Do you feel like you keep winding up in the same relationship patterns, despite every effort to change? This could be due to your attachment style, based upon attachment theory, which is primarily depended on how you were raised.
- What are the different attachment styles in adults?
- 1. Secure
- 2. Anxious (pursuer)
- 3. Avoidant/withdrawer
- 4. Fearful/disorganized
- The anxious and avoidant dynamic
- How to learn your attachment style
- How to develop a secure attachment style
What are the different attachment styles in adults?
Starting in the 1950s, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified four different attachment styles in children:
These were also found to continue through to adulthood and depend highly upon how they were raised.
- If your parents were easily able to soothe you, you likely grew up to have a secure attachment style and feel relaxed in relationships.
- If your parents attentively met your needs, but invalidated your feelings and experience, you might have developed an anxious attachment style.
- If your needs were not met, and your feelings and experience were invalidated, you might have grown up with a fearful attachment style.
- If your needs were not met, and you were not easily soothed, but your feelings and experience or validated, you probably have an avoidant attachment style today.
Relationship styles can change based on your relationships. You might have one style with your friends, another with various family members, and an entirely different dynamic with your partner.
Let’s dive deeper.
The secure attachment style is the healthiest style, as there is little unresolved trauma — thus fewer trauma responses.
People with a secure attachment style feel safe in relationships, no matter the distance. They tend to be warm and empathetic.
They trust you. This might look like letting you hang out with people of the same gender, or even your ex, without jealousy or concern.
If you have an anxious attachment style, this might make you feel like your partner doesn’t care, because you are not accustomed to that kind of security in a relationship.
Those with a secure attachment style have a positive view of themselves and others. They are interdependent, meaning they depend on both themselves and other people to help them through distress. Intimacy does not make them feel uncomfortable at all, and they welcome diverse perspectives.
When someone with a secure attachment is apart from people they care about, they still feel connected. While they do seek connection, they also give space. They implement their own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.
The secure attachment style is considered the best and most ideal because it creates the healthiest relationships. As you read on about the other attachment styles, you’ll learn why.
2. Anxious (pursuer)
In the anxious attachment style, there is a positive view of others, but a negative view of themselves. If you are constantly chasing after people that you know were bad for you or worried that your partner will leave you, you likely have anxious attachment style.
Pursuers may have grown up being gaslit and need external validation to confirm that what they feel isn’t all in their heads. They may still struggle to trust that, but don’t feel as anxious outside of romantic relationships.
Adults with an anxious attachment style view their partners as their other half. They feel anxious when apart and want to be as close as possible, but are scared of abandonment.
The relationship feels real when they’re close, but imaginary when they’re apart. They are highly dependent on others to meet their emotional needs, and their emotions are a roller coaster. They put other people above themselves and often strive to meet other people’s needs and hopes that this will keep them close.
The adult with an anxious attachment style believes that if they work hard enough, they’ll get what they want. They believe that if the circumstances are just right, they will be happy and everything will be perfect. They believe that if the other person could trust them enough and they meet all their partners’ needs, they will not be abandoned.
Diversity makes them feel more anxious, so they question that which doesn’t fit their reality. Adults with this style often have rigid thinking and boundaries, seeking to control their life and the lives of people around them due to fear of uncertainty. They reject inconsistency and do not appreciate change.
Pursuers might be domineering and gaslight others to control certainty. They might present as perfectionists with extremely high, unattainable standards. In conflict, they will avoid or withdraw, and might even give the silent treatment.
Anxious attachment style behaviors in regard to sex
Those with an anxious attachment style may engage in sex to fulfill the need for love and security.
They might use sex:
- To gain partner’s attentiveness, availability and love
- For emotional closeness, reassurance and approval
- As an attempt to prevent abandonment
They might also be prone to romantic sexual fantasies or favor praise, like the “Good Girl” role.
A person with an anxious attachment style will be triggered by five specific things:
1. Feeling abandoned
Any change in behaviors or patterns, like less talking or less touching, will cause the pursuer to feel abandoned.
This might look like panicking over not receiving an immediate text back, or thinking that you need to reply to texts as quickly as possible. If the other person does not respond immediately, you might start worrying about everything that could happen. They might go as far as stalking their partner or relative/friend at work or home.
Feeling unseen or unheard, ghosted, stonewalled or closes off, is a sign of the dismissal trigger.
It is feeling like your feelings or experiences have been invalidated, which often traces back to childhood when your feelings weren’t validated.
If you feel this way, please know that your feelings are valid. No one can tell you what you’re feeling. Be kind to yourself.
Breakups, not getting the job, cancelled plans, and being told “no” might trigger rejection-sensitive dysphoria in a person with an anxious attachment style.
Their identity is tied up in wanting to be wanted, needed, and included. This is a form of enmeshment and may trace back to childhood when their parents, siblings or friends didn’t include them.
Enmeshment may also present itself in an adult with an anxious attachment style as only being happy when their partner or loved one is happy or sad when the other person is sad. This is not a healthy relationship dynamic and is typically tied to the person not being one with themselves (also known as shadow work).
Not feeling connected to oneself as a person will cause them to feel lonely and disconnected from their own needs and boundaries. This results in relying heavily on others, which is associated with enmeshment.
Enmeshment is typical rooted in your childhood and how your parents raised you. If your parents don’t see an issue with their enmeshment, they were probably raised the same way. Generational enmeshment is not uncommon.
Emotional abuse or neglect from your parents, or being a victim of bullies, creates trauma that causes you to blame yourself and feel inadequate.
Low self-esteem often originates in childhood, when your parents or teachers were overly critical about things beyond your control. It could also be caused in adulthood by constant stress, criticism and unmet needs.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style has a positive self-esteem, but views everyone else negatively.
