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Understanding Attachment Styles: What They Are and How They Affect Your Relationships

Romantic attachment styles explained


Couple holding a paper heart


You can't understand why you keep pushing potential partners away, even though you like them.


You seek constant reassurance from your partner that the relationship is ok.


Or maybe you have always struggled with jealousy and possessiveness in your relationships.


If this sounds familiar, identifying your romantic attachment style may help you understand why you feel and do certain things in your relationships. Our early childhood experiences shape our attachment styles and affect our adult relationships, including how we communicate, interact, and form bonds with others.


This article will overview the four main attachment styles (anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant or secure) and their relationship implications.


What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles refer to the patterns of interpersonal relationships we form in early childhood with our primary caregivers, shaping how we relate to others throughout our lives. It is useful to think of attachment styles as ways of relating. Attachment styles are either secure or insecure, with the three insecure attachment styles being anxious, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. However, it's important to note that attachment styles are not set in stone, can overlap, and can change over time. The following sections will explore each attachment style and how it can affect relationships.



Attachment styles diagram
By @harleyclinical


Anxious preoccupied attachment style: Insecurities and self-doubt

If you have an anxious preoccupied attachment style, you tend to have a negative view of yourself and a positive view of others. As a result, you may feel insecure in your relationships and worry about your partner's love and commitment. You may also be prone to jealousy and need reassurance from your partner that you are loved and valued.


An anxious attachment style can make forming and maintaining healthy relationships difficult because you crave intimacy and closeness but fear rejection and abandonment. You may have a strong need for reassurance and may seek constant validation from your partner, which can harm your relationship in the long run. You may be hyper-vigilant and look out for signs of rejection or abandonment, even when they are absent. Because of this, you may be more likely to engage in relationship behaviours such as excessive clinginess, emotional volatility, or controlling behaviour. For example, constant calling or messaging, making empty threats about leaving the relationship, or attempting to make partners feel jealous.


Dismissive avoidant attachment style: Distant and detached

An avoidant attachment style means that you tend to have a positive view of yourself and a negative view of your relationships. You value independence and self-sufficiency over emotional intimacy and feel uncomfortable with closeness and vulnerability in relationships; hence you tend to avoid emotional intimacy. This may mean you date a lot but do not have longer-term relationships. You may have difficulty trusting others and be emotionally distant or dismissive in relationships. For example, not returning phone calls or messages, avoiding sex or refusing to say ‘I love you’.


You independence and self-sufficiency over emotional intimacy with your partner in a relationship. As a result, you may struggle with expressions of emotion or vulnerability and find it hard to provide emotional support to your partner. In addition, you may quickly withdraw or shut down when you feel overwhelmed or threatened in a relationship rather than being able to talk about how you feel with your partner. This tends to put a wedge between you and your partner. In fact, studies show that individuals with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to experience relationship problems and dissatisfaction (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016).



Fearful avoidant attachment style: Fear being too close and too distant

A fearful avoidant attachment style means you will have a negative view of yourself and your relationships. You may feel torn between a desire for emotional closeness and a distressing fear of rejection and abandonment. You struggle with trust and intimacy, feeling both drawn to and fearful of intimacy in your relationships. This can create a ‘push-pull’ scenario: you crave intimacy leading you to get close to your partner, but this creates intense fear which pushes you into pulling away from them. As a result, you may struggle to trust your partner and maybe guarded or distant in the relationship. This tends to push partners away, and you may become emotionally volatile in response to perceived threats to the relationship.


Secure attachment style

Having a secure attachment style means you are comfortable with intimacy and can form close relationships without significant fear of rejection or abandonment. As a result, you trust your partner, can express your emotions honestly, and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships with others.


Being securely attached, you will likely be affectionate, communicative, and responsive to your partner's needs. You are also comfortable with your partner's independence and are not afraid to spend time alone or pursue their interests. As a result, you can maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships, are not likely to be overly jealous or possessive and are open, honest and treat partners with love and respect.


I may have an insecure attachment style; now what?

If one or more of the insecure attachment styles have resonated with you, don't panic. Although attachment styles are relatively stable throughout our lives, they can shift and change through self-reflection, willingness to change old behaviour patterns, and management of attachment-related anxiety and avoidance that may show up in relationships. This can be hard to do alone, so seeking out therapy may be a good first step.


Final thoughts

  • The first bonds we form with our caregivers set the tone for how we view ourselves and others, and shape how we relate to others through our attachment style.

  • It can be helpful to understand our attachment style in romantic relationships and what this might mean for how we initiate, navigate and maintain those relationships.


 

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References

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

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