Attachment Styles: Definition, Types, and Impact

(Last Updated On: December 3, 2021)

Attachment styles are characteristic patterns for how people relate to others in close relationships. According to attachment theory, these styles are heavily influenced by early bonds with caregivers. Researchers have identified four distinct attachment styles: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful anxious attachment.

In this article, learn more about the four main attachment styles, how these styles develop, and how you can discover or possibly even change your own style of attachment in relationships.

What Are Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles refer to the ways that people relate to others in their intimate relationships. Early attachment researchers including John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth concluded that the early interactions between children and their caregivers play a pivotal role in how these attachment styles form.

The bonds and interaction patterns between children and their caregivers affect adult attachment patterns in romantic relationships.

What Is Attachment? Attachment is defined as an enduring and deep emotional connection between two people that involves the exchange of care, comfort, and closeness. 

John Bowlby, one of the earliest psychologists to study attachment, suggested that there were four main components of this emotional bond:

  • Proximity maintenance: This refers to being physically near an attachment figure.
  • Safe haven: When a person feels threatened or frightened, they seek out the attachment figure for support and comfort.
  • Secure base: The person that someone is attached to acts as a source of security as a person explores the world and tries new things.
  • Separation distress: Being apart from a person someone is attached to leads to feelings of anxiety and sadness.

Bowlby suggested that the way parents raise their children in terms of these four elements determines what type of attachment style a person develops. Parents who are there when their child needs them and who offer support and care are more likely to become securely attached.

The Four Attachment Styles

The four main styles of attachment that researchers have identified and described are:

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is characterized by strong relationships, trust, affection, resilience, and self-esteem.

Children who develop this style are raised by caregivers who are responsive and well-attuned to their children’s needs. Securely attached children turn to their parents when they need them. They tend to play well with other kids and have empathy for others. 

As adults, securely attached people are able to develop strong, secure, and lasting relationships. They have a strong sense of self, enjoy healthy relationships with other people, and have a solid social support system.

Research suggests that approximately 56% of adults are securely attached.

Anxious / Ambivalent Attachment

Anxious attachment, also known as an ambivalent attachment or anxious/ambivalent attachment, is characterized by low self-esteem, neediness, distrust, and fear of rejection.

Children who are anxiously attached tend to be very afraid of strangers and experience a great deal of distress when separated from their caregivers. However, they may also avoid or reject parental comfort once they are reunited with their caregivers.

As adults, people with an anxious attachment style crave intimacy but are afraid of getting close to other people. They seem needy and worry that their partner doesn’t really love them. 

Experts believe that this attachment style tends to be less common. Some researchers suggest that between 7 and 15% of kids are anxiously attached. Estimates suggest that around 19% of adults have an anxious/ambivalent attachment style. 

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment is characterized by avoiding emotional connections, hiding emotions, and withdrawing from others.

Children with this style of attachment tend to avoid their caregivers, either simply avoiding or even rejecting affection. They tend to show little preference for their own parents over total strangers.

Adults with this attachment style have a hard time forming close relationships. They dislike intimacy and don’t put a lot of effort into building emotional connections with others. 

Researchers estimate that around 25% of adults have an avoidant attachment style.

Fearful Avoidant (Disorganized) Attachment

The fearful-avoidant attachment style, also known as disorganized attachment, is characterized by conflicting feelings about relationships. People with this style experience a great deal of anxiety about relationships and try to avoid them even though they crave intimacy and connection.

As kids, children have a confusing mix of attachment behaviors. They often appear confused by their own caregivers and may relate to them with avoidance or resistance. 

In adulthood, people with this style want to have close, intimate relationships but deeply fear getting close to others.

Estimates suggest that around 5 to 7% of kids have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

How Attachment Styles Form

Attachment styles are strongly influenced by early relationships with caregivers, but other close relationships can also have an effect. Any significant or important relationship in a person’s life may have an impact on their attachment style.

Some of the factors that are thought to contribute to the development of attachment styles include:

  • Consistency: Parents who are consistent in their caregiving are more likely to raise children who are securely attached. Inconsistency is linked to anxious/ambivalent attachment style.
  • Responsiveness: Secure attachment tends to develop when parents respond to their children’s needs. Poor responsiveness is often linked to avoidant attachment styles. When children believe that their parents won’t respond to their needs, they avoid turning to them for support and care.
  • Neglect and abuse: Parents who are neglectful or abusive are linked to fearful/avoidant attachment. These parents are often inconsistent in how they respond to their kids. Sometimes they provide comfort and care, but other times they act as a source of fear, anxiety, and trauma. This confusion contributes to a disorganized mix of attachment behaviors.

What is Your Attachment Style?

If you are wondering what attachment style you have, there are a few different ways to tell. You might start by taking an attachment style quiz. It can give you a general idea of how you tend to relate to others in romantic relationships.

