Updated: Oct 27
Humans are social beings born with the innate drive to form attachments. Our very survival as infants depends on others, and from the moment we're born we develop emotional bonds with our caregivers. In fact, how we experience our very first relationships will impact every close relationship to come.
So understanding our "attachment style," formed in our earliest years, will give us crucial insight into ourselves and help us navigate every important relationship in our lives.
The Four Attachment Styles
Secure: In secure relationships parents are comfortable letting their children be curious and experiment on their own, but are reliably there when the child needs comfort and a sense of security. Parents pay attention to their child's emotional cues and respond to them. Children who develop under this style learn to be trusting and have healthy self-esteem. Secure adults are confident, reliable, comfortable in their skin, and in touch with their feelings.
In relationship with others they are available to their friend or partner, sensitive to their emotional cues, responsive and accepting of others' foibles while being able to "hold their ground" when confronted with unreasonable demands.
Anxious: This style develops when caregivers are inconsistent and sporadic about meeting their child's needs. Sometimes they offer protection and care when the child is scared or upset, sometimes not. The child learns that care is not always reliable and that affects their feelings of security. They therefore have a stronger need to cling to the parent or be more demanding of the caregiver's time and love and tend to act out to force the behavior they're seeking.
This produces adults that are more needy and possessive and can become angry when those needs aren't met. They can also require more validation and overt shows of affection to feel secure and can resort to moodiness or drama when feeling insecure. Anxious individuals can also take more time to trust.
Avoidant: This style develops when a parent or caregiver has trouble responding sensitively to their child's emotional cues or comforting the child when in distress. The caregiver may dismiss or reject their attempts at connection, minimize their feelings, or ignore their need for support in developmental tasks. The caregiver my use the child to satisfy their own emotional needs. The child learns not to turn to the parent to meet their needs since the parent does not respond in any satisfying way and shut down their emotions. They learn self-reliance as the best way to get needs met.
As an adult, translates to extreme self-sufficiency, an avoidance of intimacy or dismissive of relationships that require vulnerability or emotional obligation. They insist on freedom and prioritize work, travel, social life and their own personal hobbies and interests. Their partner's needs can be trivialized and their presence not central.
Disorganized (sometime called "fearful" or "avoidant"): Children in high-risk situations where parents or caregivers respond negatively to the child's needs. They show behaviors atypical of a "care" giver: rejection, ridicule even contempt. They can traumatize or frighten the child. Caregivers of this kind often have a history of trauma. Children learn to fear the parent while still craving their love.
Disorganized or fearful adults tend to be unpredictable, they may desire intimacy but also resist it because it's too painful or scary. They fear or are suspicious of others and may push people away, especially those closest to them. Abandonment is a big issue and they do not feel comfortable relying on others. This style has a risk of falling into abusive relationships that mirror their early caregivers.
While we can't change our emotional styles, knowing where we fall within the four gives us important insight on why we behave the way we do in our intimate, and day-to-day relationships and what kind of friend or partner will best suit our bonding style. That way, we can be more understanding of ourselves and others, have more self-knowledge, and be more accepting and forgiving when troubles do arise.
On this site, and many others, you can gain a better understanding of your attachment style or that of your partner. For a deeper dive into attachment styles, pick up psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller's book, Attached.