If you find yourself interested in someone until they show interest back, you might have an avoidant attachment style in regard to your love life.
You might also feel this way in a relationship (platonic or not) with someone who has an anxious attachment style (more on that below).
Those with an avoidant attachment style seek to meet their needs independently and are self-reliant. They fear intimacy and will always be looking for an out. In fact, they favor relationships that are doomed from the start, because those are easiest to leave.
In extreme cases, someone with an avoidant attachment style is most likely to have narcissistic personality disorder, since they place themselves on pedestals and everyone else below. They view dependence as weakness and may perceive people who need support as burdens.
In childhood, their needs likely went unmet, while their feelings were validated. As a result, they rely heavily on themselves to meet their own needs.
People with an avoidant attachment style might use one-night stands or open relationships to fulfill their emotional needs without commitment.
But they’re not entirely villainous: Adults with an avoidant attachment style often do want love, but they fear losing their independence and freedom. The closer the relationship, the more anxiety they experience.
They are also sensitive to criticism and fear their authentic self will not be accepted or lovable.
It would be better to pursue a relationship with another avoidant attachment style or someone who feels secure in a relationship and welcomes the avoidant’s independence.
As avoidant attachment styles are also known as “dismissive”, those with this style are often emotionally abusive by
- Dismissing reality of intimacy/relationship
- Not taking feelings of others seriously
- Valuing their own boundaries over everyone else’s (while perceiving other’s boundaries as a way to avoid true intimacy)
This is especially triggering for those with an anxious or fearful attachment style.
Deactivating strategies in avoidant attachment styles
While avoidant attachment styles have their triggers, their deactivating strategies are much more interesting and less heard of.
Deactivating strategies are behaviors or thoughts to reduce intimacy. Again, people with an avoidant attachment style fear intimacy. They might:
- Distance when things are good
- Think or say they’re not ready to commit, but remain in the relationship
- Keep secrets
- Avoid physical contact and/or use sex to get what they want
- Pursue relationships doomed to fail
- Withdraw at signs of trouble
The fearful attachment style is a nuanced combination of both anxious and avoidant styles.
If, in childhood, your needs were not met, and your emotions and experiences were invalidated, you might have a fearful attachment style.
In this attachment style, there is a negative view of themselves and others. They both seek and avoid connection. In autistic and similarly neurodivergent people, this may present as limerence.
People with a fearful attachment style want love, but reject intimacy. They may pursue or avoid sex altogether.
While they set boundaries, they don’t maintain them or respect other people’s boundaries. They are both supportive and distant, with poor communication skills due to insecurities and a lack of empathy.
During conflict, it might feel like they keep score. The relationship with someone who has a fearful attachment style might feel like can never win and are frequently invalidated.
Fearful attachment style behaviors are contradictory and hypocritical, seesawing based on the trauma response in the moment. They’ll embrace diversity, but reject it if it affects them or their values.
Like anxious attachment styles, adults with fearful attachment styles may seek to control everyone around them to help them feel love — then, like avoidant attachment styles, dismiss concerns of their controlling behaviors.
There is no rhyme or rhythm to the fearful attachment style, hence why it is also known as the disorganized attachment style or fearful-avoidant. This attachment style is the most challenging to overcome because it includes both anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
The anxious and avoidant dynamic
Do you find yourself constantly fighting with your partner over intimacy, emotions and freedom? You might be engaged in an anxious/avoidant (or fearful/avoidant) trauma bond.
In this relationship dynamic, the person with the anxious attachment style and the person with the avoidant attachment style match each other’s imperfections perfectly. This puts them both into a permanent trigger state, constantly triggering their trauma responses.
The anxious attachment style is triggered by the avoidant attachment style’s need for freedom and independence. But the avoidant attachment style is triggered by the anxious attachment style’s need for closeness.
The relationship might feel like a tug of war or constantly be on/off.
The person with the anxious attachment style thinks of says, “Don’t leave!” They’re hypervigilant, extremely aware of even the slightest change in countenance. They’re extremely jealous and require constant contact. Their anxiety will increase if the other person doesn’t text back immediately.
On the other hand, the person with the avoidant attachment style feels trapped or like they can find better. They might fear being suffocated — but this is not to be confused with feeling suffocated in relationships with anxiously attached people.
How to learn your attachment style
If you resonate with all of of characteristics listed for each attachment style above, you’re not alone. It’s common to not know your attachment style. Since all but the secure attachment style are rooted in trauma, it is also not uncommon mistake your attachment style for secure.
Working with a therapist is the number one way to find out your attachment style and work towards a secure attachment style if you don’t already have one.
However, access to therapists is a privilege that not many people have, so there are online quizzes to help. Use these quizzes as a precursor to learning more about yourself, rather than a diagnostic tool.
A caveat to online quizzes, however, is that they often do not see the nuance of someone’s ability to heal from their trauma. The online quizzes for attachment styles typically do not ask you questions to determine whether you healed from the trauma you had in your childhood. So you might receive an inaccurate result.
How to develop a secure attachment style
The secure attachment style is the most strived for attachment style. Therapy can help, but again, this is not accessible to everyone.
Gaining insight to what your attachment style might be is the best place to start.
Since all but the secure attachment style originates from trauma, therapists recommend healing by releasing anger towards your parents or caregivers, or other sources of your trauma. You don’t have to forgive them — just release that trauma.
Doing Shadow Work, which focuses on healing your inner child, helps current relationship dynamics and develops your connection with yourself. Learning to love oneself is one of the greatest gifts a person can give themselves.
Dive deep into emotional regulation. Learn what it is and how to develop it. If you are a parent, consider your parenting style and whether it supports your child developing a secure attachment bond.