What Are the 4 Attachment Styles?

<p>Shaw Photography Co. / Getty Images</p>

Shaw Photography Co. / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Kira Graves, PhD

Attachment theory is based on the idea that the types of relationships we have with our primary caregivers in childhood affects our personality and future relationships. Researchers have described four attachment styles: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and disorganized attachment.

Psychiatrist John Bowlby came up with the theory of attachment. His theory was that children are meant to feel securely attached to their primary caregivers, and when that doesn’t happen, emotional dysregulation can occur. Bowlby’s theories were further developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and researchers Mary Main and Judith Solomon, who together came up with the four attachment styles. Attachment styles are developed between the ages of 6 months to 2 years-old.

Here's a closer look at each of the four attachment styles, and how they can impact our emotional well being, our mental health, and our relationships with others.

Related: How to Identify and Cope With Abandonment Issues

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is considered the healthiest attachment style. People who develop a secure attachment were likely raised by parents who were responsive to their needs, consistent in their care, and offered safety and security. This is the type of attachment that researchers believe parents should aim for, and that helps ensure children will grow up to be adults who are emotionally stable and able enter into positive relationships with others.

Emotional and Mental Health Impact

The secure attachment style is associated with emotional stability, security, and self-assurance. People with secure attachment often have warm, compassionate personalities. They are usually emotionally mature, self-regulating, and have healthy levels of self-confidence. People exhibiting signs of secure attachment are at decreased risk of depression and are usually more able to manage challenging situations.

How Secure Attachment Affects Relationships

Research has found that secure attachment is correlated with healthy and happy relationships, and people raised with this attachment style are more likely to experience long-term romantic relationships. Securely attached individuals are more likely to experience satisfaction and commitment in relationships. Their relationships tend to have fewer conflicts and may be less likely to end in divorce.

Related: The 4 Most Common Reasons for Divorce, According to Research

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment is a kind of insecure attachment where the infant or child doesn’t feel safe to explore and is less responsive toward their parent. This behavior is thought to occur because the infant got the message from their caretaker that their feelings weren’t important or worth engaging with. It can also develop as a result of a caretaker not being responsive to a child’s basic needs, such as food and shelter. In response, the infant’s reaction is to shut down emotionally and avoid their caretaker. This is a defense mechanism: the infant becomes emotionally closed off to avoid further rejection.

Emotional and Mental Health Impact

People who have signs of avoidant attachment are often emotionally detached, seem to care little about others, and may feel unable to rely on anyone but themselves for support. They may lack warmth or friendliness, and generally have low levels of emotional wellness. These individuals often don’t look upon others favorably, though they may have some positive self-confidence themselves. They are often standoffish and anti-social.

How Avoidant Attachment Affects Relationships

It can be difficult for people with avoidant attachment to enter into loving, secure relationships. They often don’t trust others, and prefer to remain as independent as possible. They also often fear emotional rejection from others, and thus hold back sharing vulnerable parts of themselves. They may not exhibit warmth or compassion, which can make relationships challenging.

Related: What Is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?

Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment is another form of insecure attachment. Similar to avoidant attachment, children who exhibit anxious attachment usually have caretakers that were not emotionally available to them and who didn’t respond compassionately to their signs of distress. It can also develop as a result of neglect or abuse from a caretaker. However, unlike people with avoidant attachment, people who are anxiously attached respond to insecure attachment by exhibiting high levels of fear or anxiety. They may be extra “clingy” to their caretakers and live with a constant fear of rejection.

Emotional and Mental Health Impact

Anxious attachment can have strong impacts on mental health. People with anxious attachment may show high levels of neuroticism: anxiety, low self-esteem, and high levels of self-doubt. They may have introverted personalities, and trouble opening up to others. They may have difficulty managing challenging situations or being self-reliant.

How Anxious Attachment Affects Relationships

Relationships can be challenging for people who are anxiously attached. They may feel a desire to experience close and intimate relationships, but they are also constantly in fear of being abandoned and need a high level of care and reassurance in relationships. They may come across as overdependent, and may lack appropriate boundaries. They are prone to believing that something is wrong in the relationship and may perceive conflicts that don’t exist.

Related: Mind & Body

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment is the third type of insecure attachment. In this type of attachment, an infant experiences a lack of emotional responsiveness from their caretakers, but instead of showing either avoidant or anxious behaviors, they show inconsistent, or disorganized behaviors. It’s thought that disorganized attachment may stem from being raised by a parent who has unresolved trauma or a history of abuse. However, disorganized attachment can also develop from having intense fear of a caregiver, which can also be the result of trauma, neglect or abuse.

Emotional and Mental Health Impact

Disorganized attachment is associated with emotional instability and a controlling or rigid personality. This type of attachment is sometimes linked to Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is marked by a high level of impulsiveness, challenges with identity, and difficulty forming stable emotional relationships with others.

How Disorganized Attachment Affects Relationships

People exhibiting signs of disorganized attachment may have serious challenges engaging in meaningful and enduring relationships. Likewise, it can be very difficult to be in a relationship with someone who has a disorganized attachment style. This is because people with disorganized attachment can be controlling, and may even seek to punish those who don’t agree with them or do what they want. People who are in a relationship with someone who has a disorganized attachment style may often feel like they are on guard, or “walking on eggshells.”

Related: Time Blindness: An ADHD Symptom That Can Harm Your Finances

A Quick Review

The way we were parented as children—and the extent that we experienced secure attachment from our caregivers—can impact our personalities and future relationships. Researchers have come up with four possible attachment styles: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and disorganized attachment.

Secure attachment is the healthiest type of attachment, and the theory is that people who experienced avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, or disorganized attachment may experience emotional dysregulation and relationship challenges as adults.

It’s important to keep in mind that these attachment styles are not set in stone, and people who were insecurely attached as children can heal and go on to have healthy relationships with others. If you have any concerns about attachment styles, and their impact on your mental health, please reach out to a mental health professional for support.

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