If you’ve ever putzed around the internet, looking for why your relationships might all be screwed up (and screwed up in the same ways, I might add), then you’ve probably come across Attachment Theory.
Attachment Theory is an area of psychology that describes the nature of emotional attachment between humans. It begins as children with our attachment to our parents. The nature of this attachment, and how well it’s fostered and cared for, will then influence the nature of our attachment to romantic partners later in our life.
Attachment theory began in the 1950s and has since amassed a small mountain of research behind it. Two researchers, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, found that the nature in which infants get their needs met by their parents significantly contributes to their “attachment strategy” throughout their lives.1
Your attachment style doesn’t explain everything about your relationships, but it probably explains a great deal of why your close relationships have succeeded/failed in the manner they did, why you’re attracted to the people you are attracted to, and the nature of the relationship problems that come up again and again for you.
THE FOUR STYLES OF ATTACHMENT
According to psychologists, there are four attachment strategies adults can adopt: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.2
SECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE
People with secure attachment strategies are comfortable displaying interest and affection. They are also comfortable being alone and independent. They’re able to correctly prioritize their relationships within their life and tend to draw clear boundaries and stick to them.
Secure attachment types obviously make the best romantic partners, family members, and even friends. They’re capable of accepting rejection and moving on despite the pain, but are also capable of being loyal and sacrificing when necessary. They have little issue trusting people they’re close to and are trustworthy themselves. According to research, over 50% of the population are secure attachment types.3
ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT STYLE
Anxious attachment types are often nervous and stressed about their relationships. They need constant reassurance and affection from their partner. They have trouble being alone or single. They’ll often succumb to unhealthy or abusive relationships. They have trouble trusting people, even if they’re close to them. Their behavior can be irrational, sporadic, and overly-emotional and complain that everyone of the opposite sex are cold and heartless.
This is the girl who calls you 36 times in one night wondering why you didn’t call her back. Or the guy who follows his girlfriend to work to make sure she’s not flirting with any other men. Women are more likely to be anxious types than men.
AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT STYLE
Avoidant attachment types are extremely independent, self-directed, and often uncomfortable with intimacy. They’re commitment-phobes and experts at rationalizing their way out of any intimate situation. They regularly complain about feeling “crowded” or “suffocated” when people try to get close to them. In every relationship, they always have an exit strategy. Always. And they often construct their lifestyle in such a way to avoid commitment or too much intimate contact.
This is the guy who works 80 hours a week and gets annoyed when women he dates want to see him more than once on the weekend. Or the girl who dates dozens of guys over the course of years but tells them all she doesn’t want “anything serious” and inevitably ends up ditching them when she gets tired of them. Men are more likely than women to be avoidant types.
ANXIOUS-AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT STYLE
Anxious-Avoidant: Anxious-avoidant attachment types (also known as the “fearful type”) bring together the worst of both worlds. Anxious-avoidants are not only afraid of intimacy and commitment, but they distrust and lash out emotionally at anyone who tries to get close to them. Anxious-avoidants often spend much of their time alone and miserable, or in abusive or dysfunctional relationships.
According to studies, only a small percentage of the population qualifies as anxious-avoidant types, and they typically have a multitude of other emotional problems in other areas of their life (i.e., substance abuse, depression, etc.4).
As with most psychological profiling, these types aren’t monolithic qualities, but scalar in nature and somewhat independent. For instance, according to the book Attached by Amir Levie and Rachel Heller, I scored about 75% on the secure scale, 90% on the avoidant scale, and 10% on the anxious scale. And my guess is that 3-5 years ago, the secure would have been lower and the anxious would have been higher, although my avoidant has always been solidly maxed out (as any of my ex-girlfriends will tell you).
The point is, you can exhibit tendencies of more than one strategy depending on the situation and at different frequencies. Although, everyone has one dominant strategy. So “secure” types will still exhibit some avoidant or anxious behaviors, “anxious” types will sometimes exhibit secure behaviors, etc. It’s not all or nothing. Both anxious types and avoidant types will still score a certain amount on the secure scale. But anxious-avoidants will score high on both anxious and avoidant types and low on the secure scale.
HOW ATTACHMENT STYLES ARE FORMED
Like I said previously, our attachment styles as adults are influenced by how we related to our parents (or one parent/primary caregiver) as young children. As helpless little babies, this is our first and most important relationship of our lives, so it naturally sets the “blueprint” for how we perceive all relationships as we mature.
