Being in a romantic partnership may be the quickest and most unavoidable way of unveiling our emotional issues, insecurities, and deeply-rooted hurts from past experiences. When we are in a relationship with someone who is an entirely different person than us and presents us with entirely different challenges, it’s inevitable that these things would immediately start to rise to the surface.
Although this can be overwhelming, it is also an opportunity to lean into our emotional reactions and figure out where they may be coming from. And in doing this, we can learn more about ourselves and about our partners, and ultimately grow in areas that may have been holding us back.
One way in which we can see our necessary areas of growth within a romantic partnership is in something called “attachment styles.” It is a psychological concept from the 1970s, but it has become more popular in the mainstream over recent years. Influential authors, speakers, and therapists are now looking closely at this method in order to explain how we treat our families, friends, and especially our romantic partners.
What Does Attachment Style Mean?
Attachment is simply the emotional bond between two people. The term “attachment style“ comes from the theory that there are four different types of attachment (anxious avoidant, anxious ambivalent, disorganized, and secure) that stem from our upbringing and determine how we may attach to adult partners. We each may resonate with more than one style, but the theory says we all have one in particular that we resonate with far more than the others.
When we are kids, we learn about where we can find food, shelter, love, comfort, and play from our parents or guardians. We are connected to our parents and rely on them, which creates a bond between us and them. This psychological bond, or attachment, is the first emotional bond we will ever form with another human, which is why it shapes our minds in such a drastic way.
Because we learn our emotional bonds and connectedness from our parents when we’re young, we usually carry these ideas of emotionality into other areas of our lives where bonds exist. And one of the riskiest and most intense emotional bonds we may ever make in our lives is with the people we choose as romantic partners
If a parent has a healthy bond with their child, they’ll create an environment where love, peace, comfort, and security thrive, and therefore have a better chance at creating a healthy attachment with their children. This helps the child grow into an adult who may be able to more naturally learn to have healthy attachment with their romantic partners because of the secure love they received in their formative years.
If you received love from parents who might have been unpredictable, unreliable, negligent, or abusive in any way, you may have a harder time naturally forming healthy attachments. Experiencing these types of unstable attachments can lead to a negative image of self, anxiety in relationships, issues with intimacy, and other problems with connecting to self and partner.
Being in a romantic relationship requires trust, security, compromise, and self-assurance. If we struggle with these qualities in our partnerships, attachment styles are a possible avenue for learning more. According to Mark Manson, a bestselling author on relationships and psychology, “our attachment styles are intimately connected with our confidence in ourselves and others.” Attachment can be pivotal in understanding ourselves and our relationships.
It’s important to note that we are not presenting Attachment Style Theory as the answer to everything. This theory is presented as a way to know ourselves better and potentially find answers to emotional problems we may have experienced within ourselves or with our partners. Attachment theory helps us begin to uncover some potential issues that may have stemmed from our childhood, but it shouldn’t start and end there. We are always proponents of walking through our emotional struggles with a therapist, as well as finding friends you trust for emotional support along the way.
So, What are the Four Attachment Styles?
Learning which of the four attachment styles applies to your life and your relationships is a big step in figuring yourself out. You can find quizzes online, which you’ll find links for at the end of the article, but you may also recognize which category you fall into as you continue reading.
Ask yourself if one of these feels like the behavior you’re used to. Do you have consistent patterns in dating that you notice in some of these attachment styles? This can not only help you understand your attachment, but can help you know and connect with yourself on a deeper level.
Anxious Ambivalent Attachment
According to Positive Psychology, The anxious-ambivalent types usually feel a sense of insecurity and negative self-esteem within a relationship. They sometimes feel a desperation to keep their partners around, which can lead to jealousy or other behaviors that might subconsciously push their partners away. This attachment style is usually developed from a childhood with insecure emotional bonds with their parents.
Some other questions to consider would be:
- Do you find yourself getting jealous or angry easily, even at the really small things?
- Do you think you need your significant other to remind you of your self-worth?
- Do you anticipate or have anxiety about rejection before it even happens?
According to Psychologists Kim Bartholomew and Leonard Horowitz, our degree of self-image and image of others can be determined by our attachment styles, which in turn can help explain how we interact within relationships. They hypothesize that anxious ambivalent types feel a negative self-image but a positive image of others.
