The relationships we had with our caregivers laid the foundation for how we view ourselves, our understanding of the world, and how we relate to others. The British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby discovered that the types of attachments we have with others is often determined by how we were emotionally tended to and comforted by our primary caregiver. In other words, the attachment formed with our main caretaker is instrumental in our feelings of safety and security as adults.
What role attachment styles play in a relationship?
Attachment styles play a crucial role in how we respond to conflicts, our wants and needs within a relationship, and why things may trigger us and/or our partners. Understanding these styles can give us better insight into ourselves and our partners (past and present).
The first three attachment styles are a result of an insecure attachment with the primary caregiver. When a child grows up and feels that their needs and feelings were not attuned to either entirely or inconsistently, this causes the child to feel a lack of stability and security in relationships with others.
a. Anxious attachment
A person with an anxious attachment is someone who has an overactive nervous system. They are very aware of their partner’s emotional state, and any changes can activate their nervous system. They might have issues communicating their wants and needs and usually have a deep fear of abandonment. People with this type of attachment are often insecure and rely on the support of their partner to feel safe. If their needs are not met, or they feel their partner is not giving them the support needed, this causes an increased desire to reach out to their partner. This can come across as “clingy” or “needy.”
b. Dismissive-avoidant attachment
The dismissive-avoidant attachment is, in many ways, the opposite of an anxious attachment. Instead of being anxious and relying on others due to the lack of comfort and support in their upbringing, they learn to be very self-sufficient and independent. They do not give or rely on emotional support in relationships. This translates into relationships where the person hides or isn’t in touch with their feelings and isn’t attuned to the needs of their partner. They will often have communication issues as a result.
The disorganized/fearful-avoidant is the combination of the avoidant and anxious attachment styles. People with this attachment style are fearful of rejection. They want to have relationships with others but often have intimacy and trust issues. Despite craving love, they have trouble letting their guard down. As a result, they will have high anxiety in relationships.
d. Secure attachments
People with secure attachments had caregivers that were attuned to their needs growing up were provided comfort and support and grew up in a stable, loving environment. A secure attachment is an attachment where the person feels safe and confident in themselves and in their relationships with others. Those with a secure attachment are grounded, trust easily, and communicate any concerns with ease. They also provide their partner with support and comfort.
You might associate yourself with one or more of these attachment styles. For example, you can be mostly secure but recognize you have some anxious or avoidant behaviors. Furthermore, the way we relate to our partner and the way our partner relates to us in different situations can cause a variation in our attachment styles.
A person with an anxious or avoidant attachment style can develop a secure attachment in a relationship with someone who can provide support and security. In other words, a partner with a secure attachment can help their partner have a more secure attachment.
Alternatively, a person with a secure attachment style can become anxious or avoidant. This can be due to trauma or sustaining a relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment and does not adapt their attachment style.
I had an anxious attachment style due to a narcissistic, abusive mother. I desperately wanted her love and comfort, and I grew up feeling unsafe and lacking security. This translated into relationships where I relied on my partner to feel safe and secure, and I would feel abandoned and neglected if I felt my partner wasn’t able to comfort me or provide me with support. Although co-regulation (providing one another with support for emotional regulation) is necessary for a healthy relationship, I was entirely dependent on my partner for my emotional well-being.
In my personal experience, my anxious attachment style and codependent behaviors went hand-in-hand. I relied on my mother’s approval (which I only received by taking care of her and prioritizing her well-being) to feel better about myself. My codependent relationship as a child turned into romantic relationships where I was completely dependent on my partner to give me the sense of comfort and security I was lacking. I felt incredibly anxious when I did not receive that support. Through a lot of work and introspection, I was able to work on my codependent patterns and anxious attachment style to have a healthy, interdependent marriage.
It is possible for all of us to have healthy attachments. It requires awareness and a willingness to turn inward and recognize our unhealthy patterns and triggers. Our attachment styles should be viewed as a roadmap for growth, kindness, understanding, and compassion for ourselves and one another. We cannot change our upbringing, but we can change our present and future.