We use this relationship blueprint as we age into late childhood and adolescence, when we typically start to form important relationships outside of our immediate relationship with our parent(s). Our peer group takes on a larger role in our lives as we continue to learn how to relate to others. These experiences further influence our attachment style as we eventually become romantically involved with others, which, in turn, also influence our attachment style.
So while your early experiences with your parent(s) do have a considerable influence on how your relate to others, it’s not the only factor that determines your attachment style (though it’s a big one) and your attachment style can change over time (more on this later).
Generally, though, a secure attachment is developed in childhood by infants who regularly get their needs met, as well as receive ample quantities of love and affection. They feel competent among their peers but are also comfortable with their shortcomings to a degree. They exhibit healthy, strong boundaries, can communicate their needs well in their relationships, and aren’t afraid to leave a bad one if they think they need to.
Anxious attachment strategies are developed in childhood by infants who receive love and care with unpredictable sufficiency. They generally have a positive view of their peers, but a negative view of themselves. Their romantic relationships have often been overly idealized and they rely too heavily on them for their own self-esteem.
Avoidant attachment strategy is developed in childhood by infants who only get some of their needs met while the rest are neglected (for instance, he/she gets fed regularly, but is not held enough). They often hold a negative view of others but a positive view of themselves. They haven’t depended too much on their romantic relationships for intimacy and feel like they can don’t need others for emotional support.
Anxious-avoidant types develop from abusive or terribly negligent childhoods. They often have a hard time relating to their peers at all. They seek both intimacy and independence in romantic interactions, sometimes simultaneously, which, as you can imagine, leads to some pretty messed up, dysfunctional relationships.
ADULT ATTACHMENT STYLES AND RELATIONSHIP CONFIGURATIONS
Different attachment types tend to configure themselves into intimate relationships in predictable ways. Secure types are capable of dating (or handling, depending on your perspective) both anxious and avoidant types. They’re comfortable enough with themselves to give anxious types all of the reassurance they need and to give avoidant types the space they need without feeling threatened themselves.
Anxious and avoidants frequently end up in relationships with one another more often than they end up in relationships with their own types.5 That may seem counter-intuitive, but there’s order behind the madness. Avoidant types are so good at putting others off that oftentimes it’s only the anxious types who are willing to stick around and put in the extra effort to get them to open up.
For instance, a man who is avoidant may be able to successfully shirk a secure woman’s pushes for increased intimacy. After which, the secure woman will accept the rejection and move on. But an anxious woman will only become more determined by a man who pushes her away. She’ll resort to calling him for weeks or months on end until he finally caves and commits to her. This gives the avoidant man the reassurance he needs that he can behave independently and the anxious woman will wait around for him.
Often these relationships produce some degree of dysfunctional equilibrium as they fall into a pattern of chaser-chasee, which are both roles the anxious and avoidant types need in order to feel comfortable with intimacy.
Anxious-avoidants only date each other or the least secure of the anxious types or avoidant types. These relationships are very messy, if not downright abusive or negligent.
What all of this adds up to, which is the same conclusion I propose in my book, is that in relationships, insecurity finds insecurity and security finds security, even if those insecurities don’t always look the same. To put it bluntly, to everyone who has emailed me over the years complaining that all of the people they meet are insecure, or have trust issues, or are needy and manipulative… well, let’s just say I have some bad news for you.
WHAT’S YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE?
If you don’t have an idea of what your attachment style is yet and want to take a test, you can take this one. It’s a great resource that will give you an idea of your attachment style across different relationships—parents, friends, romantic partners.
I also really like it because you can track how various aspects of your attachment strategy change over time.
If you don’t want to take the test (takes maybe 10 minutes), the gist of it is this: if you’re consistently avoiding commitment, avoiding your romantic partners, shutting them out, or not sharing things with them, then you’re probably pretty avoidant.
If you’re constantly worrying about your partners, feel like they don’t like you as much as you like them, want to see them 24/7, need constant reassurance from them, then you’re probably anxious.
If you’re comfortable dating people, being intimate with them and are able to draw clear boundaries in your relationships, but also don’t mind being alone, then you’re probably secure.
Note, however, that there are some individual differences in how strongly we might identify with each attachment style. For example, you might be securely attached in most areas but have some anxious or avoidant tendencies in other situations. That said, most people typically have a predominant attachment style they tend to fall back on in their close relationships.