Anxious Avoidant Attachment
People who have developed anxious avoidant attachment can oftentimes find themselves shutting down emotionally in relationships. They tend to avoid conflict, deep connection with others, and sometimes even love. They are extremely independent and sometimes feel that they don’t need to be with anyone. Avoidant types can sometimes feel smothered in relationships, especially if their partner expresses that they want to take the next step before them.
Some other things you might notice:
- You usually isolate when dealing with tough issues.
- You don’t often go to your partner for advice or comfort when something is wrong.
- If your loved one approaches you with a conflict, you might withdraw and avoid it altogether.
- You describe yourself as a commitment-phobe
According to Bartholomew and Horowitz’ theory, anxious avoidant types may feel positive self-image but negative image of others.
Disorganized attachment is a little trickier to pinpoint in ourselves sometimes. If you have disorganized attachment, you may find that you feel stressed very easily and don’t feel like you can trust anyone to help you with your stress. Those with disorganized attachment might also notice that it’s harder to thrive in social situations, although it isn’t always the case.
Some other things that people with disorganized attachment might notice are:
- They struggle to maintain deep relationships/friendships.
- They have a hard time managing stress and get overwhelmed by their emotions easily.
- They sometimes find it difficult to express emotions or be vulnerable with people because they feel confused about where their emotions are coming from.
- May be drawn to a partner but suffer from extreme fear of getting close, so they intentionally push them away.
Bartholomew and Horowitz believe that those with disorganized attachment may feel both a negative self-image and a negative image of others.
Secure attachment is where we want to aim. People with secure attachment have healthy, long-lasting relationships and feel secure in who they are.
If you relate to one of the other three attachment styles, it just means you have a little work to do! People with secure attachment style feel:
- Safe and secure in themselves and their relationships.
- That they can trust their partners.
- Have positive self-esteem.
- Can and want to share deep emotions with their significant others.
According to Bartholomew and Horowitz’ model, those with secure attachment feel a positive self-image and positive image of others.
How Can I Have Healthier Attachment?
Well, you’ve already achieved the first step, which is becoming aware! From here, you can keep learning about yourself, because understanding why you react in the ways that you do is one of the keys to having relationships that thrive.
Once you’ve learned which attachment style affects you the most, you can begin to undo the specific ways it shows up in your life. For example, if you learned you’re anxious ambivalent, how can you find more self-confidence and security in who you are? How can you look inward instead of to your partner for your self-worth?
Along with learning, having healthy outlets in your life will help you move toward and maintain secure attachment in your relationships. Try journaling, exercising regularly, meditating, or anything that brings you peace and self-connection.
Seeing a therapist is also something we highly recommend. It’s a safe and helpful way of working through some areas in your childhood where you may have experienced pain, or some emotional areas in your life right now that you don’t quite understand. The more you take care of yourself and your emotions, the more secure you’ll feel in who you are alone and in a partnership.
What Else Can I Do to Learn More About Attachment Styles and How They Affect My Relationships?
If you didn’t specifically resonate with any of the four attachment styles, you can take some free online quizzes to find out more about where you fit. These are quick and easy:
If you’re interested in going more in-depth with Attachment Theory, we recommend these blogs and books:
Attached (ebook) by Rachel Heller and Amir Levine
Anxiety in Relationship (ebook) by Theresa Miller
The Attachment Effect (ebook) by Peter Lovenheim
The Body Keeps Score by Besser Van Der Kolk (not specifically about Attachment Theory, but extremely helpful in understanding more about how our experiences shape us)
Mark Manson (research-based blog) – articles on Attachment Theory and other subjects of psychology
The Gottman Institute (research-based blog)- articles on psychology and relationships
Conclusion: We Can All Have Healthy Relationships
It might feel scary to look at your past and notice the ways it’s affecting you today, but we all have the power within us to change when we need to change. We can learn from our childhood experiences, and we can use what we know to shift into healthy emotional bonds with our partners or future partners. Learning about our attachment styles will help us see how we can become more secure in ourselves and the people we love.
Positive Psychology: https://positivepsychology.com/attachment-theory/
Self-Image Model: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1991-33075-001
Mark Manson https://markmanson.net/attachment-theory