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What Are Attachment Styles? (FULL GUIDE!)

Attachment styles can really help us learn a lot more about the people we care about. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE has an attachment to something… My friend Jeremy asked me, “Ryan, if I wanted to learn about the various types of attachment styles and what they could mean for me… Where should I go?” Well, I realized—I didn’t have a resource on this! So I decided, it was time!

Through various interactions, you must have found stark differences between people and their views on familial or romantic relationships. Some people seem to be very clingy, while others are less than bothered about anything at all.

Why do some people need constant attention and validation while others are so distanced from their relationships?

All these questions have varied answers depending on which perspective you are looking at.

There are many reasons why some people act in various ways in a relationship. Still, the one that we are going to discuss is the theory of attachment and how that affects your relationships.

people holding hands - attachment styles

What Is Attachment? And Attachment Styles?

Attachment can be explained as an emotional bond or relationship that you build with someone important to you. Typically attachment first happens during infancy when you form a strong and emotional bond with your primary caregiver, usually the mother. This bond is signified by feelings of care and comfort that both parties reciprocate and derive pleasure from the relationship.

A researcher by the name of John Bowlby is credited with coining the term attachment and developing the attachment theory that is now extensively used in many studies, especially in psychology. In his own words, he described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”

He also quickly notes that this type of relationship that infants share with their caregivers is quintessential in forming adult relationships and behavior. According to Bowlby, attachment is innate in humans, and emotional connections happen naturally between the infant and the adult.

Bowlby, with the aid of Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, studied the concept of attachment and attachment bonds in humans closely and concluded that the quality of attachment or bonding that one experiences in their childhood with their primary caregiver is vital in determining what kind of relationship you can maintain and respond to in your later stages of life.

In simple terms, your attachment style in childhood can determine the type of relationships you form in adulthood. This includes how well you can respond to intimacy in the relationship and how you can relate to other people.

Characteristics Of Attachment

According to Bowlby, four characteristics of attachment are seen in almost all bonds:

  • Proximity maintenance: This is best described as the urge and the desire to be in a close promontory with the people we are already attached to. For example, an infant who longs for his mother when she leaves him for just a few minutes.
  • Safe haven: People attached to a particular figure seek out the “safe haven” to fulfill their need to feel safe and comfortable when faced with adverse situations that might be fear-inducing or threatening. For example, a child runs to her mother when encountering an unfamiliar face in the park.
  • A secure base: The figure to which the child is attached acts as a secure base for the child. There’s so much trust in the figure that the child feels free to explore their surrounding areas as long as the security base is accessible.
  • Separation distress: It can also be referred to as separation anxiety, where the child experiences different anxiety levels when they find out that their attachment figure is absent.

Related: Philosophical questions

two people cuddling at night

The Theory Of Attachment In Real Life

If you’ve reached this part of the article, you might already be playing the blame game and pinning all your relationship issues on their parenting style or your upbringing.

And while pioneers in the study of attachment like Bowlby and Ainsworth believe that your attachment style in childhood is directly linked to the type of relationships you form later on in life, there is also a huge gap between the time you form your initial attachment during infancy and whom you interact with in your adulthood.

Another point to keep in mind is that the type of relationship you formed with your primary caregiver during childhood and your romantic pursuits in adulthood is not the same and does not share identical characteristics. This is why there is a great possibility that other intervening factors might be the reason why your relationships are a certain way.

For example, you might describe your relationship with your mother in childhood as avoidant, but as you grow older, it might change to a secure type of attachment.

This type of change is prevalent in many relationships due to factors like your temperament, parenting styles, education, life-changing events like your parents going through a divorce or dropping out of high school, etc. are all examples of different intervening factors that can change the way you view and form relationships as you grow older.

See also: How to tell if someone likes you

What Is Attachment Theory?

In the field of developmental psychology, attachment theory is described as the concept which proposes that every child falls into one of the four attachment styles developed during the early stages of life.

