Attachment styles are the scripts our brains form to stay safe and emotionally stable in close relationships.1 Attachment styles determine how emotionally and physically close a person is to other people, especially caregivers. Secure attachment in infancy and childhood leads to more emotional intelligence in adulthood.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles are the scripts our brains learn to keep safe and emotionally stable in close relationships.1 Attachment is characterized by patterns of adaptations that young children develop to maximize their chances at survival. Childhood is where we need to take a closer look at secure and insecure patterns of attachment that develop early in a child’s life.
When we ride a bike, by analogy, we stay upright by creating forward momentum while keeping our weight centered within a certain range. Attachment styles operate by a similar principle. Staying “upright” in relationships is about managing proximity or closeness. This can be both in a literal sense (moving towards or away from a caregiver), or in an abstract, emotional sense (showing more or less emotional reactivity).
Secure attachment is a basic trust in the availability of help and emotional support from the people in one’s social network. Secure attachment in childhood develops out of having reliable caregivers who are sensitive to a child’s nonverbal expressions of need. Attachment to a competent caregiver is a necessity given how much brain development must occur after humans are born.
While we all grow out of the utter helplessness of infancy, humans never outgrow the need to be a valued member of social groups. Security with caregivers extends to security with friends, peers, teachers, the larger community, and eventually, society as a whole.
Characteristics of secure attachment include:
- Emotional flexibility
- Ability to self-reflect and to see relationship conflicts from multiple perspectives
- Valuing relationships
- Capacity to be trusting and vulnerable
- Ability to express emotional needs and confront conflict in a coherent and direct manner
- Freedom to express a full range of emotions with the ability to return to equilibrium on receiving comfort and care
- Perception by others as being emotionally vital (i.e., fresh, engaged/engaging, energetic, spontaneous, and relatable)
Stable relationships, employment history, and overall contentment with one’s place in the world are all results of secure attachment.2
People with anxious attachment desperately want to participate in the social world yet consistently find themselves in drama, chaotic situations, and overall uneasiness.2
Characteristics of anxious (preoccupied) attachment include:
- Heightened emotions around relationships and a high level of emotional sensitivity (especially around abandonment and past disappointments)
- Difficulty returning to emotional baseline after conflict
- Marked anger or indications of vigilance against anger (e.g., extremely meek, indirect, highly anxious and inarticulate when confronted)
- History of volatile relationships
- Perception by others as emotionally “hot” or “overheated”
People with avoidant attachment see social participation as pointless and foolhardy. They resign themselves to living at the margins of society. People with avoidant attachment gravitate towards people and situations they can control.2
Characteristics of avoidant (dismissive) attachment include:
- Sees self as a lone wolf and lacks a collaborative mentality with others
- Devalues relationships and minimizes own dependency needs
- Expresses very few emotions
- Exhibits limited awareness of feelings and poor ability to elaborate and reflect on negative emotional states
- Sees others as soft or weak
- Perceived by others as emotionally “cold” (especially in the sense of being withdrawn and rigid)
Disorganized attachment is the most extreme form of insecure attachment. This level of attachment is frequently born from disruptive childhood experiences, like abuse, neglect, and other traumas.
Characteristics of disorganized attachment include:
- A strong need to fit in
- A strong need to survive
- A fear of the primary caregiver and limited trust in relationships
- A fear of rejection
- Negative emotions like shame, anxiety, confusion, and doubt
How Are Attachment Styles Formed?
Around four months old, infants develop the capacity to give and respond to social cues. Between four months and one year of age, children share smiles, laughs, and other communicative expressions with their caregivers. Organized patterns of attachment emerge out of the hours and hours of back and forth interaction between children and their caregivers.
Attachment styles are sets of expectations that form in a child’s mind as they experience more frequent and complex human interactions. By around one year of age, children have encountered enough social data to have classifiable patterns of attachment.
Attachment patterns are most easily observed during times of stress in the relationship, such as separation from a caregiver. Mary Ainsworth developed an experimental procedure called “The Strange Situation,” which allowed trained observers to identify a child’s primary attachment pattern.1 The procedure worked by creating mild stress to a child’s attachment system through short separations from the caregiver, and brief, scripted interactions with a “stranger” (that is, a member of the research team). The way that they interacted with the stranger was a determinant of their attachment style.
