours, NPR has a handy attachment style quiz.)
But don’t go blaming all your romantic woes on stuff that happened when you were a kid. Your attachment style can change over time as you gain more relationship experience, says Jor-El Caraballo, a licensed mental health professional. “So much about what we know about relationships happens in our teenage years and beyond,” he says.
If you begin to notice a pattern of behavior in your relationships—say, you’re often nervous your partner doesn’t love you as much as you love them—therapy is a great place to start working on any attachment concerns.
What are the 4 attachment styles?
After an argument with your partner, do you ever go back to them later ask if they’re still mad at you? People with an anxious attachment style (also called preoccupied attachment style) are “often preoccupied by their relationships and how close those relationships are,” Caraballo says. There’s a constant need for reassurance, and “the ultimate goal is to sooth their anxiety about the relationship.”
Anxious attachment often comes from inconsistent caregiving in childhood, which erodes a child’s trust as they grow older, according to Verywell Health.
Someone with an anxious attachment style may:
- Feel jealousy in a relationship
- Constantly seek reassurance
- Fear infidelity
On the other hand, a person with an avoidant attachment style (also called dismissive-avoidant) tries not to get too close with others for fear of getting hurt. They may not actively seek out romantic or platonic partnerships, and may minimize their emotions. As a partner, they may break up with someone before things get too serious, or keep their emotions hidden, so you never really know what they’re thinking.
Avoidant attachment stems from a caregiver dismissing or neglecting a child’s needs, according to SELF. This teaches a person to keep their emotions to themselves, or that expressing their emotions a certain way is wrong.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style may:
- Needs a long time to trust someone
- Shuts down during conflict
- Struggle to reach out when they need help
- Be accused of “pushing people away”
Also called “disorganized attachment,” fearful-avoidant people tend to be a mix between anxious and avoidant. “There seems to be an ebb and flow of wanting closeness, but not really knowing how to go about it,” Caraballo says.
Growing up, these people may have had one caregiver who served as a point of distress, whether they were an anxious presence or even abusive, according to Verywell Mind. When the child went to their caregiver for comfort, for some reason they were unable to provide it. As an adult, this person may assume they aren’t enough in a relationship and that they’ll get hurt, so they go between seeking comfort and withdrawing.
According to Mindbodygreen, someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may:
- Partake in self-criticism
- Suddenly withdraw as a relationship gets close
- Respond poorly to others’ negative emotions
This one right here is the ideal—what Caraballo calls the “gold standard” for attachment styles. A partner with a secure attachment style tends to be more calm and trustworthy in their relationship. Some people may already have this style and not know it, or want to have it but don’t know how to achieve it.
Someone can have a secure attachment style from their childhood, or developed in adulthood through working with a therapist or on their own. Children who have secure attachment were able to be calmed down if ever in distress, and expressed joy when seeing their caregiver, according to Insider.
People with a secure attachment style:
- Have the ability to cope with being alone
- Can express when they need support
- Have the ability to self-regulate emotions
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