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  • Writer's pictureSarah F. O'Brien, LCSW, LCSW-C, CCATP, CTMH

The Four Attachment Styles...and How They Affect Adult Relationships

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

This is the follow-up to my first blog on this topic: Do you know what kind of attachment style you have? In the first article, we took a dive into the theory, history, and early experiments to determine the four attachment styles we know today. In this article, we're going to dive into the differences of each attachment style and how that presents itself in adult relationships.


There are typical signs and characteristic lists, as well as, examples of how these attachment styles show up in relationship behaviors and dynamics. Grab your coffee and get ready to LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF! Everyone can learn something about themselves from reading this article.


In the first blog on attachment entitled, Do you know what kind of Attachment Style you have? we learned, based on attachment theory, four (4) attachment styles were identified. Remember, these styles are developed in childhood and replicated in adulthood.



Here are quick links to each section discussed below:


Quick Recap

Children have a biological drive to stay close, physically and emotionally, to parents or caretakers so that they will be fed, given shelter and safety, and loved. All children long for sustained connection with those who raise them. Children who feel anxious or uncertain about the connection could adopt strategies that hide parts of themselves to maintain the family status quo. When a child has to conceal much of who they are from those they want to be seen by (their family and parents) then they learn to compartmentalize parts of themselves. This is in an effort to get their needs met and/or gain approval of others (approval = accepted, included, seen). This leads to Anxious Attachment later in life and difficulty connecting authentically with others. They may also feel out of touch with their “inner aliveness,” as Tian Dayton, MA, PhD puts it in her book “Treating Adult Children of Relational Trauma.” Psychoanalysts refer to this as “false self-functioning” which shows up as shutting down behaviors or disguising their “innermost truths” around those to whom they are close.


Interesting thing is, the person DOES NOT REALIZE they are operating outing of a false sense of self and that really their outlook, urges, choices, behaviors are tailored, so to say, to be accepted by those around them. The crazy thing about this is the person has no idea how early attachment, or lack thereof, has literally affected who, what, how, and when they choose relationships, and how they behave in relationships.


How Trauma Impacts Attachment

Trauma, early childhood trauma especially, negatively impacts a person as they move through life, as Paul Conti puts it in his book “Trauma: the invisible epidemic.” Some of this negative impact shows up as anxious attachment. Ongoing issues with attachment, attunement, and authentically showing up as yourself will impact a person’s feeling seen, understood, accepted, and included. And if we don’t feel seen, loved, accepted by others, especially those were in close relationship with, then we’re incurring MORE RELATIONAL TRAUMA. More injury. And we’re further compartmentalizing parts of ourself just to move through the world.


“I’ve spent my life trying to make it comfortable for me in the world, comfortable to be around others, but I’ve realized I’m not being myself, I haven’t been myself.”

A client put it this way to me. When they were several years into their trauma healing journey they realized they were not behaving in ways congruent with who they are; they were being inauthentic to make it comfortable for themselves in the world. In other words, they were behaving to meet the expectations of others, of society, of family etc. instead of being themselves. Why? Because them as themselves WAS NOT ACCEPTED in childhood, and this client (like so many other trauma survivors) believed something was wrong with them so they needed to change to be accepted by the people who raised them.


This is the crux of the negative impact trauma leaves on a person as they move through life. This is the result of emotional abuse neglect in childhood and/or relational/betrayal trauma experienced later in life. THIS. THIS BELIEF THEY NEED TO CHANGE WHO THEY ARE, HOW THEY BEHAVE, WHAT THEY LIKE, WHAT THEY DISLIKE to get other people to be close to them, to attune to their relational and emotional needs, to show up for them in the ways THEY NEED. Often this self-belief is the result of anxious or disorganized attachment to their primary caregivers.

This is incredibly damaging. This rocks a person’ sense of self, worth, and value. It often leaves a person feeling unworthy of love, as if there is something wrong with them, and feelings of hopelessness about ever being included and accepted. Because if a person believes they need to CHANGE THEMSELVES to be loved, accepted and included in THEIR FAMILY, then there’s also a belief that no one else in the world would accept them as is, because, look, even their family DOESN’T. This ends up being a faulty core belief about themselves, and this certainly colors how they interact with others. Keep in mind, people don't ask to be like this. They don't prefer believe no one will ever care for them, they just do, this is just the result of their experiences; it's not a choice, it's an outcome.


Can you avoid developing one of the anxious attachment styles?

