How Attachment Styles Affect Relationships

Author:  Kate Pauley – MFTC 

verified by Psychology Today

Have you ever experienced problems or struggles in a romantic relationship? Ok, so the answer to that is DUH, who hasn’t? To get a little more nuanced, do you find yourself getting into the same old arguments in your relationship?  Or maybe, you find yourself feeling desperate to make a relationship last?  Possibly, you’re the one who freaks out when a relationship gets too serious too soon?  The good news is that all of these problems could be explained by taking a closer look at your attachment style.

What is attachment?

Attachment theory was created by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  Bowlby and Ainsworth performed a study on mothers and toddlers to uncover attachment styles.  The experiment consisted of Mom leaving Toddler in an unfamiliar room for a few minutes and then returning.  What Bowlby and Ainsworth discovered is that the toddlers typically responded in 1 of 3 ways. 

  • Securely attached children (children who had all of their physical and emotional needs met) responded by crying when their mothers left the room.  When their mothers returned, the children were able to calm down and then go back to playing.  Demonstrating that the children felt secure that their bond with their mother was strong enough that they could go back to playing and not be fearful that their caregivers would suddenly leave again.
  • Anxiously attached children (children who did not have all of their physical and emotional needs consistently met by their caregivers) responded by crying when their mothers left the room (like securely attached children).  However, when their mothers returned, they could not self-soothe.  The children clung to their mothers and continued to cry.  Researchers identified that this behavior was utilized to get the attention of the caregiver.  The more the child screamed, cried, clung to the caregiver, the more the caregiver would have to notice them.  This technique was employed by these children to ensure that they would be noticed and cared for by the caregiver.  Researchers noticed that because of this behavior and desire to be noticed, the children could not go back to playing. This behavior demonstrated an insecure attachment style.
  • Avoidant children (children who did not have all of their physical and emotional needs consistently met by their caregivers) responded by ignoring their caregiver altogether.  The avoidant children did not seem phased when their mothers left the room nor returned.  This led the researchers to create the “avoidant” style where it is less painful/risky to show any attachment to one’s caregiver.  These children used avoidance to protect themselves from pain and hurt.  For these children, they did not know when they could trust that their needs would be met by their caregivers, so they detached, so as not to get hurt.

So, how does this translate to relationships? 

Securely attached individuals typically go into relationships with a trusting nature, having faith that their partners will respond to text messages and calls, that their partners will show up when they say they will, believing that their partners are acting out of the best intention.  This creates stability in the relationship that gives a secure base to operate from. 

Insecurely attached individuals typically show up either with anxious behavior or avoidant behavior.  Those with an anxious attachment style, typically get worried the second that their partner shows the smallest glimpse of pulling away.  This triggers fear in the person that their partner is leaving (whether conscious or unconscious).  The individual then demonstrates that same behavior that we saw in the children: wanting to cling to the relationship.

In adults, this might look like attempts to be in constant contact, continuously questioning what one’s partner is up to, needing more and greater displays of affection to truly believe that one’s partner is not going to leave.  In women, this behavior often gets described as “clingy.”  But really, this behavior comes out because of a previous attachment wound – a past hurt – where one’s needs were not met, or one’s trust was broken by someone incredibly close to them (a previous partner, caregiver, friend etc.) 

When an attachment wound is triggered, fear arises, and the person wants to ensure that they are not left alone all over again.  What ends up happening in most cases though, is that this behavior is perceived as annoying and insecure, and often leads to the demise of a relationship either way.  This then reinforces the insecure attachment style and makes individuals more and more anxious about maintaining relationships.

The other insecure attachment style, avoidant, shows up when a person is fearful about getting too close.  Because of their previous attachment wounds, they learn that it is best not to get too close.  So, for these individuals, every time it seems that someone else is getting too close, they pull away or do something self-destructive.  This keeps others at arms distance, but also prevents the individual from ever being in a secure loving relationship. 

Ironically, avoidant individuals most often end up with anxious individuals, which perpetuates the cycle of attachment wounds.  The avoidant person pulls away over fears of getting too close, the anxious person senses the distance and tries to get closer.  This causes the avoidant person to pull away harder, and around and around we go.  Both individuals end up getting hurt and reinforcing old attachment wounds.

These attachment styles commonly show up in romantic relationships, but you also may notice a pattern amongst friendships as well.  Becoming aware of your attachment style may help you to see how relationships across your lifespan have been impacted.

The good news

If as you’re reading this, you’re saying to yourself, “oh no, one of those insecure attachment styles sounds a lot like me,” don’t worry!  Attachment styles can fluctuate throughout life.  The thing about attachment styles is that they can change throughout a person’s life based on new experiences. So, for example, a person with an anxious style may get into an incredibly secure relationship that may tame an anxious person’s fears.  Then, going forward, the impact of their attachment wounds tends to diminish.  Likewise, a person who has a secure attachment style may lose someone important to them, which may revert them to an insecure attachment style.  

How to become more secure in your attachment style

One of the best ways to become more secure in your attachment style is to work with a therapist who practices an attachment-based therapy, like Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).  As an individual or in a couple or family, you may benefit from EFT. This style of therapy seeks to heal attachment wounds that you may have experienced in the past so that you can move on from a place of insecurity to operating from a secure base in yourself.  This style of therapy seeks to interrupt old patterns, like becoming anxious and behaving in a manner that actually pushes someone away, or pulling away purposefully when someone gets too close.  Through the experiences in therapy, you can practice creating new patterns, like self-soothing when fears and worries arise and leaning in to love in a new way.

See my Reading Recommendations