Have you ever wondered about your attachment style? Attachment styles are patterns in relationship dynamics that play out in our close and intimate relationships.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was developed in the 1990s by psychologists, Dr. John Bowlby and Dr. Mary Ainsworth. It was devised from research that studied infants' responses to separation from their primary caregivers.
Attachment theory proposes that patterns in how the caregiver responds to their child, particularly in states of distress, sets the foundation for the type of attachment the child develops.
The Circle of Security (2022) is a visual aid and ideal pattern for caregivers in children's development of secure attachment. It suggests that caregivers act as a secure base, trust their child, and allow independence for them to go into the world, where they make mistakes and [inevitably] get hurt; when the hurt child returns to the safe haven seeking comfort, the caregiver provides compassion, support, and warmth to soothe. This way of responding helps the child develop an understanding that they can trust their emotions are normal and can be soothed, and eventually develop self-efficacy in self-soothing.
According to the famous Strange Situation experiment that's at the core of attachment theory, approximately 60% of children displayed behaviour patterns deemed "secure", while approximately 20% displayed anxious attachment, and another 20% displayed avoidant behaviours (Fraley, 2018).
Circle of Security
How many attachment styles are there?
There are four main adult attachment styles that have been studied since the inception of attachment theory in the 1990s. Experiences in one's childhood, particularly interactions with early caregivers, shape one's attachment style. For example, a child being exposed to their primary caregiver yelling and screaming - or alternatively, withdrawal and 'the silent treatment' - can influence the child to learn that they need to walk on eggshells, hyper-monitor their environment for cues of danger, and be left to their own devices for coping.
In adulthood, this could look like avoidance/withdrawal for their own emotional coping [because they learned they couldn't rely on others for support] or being overly needy in pursuit of affection and closeness that was not received in childhood. Disorganized attachment is associated with childhood trauma, abuse, and severe mental health conditions, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Am I doomed if I don't have secure attachment?
No! Not at all. Attachment styles should be used for guidance and self-awareness rather than pathologizing. Understanding your attachment style may give you considerations for how you approach your intimate relationships and child-rearing. Some people exhibit qualities of a combination of attachment styles. Changing your attachment style is difficult, but research shows it is possible to shift from insecure to more secure attachment (Davila, Burge, & Hammen, 1997). Recovering a secure attachment will likely include a combination of talk therapy, trauma processing, boundary setting, communication skills, and surrounding oneself with securely attached others [for corrective experiences].
Take the Attachment Style Quiz here.
Tips for Developing a Secure Attachment
- Improve self-awareness
- Get to know your triggers and tells when your insecure attachment is activated. Do you shut down? Do you experience all-consuming worry? Do you seek reassurance? Do you explode onto others or yourself? Do you engage in checking behaviours (e.g., checking phone, location, etc.)? How does it show to others?
- Boundary setting
- Learn how to assert yourself
- Exposure to saying, "No,"
- Let go of unjustified guilt
- Stop giving in to every people-pleasing urge
- Insecure attachment styles are prone to difficulties in coping; whether it's avoidance of emotions or being overly reliant on others to self-soothe. This can cause friction in adult relationships.
- Individual therapy can help you develop skills for self-awareness and emotional management.
- Communicate effectively
- Effective communication often entails being non-defensive, learning how to listen and respect others' needs, and learning how to assert your own.
- Get into relationship with securely attached people
- Easier said than done, right? It may be unrealistic to only be in relationship with securely attached people, especially given the fact we don't choose our biological family. However, try to take note of people in your life that more often than not, provide you with support, kindness, take feedback well, and there's generally more ease in the relationship.
- People with secure attachment can act as a stable base for corrective experiences such as, staying and working through an issue or being open and non-defensive to feedback. In contrast, being in relationship with people with insecure attachment styles can feel confusing and unsafe. For example, you may feel uncertain about how they will react to something, so you avoid confrontation. Behaviours that might arise with misaligned insecure attachment styles include: placing blame, stonewalling, criticism, avoidance, excessive reassurance seeking, co-dependency, mistrust, and more.
- Attend couples therapy
- If you suspect that you and/or your partner have misaligned attachment styles, then working with a couples therapist can help you learn to communicate your differences more effectively and openly.
Fear of Abandonment
Fear of abandonment is a very common component of insecure attachment. It's an anxiety that's experienced at the thought of losing someone you care about. It's common to all three insecure attachment styles, but expressed in different ways. While people who have avoidant attachment tend to distance themselves from the person they're attached to (as a form of self-protection), people with anxious attachment often attempt to get overly close - especially if they sense a real or perceived threat of abandonment. You can imagine how triggering it can be for couples comprised of one anxiously attached partner and one avoidant partner.
If you have a fear of abandonment, it's worth talking with a therapist to heal old wounds and develop skills for meeting your own emotional needs, while also developing realistic expectations in relationships.
Signs of Fear of Abandonment (Fritscher, 2022)
- Intense feelings of separation anxiety
- People pleasing
- Difficulties fully committing
- Quickness to move on so you don't get 'too attached' or alternatively, quickness to get attached
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Feeling insecure and unworthy of love
- Difficulty with emotional intimacy
- Davila, J., Burge, D., & Hammen, C. (1997). Why does attachment style change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 826-838.
- Fraley, C. R. (2018). Adult attachment theory and research: a brief overview. R. Chris Fraley. Retrieved from: http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
- Fritscher, L. (2022, November 13). Understanding fear of abandonment. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/fear-of-abandonment-2671741
- Levy, T. (2017, May 25). Four styles of adult attachment. Evergreen Psychotherapy Center: Attachment Treatment and Training Institute. Retrieved from https://evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/styles-adult-attachment/
- Montijo, S. & Casabianca, S. S. (2021, October 29). Anxious in relationships? You could change attachment styles. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-change-insecure-attachment-style
- What is the circle of security? Developing specific relationship capacities. (2022). The Circle of Security International. Retrieved from https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/circle-of-security-model/what-is-the-circle-of-security/
- Yassin, F. (2020, October 7). What are the different types of attachment? The Wave Clinic. Retrieved from https://thewaveclinic.com/blog/what-are-the-different-types-of-attachment/#:~:text=Bowlby%20identified%20four%20types%20of,%2Dambivalent%2C%20disorganised%20and%20avoidant