How to avoid developing this? You can’t. We don’t have choice over who raises us and how. We don’t choose what we learn from dysfunctional family systems, and what we let go. We can’t discern unhealthy and toxic behavior as dependent children who need caretakers.


So, if you can’t avoid whatever attachment style you develop, what CAN you do about it? First of all, learn about the attachment styles, their differences, and self-reflect on yourself and your family of origin. Second, seek out psychotherapy to help you uncover patterns you have developed as a result of early attachment. And, be easy on yourself. This isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have avoided it. And for most, it is really really hard to see the effects of poor early attachment later in life. Once you do though, jump into the work, make an effort to change the way you see yourself and others.


I’m going to help you with number one: learning about the four attachment styles. For the next thing, you’re going to have to determine on your own if you want to do the work to address your attachment style and how that affects current relationships. It might not be easy, fast, or fun, but it will be worth it. And you have the hope of healthy relationships and feeling securely connected on the back end of that hard work.


Let’s get to it. The four attachment styles according to Bowlby, Ainsworth, and the Strange Situation experiment (check out more in Blog #1 on Attachment) are: Anxious-Insecure Attachment; Anxious-Avoidant Attachment, Disorganized Attachment, and Secure Attachment.


Anxious-Insecure Attachment

This is referred to as anxious-ambivalent attachment in children. They have an insecure relationship with parents, meaning they do not feel secure that their physical and emotional needs will be met every time a need arises. This develops as a result of inconsistent parenting, mis-attunement to the child’s emotional needs, and sometimes being there and other times being distracted or unavailable. Anxious-insecure attachment can develop if parents are intrusive or overwhelming, as well. This leaves you with a strong desire for intimacy combined with doubts and abandonment anxiety. You might have developed a sense that your caregiver’s emotional state and mood were your responsibility and you had to make extraordinary efforts to “make them happy” or get love in return. 


By the way, this last bit, is EXACTLY how codependency develops—you learned to go out of your way for the other person in the relationship in hopes of that person then showing up for you in the ways you need to feel loved and cared for in the relationship. You felt, and in many cases were, responsible for your caregiver’s feelings, making adjustments to yourself and your behavior to assuage or change your caregiver’s feeling, and to get in their good graces so your needs could then be met…but, your needs are not met, not met well, or not met consistently. This results in feelings of ‘not good enough’ to be loved (having to change yourself as the only path to acceptance). This results in ‘must work harder’ to be seen. This results in ‘address their needs first’ to be included and accepted in the relationship. And these patterns don’t just stop because you grew up and got married. These beliefs and behaviors will continue into adulthood…and you won’t even have realized you developed this way.

 

People with anxious-insecure attachment are usually “needy,” which makes sense if they are always looking to get their needs met. They want to be close with others but are afraid that people don’t want to be close with them. They become very anxious if they feel uncertain in relationships, or uncertain about where they or the status of the relationship stands. Anxious-insecure attachment style can also result from previous romantic relationships that ended badly. Experiences such as betrayal, emotional abandonment, or loss can create a fear of intimacy and trust issues, making it difficult to form deep connections with others.


Signs or characteristics you may see in someone with anxious-insecure attachment:

1.    codependency/codependent behaviors

2.    intense emotional discomfort with or avoidance of being alone

6.    feeling dependent on others

7.    frequent need for validation from others

8.    an intense desire for intimacy or closeness

9.    tendency to feel or act jealous

12.  sensitivity to changes in how others feel, speak, or behave—this also looks like hypervigilance about changes or differences in how people feel, speak or behave

14. difficulty trusting others


An anxious attachment style can manifest in many ways.

For example:

  • calling or texting your partner repeatedly until they respond

  • frequently checking social media for information

  • feeling suspicious when everything is calm

  • going along with whatever your friends want to do even if you don’t feel like it

  • overextending on work projects to please your coworkers

  • having a hard time saying “no” even when you feel you should

  • repeatedly asking your partner if they find you attractive

  • trying to avoid breaking up by all means even when the relationship isn’t healthy

 

An anxious-insecure attachment style can impact the amount of joy you feel in your relationships, and ultimately it does affect how, and how well, you connect authentically with others. This stuff is really hard to unlearn without guidance, support, and expertise from a mental health professional who specializes in attachment and trauma.


