All of the Relationship Attachment Styles, Explained
The more mental and emotional health becomes a topic of everyday conversation, the more that niche terminology pertaining to relationships has become part of the vernacular. Case in point? Attachment styles. This is a concept you may not have heard about five or 10 years ago, but it's popping up more and more. (Google confirms y'all have been looking it up a lot recently.)
While it may not sound as fun as figuring out your sign (gotta love an astrology chart), figuring out your attachment style can give you serious insight into how you connect with others.
What Are Attachment Styles?
"Attachment styles are specific ways of relating to others in relationships that are a result of the bonds, or lack thereof, that we make in early childhood with our caretakers," says licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T.
There are four primary attachment styles; the latter three are all considered forms of insecure attachment:
- fearful-avoidant (sometimes called disorganized)
So how do you land in one of those categories? It starts early — babyhood early. "Attachment styles are typically developed in infancy based on your relationships with your earliest caregivers," says Wright. "Researchers believe attachment style is formed within your first year of living, between seven to 11 months of age." That said, experiences in adulthood can still affect your attachment style. "We're not immune to trauma as adults," notes Wright.
And for reference, your attachment style applies to all relationships, not just romantic ones. However, despite the fact that your attachment style presents in platonic and familial relationships, "most of the literature about relationships is about romantic ones," notes Wright. (Related: Why You Might Feel 'Stuck' In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It)
Attachment styles are not defined in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), since they're behavioral characteristics not psychiatric illnesses. However, there are two attachment-based diagnoses in the DSM-5, says Wright: reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). These are often identified in childhood but can have lasting consequences, particularly if untreated. RAD is characterized by unexplained withdrawal, fear, sadness, or irritability, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children who have DSED do not bond with their caregivers, and as a result are just as comfortable with strangers, according to Psychology Today.
"Attachment disorders are the psychological result of significant social neglect," explains Wright. Essentially, if an individual does not get enough social and emotional caregiving during their childhood, they're unable to build bonds with most other people, she says.
While those definitions barely scratch the surface of all there is to learn about attachment disorders, the main focus here will be attachment styles, not disorders. Keep reading for descriptions of each attachment style, plus why they matter in the first place. (Related: 6 Tips for Healthier (and Less Hurtful) Relationship Arguments)
What Are the Different Attachment Styles?
Back to the different relationship attachment styles: there are two categories (secure and insecure), with the latter divided into three subcategories. To determine which you are, Wright says you can read more and see what you resonate with, and/or visit with a therapist and ask them for their thoughts based on an evaluation.
Also important to note: You can change your type, says Wright. For example, if you are currently resonating with the anxious attachment style, you can absolutely work on that with the support of a therapist and cultivate a secure attachment style. (And vice versa; You can go from secure to one of the insecure attachment styles.) Anyone can benefit from achieving a secure attachment style, says Wright.
Secure Attachment (The Goal)
Wright characterizes this as "the ability to form loving and secure relationships with others." If you see yourself as "someone who is securely attached, trusts others, and is trustworthy," this may be your style, according to Wright. People with a secure attachment "love others and accept love from others, and can pretty easily get close to others," says Wright. "Securely attached people aren't afraid of intimacy — and they don't freak out if their partner(s) need space or time away. Plus, they can depend on others without being dependent." More than half of all adults have secure attachment, she notes. (Related: What Is Relationship Anarchy and Is It for You?)
Secure attachment typically results from "good" parenting/caregiving — the caregiver(s) paid attention to the child's needs, was responsive, and reacted to them quickly and positively, says Wright.
Everyone else falls into one of the next three subtypes of "insecure attachment."
This, put simply, is "fear of abandonment," says Wright. Sound familiar? Roughly 19 percent of adults — according to research Wright cites — fall into this category.
Anxious attachment is pretty straightforward; you're anxious about people loving and validating you. "This shows up as someone feeling insecure about their relationships, craving constant validation as evidence that they won't leave. This type of attachment style is associated with neediness or clingy behavior," says Wright. More than likely, your caregiver responded to your needs inconsistently, explains Wright. (Related: The One Factor That's Most Responsible for Your Happiness)
Once again, if this is you, you are certainly not alone.
Perhaps the opposite of the anxious style, "this form of insecure attachment is characterized by a fear of intimacy — emotional and/or physical," says Wright. "Folks with this attachment style have some trouble getting close and trusting others, and often, relationships can make them feel 'suffocated,'" says Wright. As a result, "they avoid deep relationships, and often are rigid and distant," she says.
Is your theme song "I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T?" "A person with this attachment style prefers to be independent and rely on themselves, and themselves only as a protection of not becoming 'too intimate,'" says Wright. Approximately 25 percent of adults have this type of insecure attachment, and it may be a result of caregiver(s) being dismissive, unresponsive, or uncaring to your emotional, physical, and mental needs, she says.
Fearful-Avoidant, aka Disorganized Attachment
The fearful-avoidant attachment style is the rarest, and "develops when the child's caregivers — the only source of safety — become a source of fear," according to the Attachment Project, an attachment style education site. This could come down to sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse experienced in childhood and adolescence. Wright says that frightening responses, such as extreme stress, anger, or exasperation, or not tending to a child's needs can lead the child to develop this attachment style.
"This complex attachment style is a combination of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles," explains Wright. "This makes this person want affection so badly...and also want to avoid it. They crave being loved by others, but are hesitant to form any close romantic relationships." (Related: Expert-Backed Tips to Go from a Casual to Committed Relationship — If That's What You Want)
Is this ringing bells for you? You may face difficulties in other areas, too. "Generally, folks with this attachment style also struggle with emotional regulation," the process by which people influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them, notes Wright.
Could be high time to find a therapist near you. Speaking of...
So, Now What?
If you're reading this and thinking something to the tune of, "Okay, okay, I'm avoidant… now what?" Wright has some advice: take inventory.
"Look at how this relationship attachment style is showing up in your life," says Wright. "Is it affecting your friendships? Your romantic relationships? Is it stopping you from pursuing a relationship you want based out of insecurity?" (Related: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)
If you find that you're thriving in your friendships, romantic relationships, and familial relationships, then congrats! You're doing amazing, sweetie.
If you believe your attachment style is a hindrance to happiness and fulfilling relationships, you may be able to work through it on your own to develop a secure attachment style. If you've tried on your own without much luck, this is an indicator to seek out a licensed mental health professional for support and guidance, says Wright. "One of the best ways to heal attachment wounds is through a healthy attachment, which a therapist can provide someone," she says. (On that note, here's how to find the best therapist for you, plus services offering free mental health support.) As noted, you can get to that secure attachment style, you just might need a gentle nudge in the right direction from a trusted therapist.