Reading the descriptions of the four attachment styles can also help. As you read through the descriptions above, you may have been able to quickly spot which one best characterizes your own style.

You might also answer these questions:

  • Do you find it easy to form close relationships and do these connections feel safe and supportive? If the answer is yes, you probably tend to have a secure attachment style.
  • Do you spend a lot of time worrying about whether your partner loves you as much as you love them? If the answer is yes, you might tend to have a predominantly anxious attachment style.
  • Do you tend to avoid getting close to others and find it difficult to trust or rely on your romantic partners? If yes, you might have a predominantly avoidant attachment style.
  • Do you long for a close, intimate relationship but feel too afraid to let yourself get close to another person? If the answer is yes, you may have characteristics of a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

Attachment Styles in Adulthood

While researchers suggest that attachment patterns in early childhood are related to adult attachment styles, they are not necessarily exactly the same. Your early relationships with your caregivers help shape your romantic attachment patterns as an adult, but your other significant relationships also help shape how you relate to your partners.

For example, you may have had supportive, responsive parents and a secure style as a child, but having partners as an adult who are dishonest or unfaithful may contribute to you developing a more anxious or avoidant attachment style as an adult.

It is also possible to exhibit characteristics of more than one attachment style. You might have a style that is mostly secure, but certain situations might cause you to exhibit more anxious or avoidant characteristics.

Different attachment patterns may also emerge within the context of different relationships or your attachment style may begin to change over time.

Some mental health conditions may increase the likelihood of having certain attachment styles. People with borderline personality disorder (BPD), for example, are more likely to have some type of insecure attachment style because they fear rejection and long for intimacy.

Attachment Research and Theory

Attachment theory emerged from the work of a number of psychologists, but it is most often associated with two early researchers: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. 

Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s work emerged during the 1950s and played a significant role in the field of developmental psychology. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s views of development and love, Bowlby believed that early childhood experiences played an essential role in the development of personality and behavior. 

Bowlby believed that attachment was an enduring emotional connection between human beings. He also believed that evolutionary factors influenced attachment. Attachment, he believed, played a critical role in survival. By keeping children close to their caregivers, their caregivers are better able to respond to their needs, thus improving children’s chances of survival.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth built on Bowlby’s ideas. She developed an assessment known as the “Strange Situation” in which she observed how children respond to being left alone in a room with a stranger. 

The assessment begins with a parent and child alone in a room. The child is allowed to explore the room as the parent watches. Next, a stranger comes into the room and briefly speaks to the parent. The stranger approaches the child as the parent quietly leaves the room. Finally, the parent returns and comforts the child.

Throughout this process, researchers observe the parents and children, noting how parents engage with their children, how children respond to their parent’s attempts to comfort them, and how kids react when left alone in the room with a stranger.

Based on her observations of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 months, Ainsworth described three distinct patterns of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. 

In later years, other researchers added disorganized-insecure as a fourth, although much rarer, attachment style.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

Research suggests that attachment styles can and do change a great deal over time. While you might be prone to certain patterns, there is a lot of evidence that your attachment style changes from one relationship to the next. 

A strong relationship can help you develop a more secure attachment style, while a detrimental relationship can contribute to more insecure patterns. In other words, while your attachment styles can affect your relationships, your relationships also affect your attachment styles.

Because attachment styles can change, it means that there are things that you can do to address problematic behaviors and develop a more secure approach to relationships. You can work on many of these things on your own, but therapy can also be extremely helpful. 

A therapist can help you better recognize the attachment patterns that are affecting your relationship. They can also help you learn more effective ways of communicating with your partner and coping skills that will help you better tolerate distress. A safe, supportive relationship with your therapist can also serve as a helpful way to learn and rehearse important interpersonal skills.


Study Questions About Attachment Styles

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory is an approach to understanding human relationships which suggests that normal human development requires forming nurturing emotional connections with caregivers during early childhood.

What was the strange situation assessment?

The “Strange Situation” was an experimental technique developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth to assess attachments between caregivers and children. The assessment involves putting the child under stress where they are in an unfamiliar room, are in contact with a stranger, and experience a brief separation from their caregiver.

How does secure attachment develop?

Secure attachment is believed to emerge due to early bonds with responsive, consistent caregivers. While parenting is believed to play a strong role, other factors including genetics and other significant relationships can also contribute to the development of secure attachment.

Can people have more than one attachment style?

It is possible to have different attachment styles in different relationships. You may also experience different characteristics of both secure and insecure attachment patterns at the same time.


Summary

Attachment plays a critical role in social and emotional development in early childhood. The earliest relationships children have with caregivers are important to childhood attachment styles, which can be characterized as either secure or insecure.

These childhood attachment styles may also play a part in later adult relationships. Learning more about your own attachment style can assist you in understanding how you interact with and relate to your romantic partners. 

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