How Do Attachment Styles Form, What Are They, and How Do They Affect Your Romantic Relationship?

As human beings, it’s in our nature to seek love, support, acceptance, and comfort through our relationships.  Social psychologist Roy Baumeister said best humans “need to belong,” and this is one feeling that motivates us to build relationships with others.  We all crave closeness and intimacy with another person, but our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships and their outcomes.

You may ask yourself, how does one develop an attachment style?  Which attachment style am I?  What even are attachment styles?  How does my attachment style affect my romantic relationship?  Once you find the answers to all these questions, you will better understand yourself and what you need from your romantic relationship.

Developing an attachment style has a strong connection to one’s relationship with their parents during childhood, which affects one’s social and intimate relationships discovered by John Bowlby, a well-known psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst.  Bowlby believed four characteristics affect a child’s attachment style: proximity maintenance, safety, security base, and separation distress.

Proximity maintenance is the desire to be near someone you feel attached to.  An example of proximity maintenance is when a child stops what they are doing to be near their parent or get their parent involved in what they are doing.  According to Bowlby, safety is finding our parents or caregiver in a time of fear.  An example of safety is when a child gets lost in a store and automatically tries to look for their parent.  Security base is the knowledge that you can go and explore your surroundings and still go back to your parent or caregiver.  An example of a security base would be if a child goes out with friends and their parents greet them lovingly when they come home.  Lastly, separation distress is anxiety when a person is absent.  An example is when an infant cries loudly when his mother leaves for work.  When one of these four characteristics is taken away from a child, that child may grow up to have one of the insecure attachment styles.

You learn how to connect with others through your parents or caregivers; as a child, you emulate their behaviors and pick up on how they give and receive love, support, and comfort.  It all translates to your attachment style in a romantic relationship later in life.

There are four attachment styles: Secure, Avoidant, Anxious, and Disorganized.  Attachment styles can define how one perceives and handles emotional intimacy, how one communicates their emotions, how one responds to conflict, and one’s expectations for their partner.  Each of these attachment styles differs in these factors.  It is also important to know that you can be more than one attachment style, or your style can fluctuate between different relationships and personalities.

Secure Attachment:

Someone who has a secure attachment style has low avoidance and low anxiety.  In childhood, an individual’s parents/caregivers raise them with trust and support.  These children can separate easily from their parents, explore their surroundings, and seek their parents when scared or upset.

People who have developed this type of attachment are self-contented, social, warm, and easy to connect with.  These individuals are not preoccupied with thoughts of abandonment and rejection.  It tends to be easy for these individuals to get close to others, open up with their emotions and ask for help when needed.  Typically, people with secure attachments are confident in the support they give others and don’t worry about others depending on them.  These individuals form long-lasting and deep relationships.

Avoidant Attachment:

Avoidant attachment is also referred to as anxious-avoidant and is one of the insecure adult attachment styles.  It is defined as high on avoidance but low on anxiety.  This style can develop when a child has strict and emotionally distant parents.  For example, an avoidant attachment style may develop when a parent does not tolerate their child expressing their feelings and expects their child to be independent.  Children who develop this style believe their best outcomes are shutting down their emotions and self-sufficiency.

An adult with this attachment style may not tolerate emotional or physical intimacy, which can result in the inability to build healthy relationships.  These individuals value their independence and rarely worry about their partner’s availability.

Anxious Attachment:

Individuals with an anxious attachment style, also called anxious ambivalent attachment, are low on avoidance and high on anxiety.  This style can be a result of an inconsistent parenting pattern.  Children are too young to understand why their parents may have unpredictable behaviors and will often automatically assume it is their own fault.  When a child constantly has mixed signals and emotions from their parent, it isn’t easy to understand reasonable expectations.  Another way an anxious attachment style may develop is when the parent seeks emotional closeness with their child to satisfy their own needs instead of their child’s.  These types of parents may come across as intrusive and overprotective.

As an adult with anxious attachments, they crave intimacy and are very insecure with their relationship.  Low self-esteem, intense fear of abandonment, and clinginess are common traits in someone with this style.  They often worry that their partner does not reciprocate the same amount of love, and they strongly fear abandonment.  They constantly need validation and reassurance from their partner.  These adults can scare others away from close relationships because of their neediness and high expectations from their partner.

Disorganized Attachment:

The disorganized attachment, also known as the fearful-avoidant attachment style, is high on anxiety and avoidance.  This style generally develops when a child is physically, verbally, or sexually abused, when the parent is a source of fear for a child instead of a source of safety and protection.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style have an internal conflict of wanting emotional intimacy but avoiding it at all costs.  Their behavior has extreme inconsistencies, and they have difficulty trusting others.  The closeness makes them uncomfortable, and they are worried about their partner’s commitment.  They worry about being hurt if they open up to someone.  People with this attachment have little to no emotional regulation in relationships, and there is a heightened risk of violence.  These individuals can also suffer from other mental health issues, substance abuse, depression, or personality disorders.

Having a better understanding of attachment styles and which style you may fall under will allow one to understand them self and their partner more.  Talk with your significant other about expectations and have them read this so that they can understand themselves better too.

We all want a secure attachment style; feeling confident, supported, loved, and comfortable in our romantic relationship is what we all want from our partners.  It is always a good idea to look deep inside yourself and try to evaluate where your attachment style came from.  Identifying the cause is the first step in changing your attachment style.  It will be challenging but gratifying in the end.

Clinical reviewed by:
John Carnesecchi, LCSW, CEAP


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