Are you secure, anxious, avoidant, or fearful?
If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, welcome. If you’re a serial TikTok scroller (and frankly, what else is there to do right now?) then you may well be familiar with the words “attachment style.”
During the pandemic, a lot of people have been thinking about the inner workings of their relationships in an effort to understand tendencies and patterns a little better. Unless you’ve studied psychology or spent time talking to a therapist, you might not be familiar with something called attachment theory.
So, what exactly is attachment theory? How exactly does an “attachment style” affect our relationships? And why should we care about it?
Attachment theory was developed in the ’60s by British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby and later expanded on by Canadian-American psychologist Mary Ainsworth.
Bowlby, who pioneered the theory, described attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Ainsworth, who worked under Bowlby at the start of her career, embarked on her own research into attachment. She noticed distinctions between infants and their caregivers and created three categories of attachment types: secure, insecure, and not-yet attached. Later, Ainsworth identified these attachment types as secure, avoidant, and ambivalent. And subsequent to that, researchers Mary Main, Judith Solomon, and Erik Hesse added a fourth type — disorganised — to refer to infants who had problems coping with stressful situations.
“Attachment theory basically focuses on the relationships and bonds between people, and how early attachment patterns affect long-term adult romantic relationships,” explains Şirin Atçeken, psychologist and therapist at healthcare company . Atçeken told me that our attachment patterns impact how we bond with ourselves, how we live, our work life, plus much more.
“Early attachment patterns affect long-term adult romantic relationships.”
According to attachment theory, it’s imperative for children’s social and emotional development that they form a relationship with at least one primary caregiver, says psychotherapist Neil Wilkie, creator of online therapy platform The Relationship Paradigm. “This attachment normally develops through four stages from about six months up until the age of about three,” says Wilkie.
Depending on those early experiences between the child and their caregiver, they will develop one of four attachment styles. These patterns continue into adulthood, affecting an individual’s relationships unless that person identifies their attachment style and attempts to address their related responses and ensuing behaviour.
Notably, the terms defining attachment styles have evolved over time, although their definitions have remained relatively constant. Experts today use a mixture of terminology for the four types, as did the people we interviewed for this article. But for the purposes of clarity, we’re using the four most widely used terms for attachment styles.
The four attachment styles:
Secure attachment is “where the child is free to explore their surroundings, safely knowing that their caregiver is watching over them, and though will be upset if the care provider leaves, will know that they will return and everything will be OK,” says Atçeken.
The securely attached child has a positive view of themselves and others, says Wilkie, adding this happens when their caregiver is emotionally available and responsive.
Someone who’s anxiously attached — also known as anxious-ambivalent — has a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others, explains Wilkie. This comes from having a caregiver who’s unpredictable and critical.
Anxiously attached children are less likely to explore freely and become very distressed when their carer leaves and won’t be excited when they return, says Atçeken. “Children in this form of attachment theory are often anxious, unsociable and will react in the form of needing to control all of their interactions.”
Avoidant types have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others, according to Wilkie. “This will come from a caregiver who has not met their emotional needs,” he explains. This style of attachment is also referred to as anxious-avoidant.
“A child in this pattern will ignore all reactions to the care provider, rarely showing emotion when they leave, or return,” Atçeken says. They won’t explore or engage with their surrounding environment. “This is usually because the child is unable to express or process feelings such as anxiety and anger, and avoids interaction because it is too much for them to handle,” adds Atçeken.
A fearful-avoidant type – also known as disorganised – has an unstable view of self and others, says Wilkie. This comes from having a carer who is unpredictable or frightening.
“Children who experience this form of attachment are often tense, are often stressed and respond in such a way,” says Atçeken.
Before assigning one to yourself, it’s a good idea to read further before just deciding on an attachment style and running with it. We recommend starting with Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller.
Knowing your attachment style can be helpful in identifying reasons for your reactions and behaviour in adult relationships. “We all have baggage from our childhood,” Wilkie says. “We cannot change what happened, but we can change how we allow it to affect us in the future.”
Securely attached individuals tend to have more long-lasting and satisfying relationships compared with other attachment styles. “They have a positive view of themselves, their attachments and relationships,” explains Wilkie.
Anxious types “seek intimacy and approval and may become clinging and over dependent on their partner,” says Wilkie. Avoidant types tend to avoid closeness and hide their emotions, opting for independence.
Fearful-avoidant people are “unhappy expressing affection and will be uncomfortable with emotional closeness,” says Wilkie.
Sex educator Emily Nagoski delves into attachment theory and its impact on sexuality in her book Come As You Are. Citing a 2012 review of research on the relationship between attachment style and sex, Nagoski states that securely attached people have been found to have the most satisfying sex lives. “Secure attachers have more positive emotions during sex, more frequent sex, higher levels of arousal and orgasm, and better communication about sex,” she writes.
Anxiously attached folks, however, are more likely to have “anxiety-driven ‘solace sex.'” What that means is, “using sex as an attachment behaviour — which can make sex intense without making it pleasurable,” writes Nagoski. Avoidant attachers, she says, start having sex later in life and typically have sex less frequently. “Avoidant attachers experience sex as less connected with their lives and with their relationships.”
It’s beneficial to question and attempt to understand why we are the way we are, and how we tend to relate to others.
It’s important to recognise that while we are shaped by our early formative experiences, they do not define us. These experiences are not the only factors that should be considered when analysing our relationships. Trauma, mental health conditions, patterned responses learned in adulthood, neurodivergence, are among myriad other factors that shape our responses and interpersonal relationships.
“We are the product of our experiences; it is what we do with those that decides who we are going to be and how healthy our relationships will be,” Wilkie tells me.
“Understanding our upbringing and that of our partner, or prospective partner, is really important as that may have a big impact on who are,” he adds. “If our parents were loving and supportive, that gives us a great foundation for a secure relationship.”
While it’s helpful to understand these aspects of ourselves, it’s also important not to pigeonhole oneself. Human beings are capable of change, and once we understand ourselves better, we can learn to exercise more self-compassion in realising where our reactions come from, and taking steps to address any behaviour if we feel we need to.