The theory further posits that the attachment style that was developed in your childhood has a major role in how you form relationships in your adulthood as well. You should also know the four main attachment styles to understand the attachment theory.

See also: How to set boundaries

hands coming together in a heart shape

Four Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment

This is an ideal form of attachment where both parties can form a secure attachment. In this type of relationship, both parties mutually love and care for each other. There’s trust from both sides, and they are able to enjoy a good relationship while still being independent.

Secure attachment style in children:

During the early stages of development, if the child forms a secure attachment with their caregiver, you notice that the child is visibly upset in the absence of their caregivers or parents. When the parents come back, they become happy again.

They also show the safe haven characteristic by seeking comfort from their caregivers when they feel threatened or anxious. In most cases, the child is happy interacting with their parents and is not too temperamental about always wanting to be near their mother or father.

Although they don’t prefer being comforted by strangers, they are also not opposed to the idea.

What happens in adulthood?

According to some studies, children who develop a secure attachment style with their primary caregivers during infancy grow up to be more empathetic in adulthood. They grow more calm and collected than disruptive and aggressive compared to other attachment styles.

Compared to children with ambivalent and avoidant attachment styles, securely attached children grow up to be more mature.

Related: Law of polarity

Characteristics of secure attachment style:
  • Can be away from parents as a child
  • Seek comfort from a caregiver
  • Builds long-lasting and trusting relationships
  • Good sense of self and high self-esteem
  • Open to sharing feelings with friends, family, and romantic partners
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Comfortable with being alone sometimes
  • Easy to talk to and has great communication skills
  • High level of self-reflection in romantic relationships
  • Can manage and deal with conflicts effectively.

Why are some children not securely attached?

Although the secure attachment is quite normal, and you can expect it to happen to anyone, some people do not develop this attachment bond with their caregivers.

According to research, many factors lead to the development of other attachment styles, except secure attachment. In particular, how the primary caregiver, or the child’s mother, responds to her child’s needs.

If the mother is inconsistent with her responses, the child becomes more anxious. On the other hand, no response from the mother’s end to the child’s needs can also make the child emotionally distant as they grow older.

What does it look like in adult relationships? 

As a securely attached adult in a romantic relationship, you will be ready to form trusting and long-lasting relationships. You will also be more emotionally available and open to talk about anything and everything, thus leading to a healthy and happy relationship.

See also: List of insecurities

two people surfing - attachment styles

Ambivalent Or Anxious Attachment Style

A deep seeded fear of abandonment characterizes this type of attachment. People with an anxious attachment style are very insecure in all their relationships, which causes them to become demanding and suffocating partners, which is never ideal in a romantic relationship.

You might have seen this or experienced this in many teen and young adult relationships where the other person needs constant validation from the other. It can be as trivial as not getting an instant response to a text message, which makes the partner feel like you don’t care about them when they have unrealistic expectations of you.

Ambivalent attachment in children:

Children with this type of attachment style are usually very wary of strangers. They become extremely distressed when they are separated from their parent, who is their primary caregiver. They can only be then comforted by their parent and no one else.

Sometimes, when children are ambivalently attached to their parents, they might show passive aggression by rejecting the comfort of their parents because they were left alone.

This type of attachment style is not that common. In fact, according to a study by Cassidy and Berlin, this type of attachment was present in only 7 to 15 % of children in the US.

What happens in adulthood?

According to the same study, ambivalently attached children grew up overly dependent. They also tend to become quite clingy in romantic relationships and are very anxious or fearful about being rejected or neglected by their partner.

Characteristics of ambivalent attachment:
  • As children, they are very wary of strangers
  • Displays extreme distress in the absence of parents
  • They might become aggressive when the parent tries to comfort them
  • In adulthood, they tend to become clingy
  • They need constant validation from others
  • Hypersensitive to criticism
  • Always worrying if their partners love them or not
  • Reluctant to open up or get close to people
  • Easily gets jealous
  • Does not like being alone
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Very low self-esteem
  • Has trust issues

Why do some children develop ambivalent attachments?

