The Psychology Behind Attachment Styles and their Associated Behaviours
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles are the different ways we interact and behave in relationships. During early childhood, the interaction between the parent and child defines the child’s attachment style.
While attachment styles can shift throughout the years, research shows that patterns established in childhood have a strong impact on adulthood relationships. Nevertheless, it is also common for adults to adopt a combination of traits as they go through different life experiences and relationships.
These attachment styles are based on the attachment theory and research in the 1960s to 70s. John Bowlby did extensive research on the concept of attachment. His work was expanded by psychologist Mary Ainsworth who identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Later on, researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth style—the disorganised style.
The 4 Attachment Styles
A secure attachment is developed in childhood when the child’s needs are regularly met. Children exhibiting a secure attachment style feel comfortable around their parents. They don't feel separation anxiety when the parent leaves and they're happy when they return. The child feels safe, nurtured, and in touch with their parents. They seek comfort from parents when frightened and have an easy time expressing emotions.
Adults with a secure attachment style have low avoidance and low anxiety when dealing with social interactions. They feel comfortable with their emotions and relationships. They know how to draw boundaries, express their emotions in a healthy manner, and feel secure, trusting, and connected to their partners. Overall, individuals with a secure attachment tend to have a positive view of self and others and form trusting and long-lasting relationships.
An anxious attachment style is developed in childhood when the child receives an inconsistent amount of love and care. Children who are anxiously attached tend to be apprehensive of strangers. They display considerable distress when separated from a parent or caregiver and do not seem reassured or comforted by their return.
Adults with this attachment have low avoidance but high anxiety with social interactions. They are very concerned with what others feel about them, and because of this concern, they are dependent on others for feelings of validation and approval. They need constant reassurance and communication. In relationships, they want to feel a secure, safe, and loving bond with their partners but because of their desire for excessive intimacy, oftentimes they can become overly involved, clingy, and possessive. They tend to have a lack of trust and they have a difficult time believing that their partners actually love them. Overall, individuals with an anxious attachment style tend to idealise their relationships but live in constant fear of abandonment and rejection.
An avoidant attachment style is developed in childhood when only a portion of the child’s needs are met. For instance, the child may not be left hungry but are left emotionally dismissed. The parent may not give the child permission to cry or have little to no response when the child is hurting. This attachment style is almost the opposite of a preoccupied or anxious style.
People in this category have high avoidance but low anxiety with social interactions. They are uncomfortable with intimacy, affection, and love. They generally feel that they are independent of everybody else and think that they do not need relationships. They do not invest much emotion in relationships and experience little sadness when a relationship ends. They can often appear distant as they do not share their feelings often. They tend to rationalise their emotions and deny their own feelings to avoid confrontation.
A fearful or disorganised attachment is developed in childhood when the primary caregiver offers inconsistent emotional support and/or abuse or neglect. This attachment style is more of a combination of preoccupied and dismissive styles. Main and Solomon proposed that inconsistent behaviour on the part of parents might be a contributing factor. They also argued that parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child contribute to a disorganised attachment style.
When the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, confusion results. Despite craving intimacy, people with disorganised attachment style have a difficult time connecting with others while simultaneously wanting to remain independent and distant. These individuals usually get into very dysfunctional and unstable relationships. They have high avoidance along with high anxiety in social interactions. They generally see themselves as flawed and not worthy of loving and caring relationships. Overall, these individuals tend to have a “push-pull'' dynamic where they want to feel close and loved but since they expect to get hurt, they want to avoid any feelings of intimacy at the same time.
By understanding our attachment styles, we can shed more awareness about our thoughts and actions in our relationships. Furthermore, by understanding our partner’s attachment style, we can better understand why they too act or think a certain way. Enhanced understanding and awareness can help partners have more compassion and better communicate with one another as they navigate through the ups and downs that come their way.
About the author
Tannaz Hosseinpour, founder of Minutes on Growth Coaching, is a Dubai-based certified life coach specialising in mindset and relationships. She helps millennials manifest and cultivate empowered lives through one-on-one coaching, online programs, podcast episodes and social media content. She is the host of her self-improvement podcast, Minutes on Growth, available on Spotify, Apple and Google Podcast. She holds a Masters of Law degree in alternative dispute resolution, specialising in family mediation. Since 2017, she is also the CEO and founder of TP Education Consultants, an educational consultancy firm based in Toronto, Tehran and Dubai.