If you find that you’re constantly getting into relationships with someone who turns out to be the wrong sort of person for you, your problem might be related to a psychological concept called attachment theory.
“Attachment styles are sets of expectations that we hold about how others will treat us, and subsequently how we should relate to them,” says Stephanie Kors, a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge Health Alliance and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Each of us relates to other people in unique ways based on our own experience of how the world responds to each of us.”
Elnaz Mayeh, director of clinical operations for Los Angeles-based Lightfully Behavioral Health, says that attachment theory was pioneered in the 1950s by British psychologist John Bowlby. “Attachment theory posits that there are four adult attachment styles,” Mayeh says. One type is secure, and the other three types are insecure attachments.
Attachment Styles: What’s My Attachment Style?
Kors notes that attachment styles theory isn’t just pop psychology; rather this understanding of how humans relate to one another is backed by “lots of empirical research,” which has found that there are two overarching categories of attachment style – secure and insecure. And each style has different general characteristics.
Securely attached people generally:
- Are comfortable depending on others.
- Are more likely to be in successful, long-lasting relationships.
- Experience better overall mental health.
- Are able to adapt to stressful situations.
“Individuals with secure attachment are often regulated and confident, feel safe in relationships, don’t obsess over the little things. They develop trusting relationships and will effectively express their needs,” Mayeh says.
In contrast, people who are insecurely attached are often:
- Uncomfortable being open with others about their needs.
- Worry that others won’t be there for them consistently.
- Have trouble responding appropriately in a stressful situation.
There are three kinds of insecure attachment:
- Anxious, also known as preoccupied. These individuals “report questioning their partner’s love, worrying about their partner losing interest, attaching too quickly and ‘reading into everything,’” Mayeh explains. Individuals with an anxious attachment style tend to be more hypersensitive to their partner’s mood. They may also get jealous more easily or obsess over delays in communication. “Anxious individuals tend to catastrophize and often become resentful if their needs aren’t met in the manner they need,” adds Mayeh.
- Avoidant, also known as dismissive. Avoidant individuals “tend to be emotionally absent, have difficulty with commitment in relationships and prefer casual sex over a committed relationship,” Mayeh says. “They also value independence and self-sufficiency, avoid intimacy and deep connections and have an easier time jumping from one partner to the next with little to no need to process the loss.”
- Disorganized, also known as fearful-avoidant. People with a disorganized attachment style share some similarities to those with the avoidant attachment style, but “these individuals want relationships, but always wait for the other shoe to drop,” Mayeh says. Because they’re insecure, they’re always expecting that the worst will happen and their partner will leave.
“All three subtypes feel insecure or uneasy about the potential of their needs being met in relationships, but they deal with it in different ways,” Kors says. “For example, anxiously attached individuals might seek reassurance from a partner to feel more at ease, while avoidantly-attached individuals might seek space or distance to feel more safe and at ease when there is conflict.”
She adds that attachment styles can differ across cultures based on norms in different communities regarding help-seeking behavior, whether the person is a member of an individualist or collectivist culture and other factors.
For example, the concept of American individualism and self-reliance subtly influences how parents respond to their children. “Research has found that parents from the U.S. are more likely to wait for their babies to communicate distress before intervening, whereas parents from Japan are more likely to anticipate in advance their babies’ needs and take steps to minimize discomfort before the baby experiences distress,” Kors explains.
How Attachment Styles Form
Attachment styles develop in large part based on early childhood experiences. “The adults who raise us impact our expectations for how others will care for us later on. What matters isn’t one bad experience but many,” which builds up certain expectations for a young child, Kors says.
For example, “when we cry as babies, a mom who is emotionally responsive, in tune and not overwhelmed with other responsibilities, can accurately assess what kind of cry it is and meet that need,” Kors says. “That baby learns that others can help them when they need it.”
However, if this sort of attentive parenting doesn’t happen and continues chronically over the course of many years or decades, it’s understandable how the child may grow into an adult who doesn’t expect that others will meet their needs.
“You can think of it a bit like scraping your knee,” Kors explains. “If you scrape it once and it has time to heal, it’s not a big deal. But let’s imagine what would happen if you scrape the same knee several times every day for many years. Eventually, you would hit the bone. The damage would accumulate over time. In the same way, small misattunements between a child and a caregiver can accumulate over time, shaping a child’s view of what to expect from the people around them.”
She continues, “if a caregiver consistently provides safety and comfort to a child, that child is less likely to need to cling to that parent and more likely to be able to use that parent as a safe and secure base from which to explore the world outside that caregiver relationship.”
Determining Your Own Attachment Style
There are plenty of online questionnaires that can help you determine your attachment style. These self-administered tests can help you gain some insight, but Mayeh says “it will be beneficial to further interpret the scores with a mental health professional.”
It’s possible to identify with more than one attachment style, Mayeh says. “Typically, many individuals will fall under at least two of the four attachment styles, with one attachment style dominating the other. The rule of thumb is that the style you score the highest in is your primary attachment style.”
For example, if you score highest in the secure attachment style and the next score is avoidant, “this would suggest that you generally feel safe and secure in your relationships, however, you can behave in ways more consistent with avoidant style at times,” Mayeh says.
No matter what your style turns out to be, “don’t be alarmed by your scores. This information is excellent data as it will provide valuable insight into your processes regarding relationships, more specifically, your romantic relationships. Ignorance is not bliss in this case, as the lack of understanding and awareness can negatively impact your relationship health. It’s better to know your attachment style and modify it if needed, so you can find love and keep love,” Mayeh explains.
Attachment styles can be difficult to alter once they’re established, but they aren’t set in stone. “Adult experiences may and can shift your attachment styles, so don’t worry if you did not have attentive, reliable, dependable caregivers. You may just have to do a little – or a lot – of extra work” to become more secure in your adult relationships, Mayeh says.
However, your attachment style “will stay intact if you continue to reenact the dynamics of your unhealthy past.” You have to make a change to see a change.
Why Knowing Your Attachment Style Helps
Knowing your own and your partner’s attachment style “is valuable for long-term relationship health,” Mayeh says. It aids in self-awareness and supports effective communication and can help you identify good potential partners before you begin a relationship or improve your ability to work through challenges if you’re already in a relationship.
Knowing “what you’re likely to do when things get hard in a relationship and what feels supportive from another person to you in those moments can help you predict how you’ll respond and then prepare in advance for success,” Kors adds. You can let your partner know what they can do to make you feel loved or supported when things get difficult.
For example, “someone who has an avoidant attachment style might benefit from taking a break during a fight, while someone who is more anxiously attached might feel abandoned by that break. Talking about this can help.”
Kors also notes that most people are “drawn to people who have similar attachment styles to those early caregivers. This makes sense – we learned what love and care looks like from these people, so it makes sense when we find it elsewhere it would feel comfortable. But, sometimes this can mean repeating patterns that weren’t particularly healthy.”
Kors adds that while “attachment styles can change over time, once someone reaches adulthood, change often needs to be intentional. For example, one might see slow changes over time in the way they relate to others through long-term therapy focused on improving significant relationships.”