In my top 40 recommended psychology books, I put the 2012 title, ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love’ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller in there; thanks to its Amazon.com star rating of 4.6/5.
Attachment styles research is an area that I’ve been fascinated in since I first learnt about it in year 11 psychology class. If you are interested in learning more about it, I recommend checking the book out, as our attachment styles tend to have a much more significant impact on how we are in intimate relationships than most people are aware of.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles are initially developed in the context of our relationship with our primary caregiver growing up. This is usually the mother, but it can be the father, guardian, or potentially even a nanny in other cases.
Almost all children can usually be categorised as having one of four attachment styles based on how they respond to the strange situation test, initially designed and researched by Mary Ainsworth in 1969. They can be considered to have a secure attachment, an ambivalent insecure attachment, an avoidance insecure attachment, or a disorganised attachment.
In the strange situation procedure, an infant between the ages of 9 and 18 months is placed in a room with some toys for 21 minutes and is observed playing through a two-way mirror while the primary caregiver and a stranger enter and leave the room. Ainsworth used this situation to recreate what may happen in a normal infant’s life to observe their typical reactions.
The strange situation procedure went as follows:
- The primary caregiver and infant enter the room.
- The infant explores the room while the caregiver watches but doesn’t play with the infant.
- A stranger enters and talks with the caregiver, then approaches the infant. Caregiver leaves while this occurs without saying goodbye.
- The stranger tries to engage with the infant.
- The primary caregiver then returns and greets and comforts the infant. Stranger leaves.
- The caregiver leaves again, and the infant is alone.
- The stranger comes back in and tries to interact with the infant.
- The primary caregiver then comes back in, greets and picks up the infant, and the stranger leaves.
What is worth looking at during this process is how the infant interacts with the new environment and toys in the room, how they associate with the stranger, and how the infant reacts to when the primary caregiver leaves the room (departures) and comes back in to greet or soothe the infant (reunions). These responses are very predictive of what attachment style the infant has and what attachment style the primary caregiver may have.
Attachment styles are not set in stone, and they can change over time, but like most things I write about, gaining an awareness of your own attachment style is a crucial first step before you try to look at how you can improve it.
A Secure Attachment
Infants securely attached to their primary caregiver will be willing to explore a new room when they enter it. They will turn around and check-in with their parent from time to time as they are their “secure base”. They may even come back if they are starting to feel too scared or overwhelmed, as their parents are their “safe haven” and help them calm down emotionally and physically when they are distressed. Once they feel calm and safe again, which may be very quickly, they will then go back out and explore once more.
The secure infant will engage with the stranger when the primary caregiver is there but might be warier when alone with the stranger and could become upset when the parent leaves, but can calm themselves down after a little bit. However, they are thrilled to see their primary caregiver once they return and will be responsive to their communication and interactions.
Essentially, a secure child feels that their primary caregiver will meet their needs appropriately and responsively, and they learn to turn to them when they need it and do things by themselves when they do not. It is the ideal attachment style for learning, developing skills, and forming and establishing healthy, long-term relationships.
In intimate relationships, being securely attached is ideal. It means that you enjoy being close and intimate with your partner when they are there and are happy to do your own thing when they are not. You feel comfortable opening up to them or talking to them about your feelings or concerns, and feel comfortable helping your partner out with their issues too. As a result, relationships seem relatively natural to you, and you are more likely to have a happy, long-term relationship.
An Anxious/Ambivalent Insecure Attachment
Infants who are anxious or resistant are usually this way due to unpredictably responsive caregiving, where sometimes their caregiver is too full-on, sometimes they are appropriately responsive, and other times they are not responsive. As a result of these inconsistencies, the infant usually amplifies their emotional needs to try and get them met on a more regular basis.
Anxiously attached infants are distressed even before the separation in the strange situation procedure, do not like to explore the area or interact with the stranger, show resentment for being left alone and are quite clingy and unable to calm down or be comforted easily once the parent returns.
In intimate relationships, being anxiously attached is tough. It means that you love being close with your partner but find it quite difficult to be apart, often fearing that they don’t care or that they will stop loving you or will be unfaithful towards you when they are not around. As a result, you tend to become preoccupied with fears of abandonment, especially in times of high stress. You may inadvertently push your partners away by making them feel like they don’t have enough independence or that you don’t trust them enough.
An Avoidance Insecure Attachment
Infants who have this style will try to ignore or avoid the primary caregiver in a strange situation. They outwardly show little emotion during departures and reunions with the caregiver, and they will also not explore too much regardless of who is in the room.
Ignoring or turning away from the primary caregiver is actually a mask for internal distress. Heart rate and other physiological responses are similar to that of the anxiously attached infants upon the separation from their primary caregiver. It seems to be that these infants want to be comforted when distressed, but over time try to suppress their emotional needs because their parents are not attuned or responsive to their distress or able to meet their needs in ways that would help them. As a result, they try to pull away, keep to themselves, and show the world they don’t have any needs.
As an adult, having an avoidant attachment is also tricky for intimate relationships. It means that you are likely to value independence and freedom a lot and tend to feel smothered or trapped if you spend too much time with your partner. As a result, you will push partners away, especially if they are demanding or needy. You are also likely to not share enough of your own emotional needs or desires with your partner and may resent them for expressing these things to you.
Two avoidantly attached individuals may seem like they could have a good relationship together. Still, often there is “not enough glue to keep them together”, and they fade further apart from each other over time.