Anxious-Avoidant Attachment

The flip side of anxious-insecure is anxious-avoidant. Those with this attachment style are the opposite of needy and instead of wanting to be emotionally close, they avoid connecting with others. People with a anxious-avoidant attachment style distrust others and withdraw from relationships in order to avoid rejection. This leads people with a anxious-avoidant attachment to avoid the very relationships they crave. Anxious-avoidant attachment can develop for several reasons, including childhood trauma or neglect, inconsistent caregiving, or overly critical parenting. It can also result from a previous relationship where trust was broken, or there was emotional abandonment. Traumatic events in childhood, such as abuse, neglect, or loss, can also contribute to the development of anxious-avoidant attachment.  Does any of this sound familiar? It should! Because many of these same issues ALSO CAUSE anxious-insecure attachment.


The differences? One person responds to this relational trauma by doing too much in relationships. And the other person responds to this relational trauma by doing too little in relationships. In other words, one reaches in, and the other distances themselves. One is more likely to develop codependent behaviors, and the other is more likely to end up isolated and alone. Either way, both have learned ineffective and unhealthy ways to attach to other people. Both have learned unhealthy behaviors that can really disrupt a relationship dynamic, especially in times of stress or conflict.


Children who experience trauma may struggle with anxiety, mistrust, and disconnection from others. In fact, we should stop saying ‘may’ and just be outright definitive because WE KNOW the long-term effects of early childhood trauma. WE KNOW these folks struggle in relationships later on fueled by the anxiety, mistrust, and disconnection they have often, if not always, felt by people who were supposed to love them. This can lead to a tendency to withdraw from relationships or be guarded when forming new ones. This can make it hard for them be vulnerable and open up to others. They may appear aloof or disinterested.


Anxious-Avoidant attachment also is likely to develop in children where at least one parent or caregiver exhibits frightening behavior. This frightening behavior can range from overt abuse to more subtle signs of anxiety or uncertainty, but the result is the same: difficulty with healthy attachment. Yelling, screaming, slamming things, breaking things, hitting things, people, or pets—even if the parent doesn't hit the child—is frightening enough for a child to develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style. When the child approaches the parent for comfort, the parent is unable to provide it, or worse, gets angry at the child for asking for comfort in this moment. Because the caregiver does not offer a secure base and may function as a source of distress for the child, the child's impulse will be to start to approach the caregiver for comfort but will then withdraw—this withdrawal in children in the Strange Situation experiment is the first indictor of anxious-avoidant attachment forming.

 

Individuals with anxious-avoidant attachment believe they are unlovable and also don't trust other people to support and accept them. Because they think others will eventually reject them, they withdraw from relationships. They often withdraw from relationships when they become more serious and require more vulnerability; an anxious-avoidant person will fear being rejected for sharing the vulnerable parts of themselves. Why? Because that’s what happened in childhood; they were not accepted, loved, and cared for when they vulnerably approached their caregiver when in distress or when they had a need for comfort and safety. When they expressed this, they were rejected by their caregiver if the caregiver did not address or did not provide accurate attunement to the child’s need.


Anxious-avoidant attachment can lead to behavior that may be confusing to friends and romantic partners. People with this style may encourage closeness at first and then emotionally or physically retreat when they start to feel vulnerable in the relationship.


Signs or characteristics you may see in someone with Anxious-avoidant attachment:

  • Feel both the desire for closeness and the fear of it

  • Experience a push-pull dynamic in relationships

  • Withdraw emotionally

  • Avoid intimacy when things get too close

  • Lack of deep connections with other

  • Fear of intimacy

  • Difficulty expressing emotions

  • A tendency to withdraw when things get too close

  • A lack of deep connections in relationships

  • A tendency to self-sabotage relationships when they become too intimate

  • Difficulty with trust

 

An anxious-avoidant attachment style can manifest in many ways:

For example:

  • You have a fear of abandonment

  • You are uncomfortable with emotional closeness and difficulty expressing emotions

  • You tend to be highly self-sufficient and have difficulty relying on others for emotional support

  • You tend to send mixed signals, push/pull in relationships

  • You self-sabotage your relationships

  • You find it difficult to trust others; keeping guard up leads to difficulty forming relationships


Anxious-Avoidant Attachment and Addiction

Any substance use disorder is complex and nuanced, hear that first. However, there is a contending view that substance addiction is an attachment disorder.


People with caregivers that were inconsistent, rejecting, or neglectful towards their needs may be vulnerable to addictions. This is because they might cope with their feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and discomfort by self-medicating.


As we have discussed (at length!), humans are wired to turn to loved ones for care and comfort. Yet, while there is nothing inherently dysfunctional about wanting to be loved, when this need isn’t provided for, folks try to find alternative methods to self-soothe. This is where addiction and attachment start to interrelate. 


