May 29, 2024
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Attachment Types in Adult Relationships

Adult Relationships

How can Attachment Styles Developed in Formative Years Affect Intimate Connections, and How to Start the Healing Process

Whilst spending time with my friends, I’ve often discussed “attachment types” and heard their opinions. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Understanding different attachment styles can be really helpful, and allow you to improve your romantic relationships. So today, let’s look at the various attachments and find ways to improve how we can connect with others and form healthy relationships. Attachment theory suggests that the way we are treated as children influences our adult behaviours, and goes on to inform our romantic relationships.

Secure attachment

Straight away, this sounds good, right? Secure attachment is developed in childhood when a baby or child learns that their primary caregivers (parents, guardians, or other responsible adults) will care for them and protect them. For example, if a child is happily playing, and their caregiver leaves the room, the baby or child may then start to cry, knowing that their caregiver will return and make them feel safe or get them anything they might need. These early childhood experiences influence how you interact with people later. As an adult, those who have a secure attachment will be able to form healthy romantic relationships, where they can be close and open to their partners and remain independent. They feel worthy of love. You can see how having a secure attachment style and forming an intimate relationship with someone who also has a secure attachment style is a good combination. If a person is raised to feel safe and loved, they (according to the theory) will go on to be in a safe and loving relationship.

Disorganised attachment, or fearful-avoidant attachment

The short version is that people with disorganised attachment style will be reluctant to bond with others. They will often alternate, being very affectionate and emotionally open one day and then closed and unresponsive the next. If you’re in a relationship with someone who behaves this way, it is often confusing and exhausting, because you never know what to expect. This attachment style can come from bad experiences in childhood, where a baby instinctively looks to primary caretakers for safety and protection but learns that sometimes the caregiver can be the source of fear and stress. However, this does not happen in every case. As Simple Psychology puts it, people with disorganised attachment styles “will cling to others to satisfy their need for closeness and attention, but when others get too close, they will push them away and shut down.”

Insecure attachment

People with an insecure attachment style will struggle to have healthy, consistent relationships, and may have trust issues. There are three subsets of insecure attachment: avoidant; ambivalent and disorganised.

  1. A person with an insecure and avoidant attachment will often repress their emotions and try to keep others away. They’ll have problems with intimacy and try to remain completely independent, even when they do need some help. This often comes from childhood experiences where distressed child is ignored or dismissed by their caregivers or lived in an environment where they weren’t given attention. They might be told to “toughen up” or “man up”, informed that crying is weak, or their supposed caregivers might refuse to give them any attention or help. As adults, people with this attachment type might tell their companions that they’re fine when they’re not because they’re scared of rejection.
  2. A person with an insecure and ambivalent attachment style will want to have romantic partners and close friends but feel scared that they’ll be left. This can cause a toxic and confusing situation where they’re afraid of being dumped or abandoned, so they may become manipulative, anxious or needy, and ironically cause the relationship to end. People with insecure and ambivalent attachment often received inconsistent parenting when they were children, so they never knew if they would be loved, neglected or treated with disdain. When the person becomes an adult, they might constantly need reassurance that they won’t be dumped in their intimate relationships.
  3. A person with insecure disorganised attachment will often behave in a contradictory way, swinging from a desire to be close to others to extreme independence. This means they often become lonely, have low self-esteem and don’t trust other people. There’s also a link between this attachment type and personality disorders. People with insecure disorganised attachments have often been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as children by someone they trusted, and therefore have unresolved childhood trauma. Perhaps their primary caregivers struggled with substance abuse. They might feel connected to the person who harmed them, and mix up intense fear and affection. This behaviour can then continue into adulthood and set a precedent for their adult relationships, so they may have extreme and unexpected reactions to affection, possibly including aggressive behaviour.
Adult Relationships

The problem with attachment theory

It should be stated that attachment theory is just that – a theory. Psychologists have argued that children’s relationships with their peers are just as important as their bonds with their caregivers, and I would posit that behaviours in previous relationships influence what we expect from current and future partners. If you’ve had a traumatic experience with a former partner, I think it’s likely that you’ll develop attachment wounds and might need professional help before forming a new romantic relationship. It does seem likely that the example set by our parents helps us to navigate close relationships as adults.

Changing your attachment type

British psychiatrist John Bowlby worked on the attachment theory and believed that it was impossible to change an attachment style. However, since he died in 1990, scientists have researched and found that it can be done, using CBT, DBT and other forms of therapy. There are plenty of online therapy services, or you can speak to someone face-to-face. That isn’t to say that it’s easy — it isn’t — but it is possible with professional help, even if it takes a long time. Becoming self-aware, improving emotional intelligence and considering your reactions and relationships are also helpful. Struggling with abuse in early years can cause an individual to repeat negative patterns, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t form stable relationships.


Human relationships are complicated. You don’t need a therapist to tell you that. There are so many things we think and do instinctively, and these automatic reactions can harm our relationships. Take some time to learn about attachment styles to see if you can identify your own and your partners. This might well help you to connect, spot patterns and predict each other’s behaviour and, in turn, make a change that improves your relationship and helps resolve relationship problems.
Rachel Hall, M.A., completed her education in English at the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s degree in family therapy from Northern Washington University. She has been actively involved in the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and coping with life changes and traumatic events for both families and individual clients for over a decade. Her areas of expertise include narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and therapy for traumatic cases. In addition, Rachel conducts workshops focusing on the psychology of positive thinking and coping skills for both parents and teens. She has also authored numerous articles on the topics of mental health, stress, family dynamics and parenting.

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