One of the main reasons researchers found was the unavailability of the mother during childhood. This makes them lose their self-worth and starts to develop the fear of being rejected or abandoned.

What does it look like in adult relationships? 

In an adult romantic relationship, an ambivalent attachment style is not ideal. Partners with this type of attachment are often very needy, dependent, and clingy. They also seek reassurance that their partners love and care about them and must be reminded that they will not abandon them. 

This can cause the relationship to deteriorate because of the nagging, jealousy, and sometimes even crossing boundaries due to trust issues.

two people walking in the rain

Avoidant Attachment Style

The fear of intimacy characterizes this insecure form of attachment. People with this attachment style have difficulty getting close to others or opening up to others. They are often distant and cold and do not trust easily, making them avoid emotional attachment and intimacy.

Avoidant attachment style in children:

Children who have an avoidant attachment are very dismissive of their primary caregivers. They are not the ones to make a fuss when their parents leave them alone or with strangers. They are quite the opposite of ambivalently attached children because they do not show any signs of distress in the absence of their parents.

In addition to this, they also don’t seek any type of comfort from strangers or caregivers, regardless of whether they are left alone or not. However, they also don’t reject the attention given to them.

What happens in adulthood?

In adulthood, avoidant attachment appears as the fear of commitment and intimacy or creating strong emotional bonds. They are not keen on forming any kind of relationship, emotionally or physically, and after often quickly dismiss emotions- whether it is their own or other people’s feelings.

Children with avoidant attachment styles also tend to grow up to be emotionally distant and quite aloof adults.

Characteristics of avoidant attachment style:
  • As children, they tend to avoid their caregivers
  • They also don’t have any personally prefer e between their parents or a stranger
  • In adulthood, this turns into a fear of intimacy
  • They avoid physical and emotional intimacy as much as possible
  • Very independent
  • Have difficulty expressing their feelings and emotions
  • Unwilling to open up to people
  • Very dismissive
  • Have trust issues
  • They love being alone
  • They also have commitment issues

Why do some children develop avoidant attachment?

Unlike the anxious/ ambivalent attachment style, individuals who have avoidant attachment styles are more likely to grow into adults who hate the thought of getting close to other people. They might develop a crippling fear of commitment or getting intimate. They also become extremely independent and tend to avoid emotional connections with anyone.

What does it look like in adult relationships? 

They aware often described as very heavily guarded emotionally. For them, emotions and feelings aren’t topics of discussion in their relationship, even if their partners would want to. Instead, they are dismissive about these things and can break off the relationship, but even a breakup cannot faze them.

study concluded that adults who have an avoidant attachment style are more likely to engage in casual sex and less likely to fall in love.

two people holding hands in lbakc and white

Disorganized Attachment Style

This is a combination of both ambivalent and avoidant attachment styles. Individuals with disorganized attachment styles are very contradictory in their approach to romantic relationships.

First, they want and need attention from their partner, but at the same time, they also dread getting too much attention. Likewise, they don’t like the idea of getting too close to someone and sharing everything about themselves, but at the same time, they have an innate desire to feel loved and loved.

All these contradictions within their mental state make this type of attachment disorganized.

Disorganized attachment style in children:

Children who have disorganized attached styles are very apprehensive. Since they do not have a clear attachment behavior, it is hard to tell what the child needs from the caregiver’s point of view.

They have mixed responses to the same actions, which confuse the caregivers but, at the same time, aggravate the child. Sometimes children might also display resistant behavior and can seem dazed.

What happens in adulthood?            

Individuals with disorganized attachment styles grow up to be highly inconsistent in how they behave among peers and colleagues. They also have a higher tendency to developmental disorders and other health issues like substance abuse or even personality disorders,

Characteristics of disorganized attachment style:
  • They might seem confused
  • Display a fear of rejection
  • Cannot regulate emotions properly
  • Have trust issues
  • Naught takes the role of a caregiver or the parent as kids
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Characteristics of both avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles

Why do some children develop disorganized attachments?