“Addictions to substances such as drugs and alcohol, or rituals around food, gambling, and sex can become compensatory mechanisms for substituting the internal balance that a secure attachment typically provides. This isn’t to suggest that someone with a secure attachment style can’t experience addiction. And, of course, not every insecure attacher develops an addiction,” as stated in the article Understanding Addiction through Attachment Theory.

 

Also, we discussed earlier those with anxious-insecure attachment tend to reach in when they feel anxious, uncertainty, or distress in a relationship; they turn right towards the person and attempt to connect. Whereas those with anxious-avoidant attachment tend to withdrawal. While the anxious-insecure person will busy themselves with tasks or behaviors to be seen by the other person, the anxious-avoidant person will withdraw and disconnect from others—which leaves them isolated and alone with their uncomfortable feelings. Humans WILL desire to avoid pain. How we each go about attempting to avoid pain looks different. And many of those with anxious-avoidant attachment turn to substances, food, sex, or gambling to soothe and alleviate emotional pain or rejection felt in relationships. They choose a coping strategy they can use and do on their own, privately, in isolation.

 

I must highlight here the dichotomy between anxious-insecure and anxious avoidant: anxious-insecure folks tend to develop more codependency in relationships where they experience rejection and pain, whereas anxious-avoidant folks tend to develop ways to escape rejection and pain felt in relationships with addictions. In both cases, IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT. Placing blame on the person who experienced some kind of major relational upset/relational neglect/relational abuse/relational betrayal (either in childhood or later on) with a significant or close person in their life IS JUST UNFAIR. Blaming folks for finding ways to survive in the world and attempt to get their needs met WHEN CONSISTENTLY THEIR NEEDS HAVE NOT BEEN MET is backwards, unkind, invalidating to their experience, and NOT HUMAN-CENTERED.

 

We gotta do better. We can do better. People DESERVE to feel accepted and supported by people in their life. People DESERVE to be treated with dignity and respect, always, and especially when they are struggling. Do you think someone who is addicted to a substance is struggling? You better believe it! Addiction to a substance is not the same as recreational use or experimentation—it’s not fun or cute, it’s necessary for functioning and survival at that point. And if someone is using ANY substance, food, or activity to just make it through the day, believe you me, they are struggling. The same is true for a person displaying codependency; they are struggling. They are grasping at everything they know to do to try to be seen, loved, and attuned to emotionally. They are struggling in their relationships and likely with their own feelings of rejection and abandonment if they are engaging in codependent behaviors. STOP THE JUDGMENT. INCREASE ACCEPTANCE.

 

Okay, moving on to the final two attachment styles.


Disorganized or Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

The fearful-avoidant attachment style is rarer than the other attachment styles, typically occurring in about 7% of the population. It often develops in the first 18 months of life and is most prevalent in those who were abused or experienced trauma as a child. More often than not, this attachment style develops in the most at-risk groups in our society.


Fearful-avoidant attachment, also known as disorganized attachment, is a complex pattern of behavior characterized by both high levels of anxiety and avoidance in relationships. A child becomes stuck between deactivation (shutting down, numbing out) since the caregiver cannot be a source of reassurance, and hyperactivation (reactivity, intense emotions), since the presence of the frightening caregiver constantly triggers attachment needs. The child desperately needs comfort but has learned that their caregiver cannot give it to them. They often feel stuck with reaching out and not reaching out when they have a relational need.


Also, caregivers who use their children for their own emotional needs may inflict damage on their children without realizing it. This is making the dependent child RESPONSIBLE for your feelings, RESPONSIBLE FOR REGULATING YOUR EMOTIONS. The child will learn others’ needs should come first and the child will also learn that their needs do not matter as much as others. If you move through life believing your needs DO NOT MATTER as much as other people’s needs, this will certainly affect your experience in relationships, as well as, how you show up in relationships. People with disorganized attachments often crave intimacy and connection but are simultaneously afraid of getting too close to anyone due to past traumas or negative experiences.


Folks with disorganized attachment often hold a negative model of self and others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy. This causes a lot of confusion in themselves with themselves. This creates problems in learning to identify their own needs as separate from others. This also causes unhealthy dependency on others to function in life.


Disorganized attachment results in individuals experiencing both anxiety and avoidance, as stated. They want to be in close relationships, but they lack confidence and security in themselves, their partner, and their relationships, which leaves them guarded and sometimes closed off to others entirely. Fear is running their life…and they don’t know how to extinguish the fear so they can connect and attach.