CAN YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE CHANGE?
The good news is that your attachment style can change over time—although it’s slow and difficult.
Research shows that an anxious or avoidant who enters a long-term relationship with a secure can be “raised up” to the level of the secure over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, an anxious or avoidant is also capable of “bringing down” a secure to their level of insecurity if they’re not careful.
Also, extreme negative life events, such as divorce, death of child, serious accident, etc., can cause a secure attachment type to fall into a more insecure attachment type.6
For instance, a man may be more or less secure, get married to an anxious type, bring her up to a more secure level, but when they run into money trouble she falls back to her anxious level, cheats on him and then divorces him for all of his money, sending him into a tailspin of avoidance. He goes on to ignore intimacy and pump-and-dump women for the next 10 years, afraid to become intimate with any of them.
If you’re beginning to think that anxious and/or avoidant behavior corresponds to the fake alpha syndrome and other insecure behavior I describe in men in my book, then you’re correct. Our attachment styles are intimately connected with our confidence in ourselves and others.
Psychologists Bartholomew and Horowitz have hypothesized a model showing that one’s attachment strategy corresponds to the degree of positive/negative self-image, and the positive/negative image of others.7
Secures exhibit both positive self-images and positive perceptions of others. Anxious types exhibit negative self-images, but positive perceptions of others (hence their needy behavior).
Avoidants exhibit positive self-images and negative perceptions of others (hence their arrogance and fear of commitment), and anxious-avoidants exhibit negative perceptions of just about everything and everyone (hence their inability to function in relationships).
Using this model as a roadmap, one can begin to navigate oneself to a more secure attachment type.
Anxious types can work on developing themselves, creating healthy boundaries and fostering a healthy self-image. One of my most common pieces of dating advice is for men to find something they’re passionate about and good at and make that a focal point of their life rather than women.
Avoidant types can work on opening themselves up to others, and enrich their relationships through sharing themselves more. Another one of my most common pieces of advice to men is that it’s your responsibility to find something great in everyone you meet. It’s not their responsibility to show you. Become curious. Stop being judgmental.
And of course, some of you may be reading this and thinking, “I like being alone and being able to sleep with whoever I want. I wouldn’t change a thing.” And it’s true — many people lead happy, successful lives as avoidant or anxious types. Some even have successful long-term relationships as an anxious or avoidant.
But research shows secures are consistently more happy and feel more supported,8 are less likely to become depressed,9 are healthier,10 retain more stable relationships, and become more successful11 than the other types.
And I can tell you from my personal experience, I’ve felt myself drift out of a strong avoidant (and slightly anxious) attachment type to a more secure attachment type over the past six years of working on myself in this area. And I can unequivocally say that I’m happier and more fulfilled in my relationships and with the women I date now than I ever was back then.
I wouldn’t trade it back for anything.
- Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333.↵
- Bartholomew, K., Kwong, M. J., & Hart, S. D. (2001). Attachment. In Handbook of personality disorders: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 196–230). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.↵
- Mickelson, K. D., Kessler, R. C., & Shaver, P. R. (1997). Adult attachment in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), 1092.↵
- Caspers, K. M., Yucuis, R., Troutman, B., & Spinks, R. (2006). Attachment as an organizer of behavior: implications for substance abuse problems and willingness to seek treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(1), 32.↵
- Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Davis, K. E. (1994). Attachment style, gender, and relationship stability: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(3), 502–512.↵
- Davila, J., Burge, D., & Hammen, C. (1997). Why does attachment style change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 826–838.↵
- Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226.↵
- Ognibene, T. C., & Collins, N. L. (1998). Adult attachment styles, perceived social support and coping strategies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(3), 323–345.↵
- Roberts, J. E., Gotlib, I. H., & Kassel, J. D. (1996). Adult attachment security and symptoms of depression: The mediating roles of dysfunctional attitudes and low self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(2), 310–320.↵
- Feeney, J. A. (2000). Implications of attachment style for patterns of health and illness. Child: Care, Health & Development, 26(4), 277–288.↵
- Blustein, D. L., Prezioso, M. S., & Schultheiss, D. P. (1995). Attachment Theory and Career Development: Current Status and Future Directions. The Counseling Psychologist, 23(3), 416–432.↵