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How Do Attachment Styles Influence Adult Behavior?
Attachment experiences are our first encounters with the outside world, which we may refer to as “social reality.” Human beings’ relationship with the social world can be viewed as a reflection on early attachment experiences with a primary caregiver (or a composite of main caregivers).
The skills that make up emotional intelligence are directly impacted by early relationships with caregivers formed in early attachment. Reading social cues, delay of gratification, setting healthy boundaries, and resolving conflict are all important aspects of the emotional intelligence needed to function in a complex social world.
Delay of gratification is one aspect of emotional intelligence that predicts long-term success.3 If a child is unable to trust caregivers, then faith in a fair society will be extremely difficult to foster. How then could such a person believe that foregoing pleasure now for rewards in the future is worthwhile?
How Do I Find Out My Attachment Style?
The gold standard for assessing adult attachment patterns is the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a 90-minute interview that a trained interviewer administers, records, and transcribes. Coders who receive 80 hours of specialized training and complete a rigorous reliability test over the course of 18 months, review the transcripts and assign the relevant attachment pattern.
People interested in having their attachment pattern formally assessed or wish to speak with a clinician trained in this system can contact one of the handful of certified trainers for a referral. Conceptually, the AAI is quite complex and its inner workings have been protected as proprietary knowledge. However, the creators of the AAI published a helpful overview of the system in Clinical Applications of the Adult Attachment Interview for people interested in learning more about how it works.
Social psychologists use a much more straightforward method for assessing attachment style. Most research on attachment published in social psychology journals makes use of a 36-item, self-report questionnaire called the Experiences in Close Relationships (ECR) scale.4 This questionnaire is available to complete for free online. Results from this questionnaire will result in an assignment to the best-fitting attachment style according to how the respondent answers questions assessing two dimensions of attachment: anxiety and avoidance.5
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
Attachment styles become a central point of your identity and personality. However, there is always a chance for you to change a quality or feature you do not like.
If you are interested in changing your attachment style, here are some tips that might help:
1. Understand & Identify Your Patterns in Relationships
In the beginning, you’ll need to identify and understand your current patterns, uncovering where they come from and the impacts they have on your life. You could find positives linked to your style, or you might find that it only brings pain and unhappiness.
2. Find Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem
You may be too dependent on your relationships and attachments to boost your self-esteem. Ideally, your self-esteem exists apart from your relationships. To separate the two, find ways to focus on your positive qualities and develop your strengths.
3. Work on Your Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence allows you to understand your experience, but it also helps you better relate to the people around you. By increasing your emotional intelligence, you can interact with others in healthier ways.
4. Befriend People Who Are Securely Attached
Depending on your attachment style, you could be more drawn to people with problematic attachment styles. Try to resist this urge and seek out people who seem happy, securely attached, and in healthy relationships. Otherwise, your attachment styles could become more of a hindrance.
5. Resolve Childhood Trauma With Therapy
Attachment styles usually stem from childhood issues and experiences. Rather than trying to fix attachment in the present, return to the past with a therapist to acknowledge and resolve persisting problems.
Finding a Therapist for Attachment Issues
All forms of talk therapy have at least some built-in attachment work and can thus help with attachment issues. The mere act of returning to a reliable figure (in this case, a therapist) to receive emotional and practical help underscores the importance and value of human attachment.
Many forms of psychotherapy make extensive use of the therapeutic relationship, referencing the dynamics between clinician and patient, to make unknown algorithms in the attachment system observable and conscious. Search an online therapist directory for a therapist who leans heavily on attachment-based, relational, or interpersonal methods.
In fact, the quality of the working relationship between therapist and patient, is recognized as one of the most robust factors in creating therapeutic change.6Working through, or repairing, inevitable ruptures in the therapeutic relationship allows for more effective and more hopeful relationship patterns to take hold.7
Final Thoughts on Attachment Styles
Attachment styles are inherently neither good nor bad. Each organized pattern of attachment has adaptive qualities based on the environment in which you were raised; sometimes these adaptations generalize well to the rest of your life, and sometimes they don’t. If your usual assumptions, patterns of behavior, and resulting outcomes aren’t working for you, you can work to change them.