Signs and Characteristics of someone with Disorganized Attachment:

  • Not having a felt sense of safety/limited sense of safety – always feeling like something is wrong or will go wrong

  • Poor self-regulation of emotions

  • Difficulty trusting others

  • Hypervigilance – always looking out for signs of danger

  • Finding it hard to self-soothe

  • Fidgety behaviors

  • No sense of personal boundaries

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Finding it hard to keep friends

  • Dissociating to cut off their emotions

  • Trying to regain control by behaving bossy

  • A need for control and security

  • They usually have a negative view of themselves

  • And negative view of others

  • The belief that they will be disappointed and let down by others

  • May be very focused on their career rather than on the people in their lives

  • A need to protect themselves against rejection

  • May be passive or cold during interactions as a way to shield themselves

  • Elevated levels of anxiety


Disorganized Attachment manifests in many ways:

For example:

  • Part of fearful avoidant attachment is that the individual has a negative view of themselves

  • They may not be very sure of themselves, which makes them less assertive and withdraw from social contact

  • Conflicting feelings about relationships, conflicting behaviors in relationships

  • Negative self-view

  • Avoid getting close to others

  • Unhelpful social behaviors (hold grudges, do not want to have difficult conversations, or They can also be people pleasers, meaning they go along with whatever other people want or agree to things they may not agree with to make life easier.


Differences between fearful-avoidant and anxious-avoidant

Fearful-avoidant and anxious-avoidant attachment styles both involve fear of intimacy, but they differ in how a they respond to this fear of intimacy.


Fearful-avoidant individuals desire close relationships but are afraid of being hurt, leading to a push-pull dynamic. They struggle with both the need for connection and the fear of rejection. On the other hand, anxious-avoidant individuals also desire closeness but feel overwhelmed by it, leading to a tendency to withdraw or create emotional distance. They fear losing their independence and often send mixed signals to potential partners.


Secure attachment

Secure attachment is classified by children who show some distress when their caregiver leaves but are able to compose themselves quickly when the caregiver returns in The Strange Situation experiment. Children with secure attachment feel protected by their caregivers, and they know that they can depend on them to return. Secure = not anxious. Secure = not fearful. Secure = not alone in their feelings. Children who have caregivers who know how to ATTUNE to their emotional and physical needs, even anticipate the child’s needs at times, develop secure attachments.

Basically, folks who grew up in families with a therapist parent! Only joking, of course. But really, folks who grew up with attentive, consistent, predictable love, care, and acceptance from parents or caretakers tend to move through life with secure attachments in relationships. They don’t struggle with fears of abandonment, they don’t need to pull back when closeness increases, they don’t struggle with toggling between anxiety and avoidance.


Securely attached individuals are confident in their ability to meet the needs of others and have healthy, reasonable expectations that their own needs will be met. They are not wrought with fear that they won’t be seen loved, or accepted, BECAUSE THEIR EARLY EXPERIENCE DEMONSTRATED LOVE, ACCEPTANCE, AND INCLUSION. They move through life expecting to get that in relationships; whereas those with the other attachment styles move through life expecting to NOT GET THAT in their relationships; and the belief that you will vs. you won’t get what you need makes all the difference in how you show up in relationships today, as an adult.


Highly secure individuals typically have more positive views of themselves, their situations, and the intentions of others. They feel cared for by others and feel close to people with whom they have intimate relationships.


Signs and Characteristics of someone with Secure Attachment

  • Emotional regulation (controlling emotions)

  • Recognizing when they are upset or stressed

  • Seeking comfort from their partners

  • Recognizing when their partners are in need of care

  • Providing constructive support


Disclaimer about Attachment in Adults

When discussing research on adult attachment, it's important to note that some limitations exist:

  • Most studies are heteronormative and cis-normative

  • Culture is rarely taken into account

  • There is a relative lack of recent studies

  • Education levels of participants may play a role in outcome (many studies are on university students)

  • Many studies involve co-occurring conditions (such as how insecure attachment is affected by treatment for anxiety or depression)

  • Whether or not a romantic relationship is a true attachment cannot always be determined

  • The exact purpose of attachment in adult relationships is not as well understood as in infant-caregiver relationships

I hope this article sheds light on YOUR attachment style, and gives you hope about adjusting your attachment style with some relational healing. *Consider finding a therapist to guide you as you walk through the challenging process of repairing the wounds your younger self experienced in relationships that resulted in unhealthy attachment. Change is possible! Healing is available!


Thanks for reading :)



References and more learning!

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research.

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