According to researchers Main and Solomon, some children develop disorganized attachment styles because of parents or the primary caregivers who show inconsistent behavior towards the child.

Sometimes the attachment figure might be displaying reassurance and sometimes fear. The two’s back-and-forth confuses the child, and he feels dazed.

What does it look like in adult relationships? 

In an adult relationship, the disorganized attachment style is not ideal. In most cases, you might find that individuals with this attachment style often develop certain mental issues like personality disorders which can prevent them from managing a healthy relationship.

How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships 

While we have extensively discussed the impact of your initial attachment style on how your adult relationships pan out, you must also consider your partner’s attachment style.

There’s a lot to be said about the compatibility of two different attachment styles and how it impacts the quality of a romantic relationship. For example, you have an avoidant type of attachment. Still, your partner is anxiously attached, which can become a recurring cause of arguments in your relationship, ultimately destroying it in the long run.

Apart from this, the type of attachment style you have can impact other aspects of your adult relationship as well:

  • The way that you communicate in the relationship or the lack thereof.
  • The overall quality of the relationship or partnership
  • Risk of aggressive behavior or violence in the relationship.
  • It can also impact the attachment you will probably form with your offspring.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

Most people may end up with a secure attachment style among the four different attachment styles. But if, on the off chance, you have an insecure type of attachment, don’t worry; you can still change it.

Attachment styles are by no means a one-and-done deal. You can change it according to your needs and experience as you go through life.

Many research points to the fact that even people with an insecure attachment style in childhood can grow up securely attached to their partners in adulthood. This is because the time between your childhood and your adulthood is a big gap, and a lot can happen between these two milestones that can alter your point of view and perspectives significantly.

Age is also another factor that can contribute to a changing attachment style.

How you can change your attachment style:

  • Find out your relationship patterns with your parents from childhood.
  • Explore your needs and discover your desires in a relationship to have a clear vision of what you need in a partner.
  • Work on building your self-worth and self-esteem.
  • Seek professional help when needed.

FAQs—Attachment Styles

Which Attachment Style Is The Most Common? — Attachment Styles Q&A!

The secure attachment style is the most common attachment.

Which Attachment Style Is The Rarest?

The disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment style is the rarest.

Which Attachment Style Is Best For A Healthy Relationship? — Attachment Styles Q&A!

Secure attachment styles are best suited for a lasting and healthy relationship. This type of attachment ensures that you are always trusting, open, and supportive of your partner in the relationship, and there’s no room for insecurity.

Which Attachment Style Is Unhealthy?

The disorganized attachment style is the unhealthiest because it is heavily linked with many mental health issues. However, it is not to say that the other insecure attachment styles, such as the ambivalent and avoidant, are healthy.

All insecure attachment styles are not ideal for a healthy relationship. Instead, you should focus on creating a secure bond with your partner.

Is It Possible To Have More Than One Attachment Style? — Attachment Styles Q&A!

Yes, it is possible to have more than one attachment style but not quite at the same time or simultaneously. However, as you grow older and move on from one relationship to the next, your attachment style changes to adapt to your current relationship.

Can Your Attachment Style Change?

It is possible to change your attachment style. But it does not come easily. Apart from the natural progress of change that comes with maturity and age, if you have any of the insecure attachment styles and traits that you are unable to shake off, it will take a lot of effort and patience from your end to develop a healthier, much more secure attachment bond with your partner.


Fact checked:
Board reviewed by Marianne Tomlinson, LCSW (Couples and Family Therapy). Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Learn more.

About the author

Ryan Sanderson (LCSW) Ryan is a game and relationship enthusiast who enjoys all things quizzes, games, fun, love, relationships, and family. He's a licensed social worker and helps families, couples, and children in need. He's spoken about love and relationships on Salon.com, Forbes, and Mirror, to name a few.

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