Understanding Attachment Styles

By Dorette Greene, LMSW

In a previous post where I discussed Emotionally Focused Therapy, I indicated that I would later discuss attachment theory and attachment styles. My goal is to provide some information to help you understand attachment and how it affects your relationships with others, particularly romantic relationships.

Attachment theory was first conceptualized by psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby to explain parent–infant relationships and connection.  However, in recent years, attachment theory has been applied to adult romantic relationships as well, serving to provide context to how these relationships develop and function.

The parent-infant relationship can be viewed as the earliest and likely most important intimate relationship. It is this initial connection that gives rise to either attachment security or insecurity (more on this later). It is within these particular interactions that individuals begin to form their most general ideas not only about those around them, but about who they are in this world. While the purpose of attachment is to form attachment bonds that help maintain closeness and proximity to loved ones, the most salient goal is the reduction of negative feelings and emotions as it relates to feeling connected to loved ones.

Although attachment bonds originate in infancy, they continue throughout the lifespan often influencing and changing an individual’s internal working model of “the self,” which is a person’s view of him or herself and others. An individual having a positive working model of the self is often associated with beliefs that they are worthy of love and belonging, and it also serves to reinforce the idea that others are reliable and responsive to their needs.

Attachment type relates to these beliefs and are usually contextualized into two dimensions— secure and insecure attachment. This can be broken down further into three distinct attachment styles which include secure, anxious and avoidant attachment.  Correlations can be made between an individual’s attachment style and their functioning and behavior in romantic relationships. For instance, insecure attachment such as anxiety and avoidance are correlated with maladaptive and unproductive relational behaviors (cheating, risky sexual behaviors, relational violence, etc.).

Secure attachment is born out of the general belief that those with secure attachment styles usually have a positive overall view of themselves and others. This allows them to maintain a positive view of themselves that isn’t hindered by negative interactions with others or negative patterns of interactions in their relationships. Secure attachment is often learned through the caretaker-child relationship and continues into peer/friend group interactions and then into adulthood and romantic relationships.

Insecure attachment on the other hand can present as anxious as well as avoidant attachment. Anxious attachment generally resembles worry, fears, and doubts regarding relationship security. Examples may be negative, and at times even irrational, thoughts regarding being rejected and abandoned, and even uncertainty regarding self-worth and worthiness of love and belonging. 

Avoidant attachment is characterized by the extent to which an individual recoils from closeness and intimate connection, dislikes depending on others, and downplays the importance of relationships altogether.  Avoidantly attached individuals often are unable to get their emotional needs met as they often minimize their need for emotional relatedness.

Attachment styles and the way they manifest in our behaviors and thoughts, particularly as it relates to relationships, can be as pervasive as the way core beliefs manifest in how we interact with the world. Even though we first learn our attachment style very early in life, attachment styles are not fixed, and as such, an individual’s attachment style is capable of change over time.

Hepper, E. G., & Carnelley, K. B. (2012). Attachment and romantic relationships: The role of models of self and other. In M. Paludi (Ed.),The psychology of love (Vol. 1, pp. 133 154).Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger

Dorette Greene is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.