Attachment Theory & Types

Attachment theory is one of the trendiest psychological theories that social media loves to LOVE. Why? Because it’s applicable to almost anyone who has/had parents or a romantic relationship. How we were raised until the age of 3 influences how we may engage in adult intimate relationships. Understanding this theory aids our conscious human brain in understanding our subconscious behaviors better, hence improving relationships with self and others. 

Attachment theory as a psychological model explains the nature of emotional attachment between humans. It was first developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s.

According to attachment theory, there are four distinct forms of attachment type: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each type of attachment is associated with distinct patterns of behavior in relationships. I am going to focus on how they show up in romantic and intimate relationships, but there can be some variability with friends, family, and their own children.

Secure

The simplified version is we all strive to be secure, well-adapted, happy, supportive adults capable of taking care of our own needs while simultaneously being supportive yet maintaining healthy boundaries with others. Know anyone who can do that 100% of the time? I don’t either. However, think about this akin to baseball stats, even batting .500 is really amazing (ps, I don’t know anything about baseball but love this analogy).

Secure individuals tend to be emotionally stable, tolerant, and communicative. They are not prone to withdrawing from relationships or becoming overly clingy or needy. They express what they want to their partner and have and respect boundaries within their romantic relationships.

Many secure individuals were raised by secure parents (one or both) and have had healthy examples of how to engage in communicative, emotionally-safe relationship dynamics.

Anxious-Preoccupied

The anxious-preoccupied (AP) individual is the person most likely to read this article. They are hyper-vigilant about their relationship stability and often on high alert for signs their partner will leave, abandon, or want out of the relationship. They tend to cling and can be termed “needy” by their partners of all attachment types. They struggle leaving unhealthy relationships for fear of being alone and tend to be most attracted to avoidant partners whom they can re-live their own subconscious patterns and beliefs about themselves (e.g. unworthy, unlovable, undeserving). On the flip side, they can be incredibly loving, supportive, and communicative in relationships and will give their heart and soul for the one they love. They often feel the need to “prove their worth” in the relationship through acts of service, gifts, verbal expressions of love. They can be highly sexual as the intimacy and closeness they crave, is gratified through sexual expression. They are natural nurturers and will often prioritize their partner over themselves, work, and even close family members. During this process of supporting their partner, their relationship to self is sacrificed and abandoned. They become more dependent and reliant on their partner for grounding, reassurance, and love.

Dismissive-Avoidant

The Dismissive Avoidant (DA) partner is probably the most misunderstood of the four attachment types. Often used synonymously with “narcissist” the true DA is far from carrying narcissistic characteristics, although, they may appear similar on the surface. DA individuals are incredibly protective over their space and time and need the most self-care time than any of the attachment types. They can become overwhelmed with emotional closeness quite quickly and tend to push away from anxious partners when they demand too much. They enjoy the honeymoon periods of relationships, but will often find ways to avoid deeper intimate exchanges that could leave them feeling vulnerable. If they do share, they may retract, retreat, and withdraw for periods after intense periods of connectivity. They often will use television, literary fiction, or other means to tune out the world to soothe their stress or anxiety, if they acknowledge or recognize it is present. Most DAs will take great pride in “not needing anyone” and will find things to “deactivate” from their partners in order to avoid intimacy and closeness.

Their apparent disinterest in intimacy comes from a deep-rooted fear of closeness to others, which they are completely unaware to. DAs are extremely sensitive to criticism and conflict as they take it as a personal rejection or failure if their partner becomes upset with them. Their knee-jerk reaction is to avoid talking about the issue or dismiss their partners feelings as valid, when these issues come up. They may walk-away, stonewall, or leave the relationship to avoid dealing with conflict. This often creates an interpretation from their partners that they are cold, disinterested, or uncaring when in reality, they are simply unhealed humans who are bound by attachment wounds.

The recipe for dismissive-avoidant attachment is usually having one or both caregivers before age of three that were emotionally unavailable. Most often the case, basic needs for food, clothing, shelter were met and the perception of the adult DA is of a “normal, healthy upbringing”.  Unfortunately, the needs for emotional safety, closeness, comfort, and verbal expression were met with disapproval by the parent/ caretaker that taught the child their vulnerability is unsafe and they adapted coping strategies to hide their feelings from others to win their parents approval. Often, this is unintentional from the parent who may have other young children, a full-time job, financial stress, or a multitude of other reasons why they may have been unable to be emotionally present with their children during this early stage of life.

Fearful-Avoidant (AKA: Disorganized type / Anxious-Avoidant)

Fearful-Avoidant (FA) individuals are the most complicated and can be associated with more obvious forms of childhood trauma such as abuse and neglect. The FA individual is variable depending on their life circumstances and, perhaps more importantly, the attachment type of their partner. For the FA involved with a DA, they may lean very heavy on the anxious side, often trying to get approval, love, and attention from their “apparently” disinterested DA partner. They crave depth of conversation, intimacy, but do not tend to be exceptionally sexually expressive as a means of attention seeking. They tend to become very uncomfortable in relationships once their partner does demonstrate an interest in depth of connection, intimacy, and commitment. They will then quickly convince themselves of problems in the relationship, create conflict, and ensure a massive blow-up ensues.

FAs are the most explosive, and often the most combative of the attachment types. They often will break-up with their romantic partners, before the partner can do so with them, out of fear of loss or outright anger. Their avoidance of closeness, yet craving for connection confuses them and they can feel most stable out of romantic relationships until healing is done. Similar to DAs who are compared to narcissists, unfairly, FAs are often equated to the lesser known mental health condition ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ or BPD. The commonalities between FAs and those with BPD comes down to their experience of anxiety. FAs tend to experience high relationship anxiety – even when the relationship is seemingly “going well” versus BPD individuals find conflict and fear of abandonment across all of their relationships – family, friends, coworkers, and intimate partners.

FAs typically experienced turbulence in their family-of-origin relationships and their need for safeness and closeness was inconsistently met. They may have parents who exhibit FA or DA traits and continue to seek their parent’s approval well into adulthood. They may more closely resemble DA or AP individuals, depending on their upbringing and their partner’s primary attachment type.

How do I know which attachment type I am?

My favorite, although quite lengthy, assessment of attachment is available on PsychologyToday.com (no affiliation). This one is a standardized research questionnaire and does cost $7. However, after reading the above descriptions, I am fairly confident you have a good idea of where you land. There are also many free assessments available that have not been standardized or verified.

It’s important to note that attachment styles are not set in stone and can change over time through experiences and self-reflection. Also, in any relationship, both people’s attachment styles interact and can influence the dynamics of the relationship. Up next, I will discuss attachment style sin relationships. Subscribe to make sure you dont miss my next article. PSB Blog 

 

Writer: Michelle Leary
Writer: Michelle Leary
February 22, 2023

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