A Disorganised Attachment
There is a fourth attachment style known as fearful or disorganised. This was later identified by one of Ainsworth’s graduate students, Mary Main. The infant flips between signs that they are overwhelmed with a “flooded attachment system” and desperation strategies. This is often a consequence of significant trauma, as the infant has not established a reliable coping mechanism. For example, they want to be close to their primary caregiver, but they are also terrified of being close to them.
Adults with a disorganised attachment who have been through a complicated relationship with their parents or guardians will find it tough to initiate and maintain a healthy and happy intimate relationship when they are older. They will often vacillate between feeling trapped and smothered and wanting freedom one minute and then worrying about how they would ever cope if they lost their partner the next. Their behaviour and strong emotional reactions can confuse both an individual with a disorganised attachment and the people they date.
But How Do I Find Out What Attachment Style I Have?
If you aren’t too sure what attachment style you have based on the descriptions above or from reflecting on your experience as a child or in intimate relationships, you can also take a free online test to find out. I have taken the test titled “Your Actual and Ideal Attachment Styles” at personalityassessor.com on three occasions now. The first time was on the 22nd of October 2014, back when I was still married, the 12th of April 2017, when I had just bought an apartment, and the 12th of August 2018, 4 days before I was about to leave everyone in my life in Australia to move to Vanuatu for 2 years.
Can Attachment Styles Change Over Time?
These are the results from the three attachment style surveys that I took, followed by the description included in my 2018 results at the personality assessor website:
- 2014 = 13th percentile — very low
- 2017 = 3rd percentile — extremely low
- 2018 = 2nd percentile — extremely low
You are currently extremely low in attachment anxiety. People extremely low in attachment anxiety tend to desire extremely low levels of closeness in their relationships, and also experience extremely low concerns about rejection and abandonment.
You’ve decreased a lot in Attachment Anxiety over time.
The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Anxiety have been extremely consistent over time.
You indicated that you would like to stay the same with respect to attachment anxiety. Researchers believe that most people want to decrease at least a little bit in attachment anxiety.
- 2014 = 89th percentile — extremely high
- 2017 = 47th percentile — about average
- 2018 = 52nd percentile — about average
You are currently about average in attachment avoidance. People about average in attachment avoidance tend to desire about average levels of independence in their relationships, and they tend to experience about average levels of comfort with depending on romantic partners and opening up to them.
You’ve decreased an extreme amount in Attachment Avoidance over time.
The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Avoidance have been consistent over time.
You indicated that you would like to decrease with respect to attachment avoidance. Researchers believe that most people want to become a little less avoidant.
My Attachment Style
Based on the 2014 finding, I had an avoidant attachment style. That makes a lot of sense to me and is how I have typically been in most relationships. I was also a pretty quiet and anxious child growing up and kept to myself a lot even though I really valued and craved for a solid relationship where it was possible to feel connected and have a sense of belonging without losing my sense of self in the relationship. I’ve always struggled to show this to the other person, however, and often got accused of not caring enough in the relationships that I have been in.
While I can definitely see my part in the unhealthy relationships I have been in; I also have tended to get involved with females who exhibited an anxious attachment, which only worsened the issue. If things go well in an avoidant/anxious relationship, which they usually do at the start, the quality of the relationship can feel great. Both of you are getting your relational needs met (maybe for the first time), and it is exciting and fun and nice. Once one person becomes distressed is when the problems begin, however, and they often do.
Before 2015 had a big tendency to shut down emotionally whenever I was overwhelmed or distressed, focus on getting through what I needed to do practically, and minimise my emotional needs. It was classic avoidance attachment behaviour. However, this pulling away causes distress in someone with an anxious attachment, and they would then amplify their emotional needs in response to the greater perceived distance in the relationship. For example, they may have feared abandonment and protested that I didn’t care or needed to give them more so that they would feel secure. I would then feel more overwhelmed and trapped and pull away further to calm myself down. An anxiously attached person would feel even more insecure and distressed and try to protest further. This vicious cycle often played out and escalated, maybe with brief interludes, until the relationship ended, usually in a not so pleasant way.
Based on my 2017 and 2018 findings, it says that I would now be considered to have a secure attachment style:
Your prototypical attachment style is secure. Securely attached individuals enjoy being close with others, and form new friendships easily. They usually desire moderate levels of involvement in their close relationships.
This is good to see because I still feel more avoidant in my attachment than I would like to be. Still, my avoidance is now considered average, and my anxiety is extremely low. Comparatively speaking, I am still much more avoidant than anxious regarding relationships but securely attached overall. I hope that if I keep working on it, I can continue to bring my avoidance down further in the future.
How Do We Improve Our Attachment Style?
Occasional conflict is inevitable in any relationship. However, being in a relationship with someone with a secure attachment will help you get through difficulties in life and your relationship, no matter your age or attachment style.
- If you have a secure attachment, it is likely to be pretty easy for you to have a happy relationship.
- If you have an avoidant attachment, a secure partner can give you the space you need when you need it without getting annoyed at you or demanding more.
- If you are anxious, a secure partner can sit with your distress and hear you out until you have calmed down and met your emotional needs.
- If you are disorganised, a secure partner will also try to help you work through and make sense of whatever you are feeling and give you what you need, whether that is more space, a calming presence or greater closeness.
In time, a relationship with someone who is securely attached can help you become securely attached.
If you have had similar difficulties in multiple romantic relationships, think that you may be avoidant or anxious in your attachment style, or are securely attached but are in a romantic relationship with someone who you feel may be avoidant or anxiously attached, I hope that this information has been helpful to you.
An understanding of your own and others’ attachment styles really could stop you from falling into the same relationship traps and give you a much better chance to have a long, happy and healthy relationship from now on.
Dr Damon Ashworth