How to Find Your Relationship Attachment Style

females couple with relationship difficulties
What's Your Attachment Style in Love?Maria Korneeva - Getty Images

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You’re meeting your new partner for a romantic dinner after work. You get to the restaurant first, and you’re waiting, super-excited ... except your partner is five minutes late, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes. Alarm bells start going off in your head. What if I'm getting stood up? Now your heart rate’s going up!

Take a deep breath. And consider this: Your attachment style may be driving your reaction. An attachment style is the pattern of behavior you follow in a relationship. A person’s style can be healthy and positive, or it can lead them to act in ways that don’t benefit them, or the person they love.

Read on to find out which attachment style most fits you – and get great advice on how to change any patterns that aren’t serving you well, so you can keep your connection going strong, in the healthiest possible way.

How attachment styles form

Attachment styles spring from attachment theory, which was developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He found that babies who were separated from their parents became desperate to reconnect, a natural human instinct. Once a baby had their caregiver back, the personality of their parent had a powerful impact on that baby’s emotional development through their childhood. If their parent was loving and protective, a child learned to feel safe and secure bonding with others. If their parent was not nurturing, a child would feel insecure and anxious, and either cling to others, or avoid becoming attached altogether as a protective mechanism. These feelings contribute to the "internal working model," or mental representations of the self in relationship to others. Attachment styles are based on this inner model and become reflected in the ways that individuals approach their adult relationships.

Attachment types

There are four specific attachment styles that represent the range of emotions in attachment theory: anxious style, avoidant style, disorganized style, and secure style.

Find your attachment style

Anxious attachment

“Anxious attachment style is characterized by feeling insecure in a close relationship – often devaluing yourself and overvaluing the other person,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and professor emerita of psychology at California State University. For people with this style, he says, ”There can be a chronic fear of abandonment in their relationships, and they often require contact and reassurance to feel safe.”

Key sign: This can mean you want 24/7 contact. “A person with an anxious attachment style may constantly text their loved one and anxiously await a reply,” says Beverly Palmer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Torrance, CA, a professor emeritus and the author of Love Demystified: Strategies for a Sucessful Love Life. “When the reply doesn’t immediately come, they will either text again or may dissolve into a total funk.”

Avoidant attachment

“A person with an avoidant attachment style will want and need a loving connection with another person, but will not trust that this person won’t hurt or reject them,” says Palmer. “So they won’t share deep feelings nor vulnerability, and will pull away when the other person gets too close.”

Key sign: If you have an avoidant attachment style, you might pride yourself on being “strong” on your own. “These folks are very independent in relationships, and can be quite detached,” says Durvasula – not offering up much emotionally, and not requiring much emotionally from the other person.

Disorganized attachment

“Disorganized attachment style is a combination of the anxious and avoidant styles,” explains Palmer. “This person will exhibit strong emotions of needing, and then rejecting.” This attachment style is marked by being so afraid that the other person will leave that they’ll often leave first.

Key sign: If people stay in the relationship, they tend to run hot and cold. “There can be a lot of emotional dysregulation –up, down, close, far — and this behavior can be very confusing for the other person in the relationship,” says Durvasula. “If you have this style, you do want a relationship, but struggle with trust. You’re afraid of being rejected, and may keep a partner at arm’s length in an attempt to be self-protective.”

Secure attachment

“Secure attachment is considered the healthiest form of attachment,” says Durvasula. “These are people who are comfortable expressing emotions in a relationship, are comfortable with closeness, and are not fearful within a relationship. They experience a sense of missing a partner if they, say, go on a trip, but don’t experience a sense of panic or fear, or consider it an abandonment. They’re capable of being in relationships that are characterized by mutual regard and reciprocity—they don’t need a relationship to feel complete.”

Key sign: If you have a secure attachment style, you give your partner affection and space. “A person with a secure attachment style will connect deeply with another person, freely expressing deep feelings and vulnerability,” says Palmer. “They will not be overly dependent nor independent — they will be interdependent.”

How can your attachment style influence your behavior?

Your attachment style can give other people impressions about you that you aren’t even aware of. For example, a recent study looked at the connection between attachment styles and how people use humor. It found that those who are afraid of being rejected in a relationship will often use dark, smart humor around their partners, while people who struggle with being close to a romantic partner often use light, silly humor. The authors of this research think this is because an anxious partner in a relationship might try to impress the one they love with their wit. On the other hand, someone who makes more random jokes that don’t reveal much about them personally may do so to keep a distance between themselves and their partner, so they can avoid getting hurt. This might be the way you interact, but you might have never realized why.

Other new research found that if you have an insecure attachment style, you’re more likely to “phub” your partner – snub them when you’re face to face by concentrating on your smartphone. This can be because you unconsciously view your smartphone as an attachment object – almost like a blankie, to hang onto when interacting so you feel comfort if you feel you’re not getting it directly from your partner.

Any behavior that comes from an unhealthy attachment style can cause stress in a relationship, even if you don’t mean it to. That’s why it can be interesting and enlightening to identify your personal pattern.

How to shift your attachment style

First of all, know that many people aren’t just one style – you may find you’re a mix of two. Attachment styles can also be quite fluid. Life circumstances – such as the loss of a loved one or a divorce – can bring about a change in you to a new attachment style.

What if you see yourself in one of these styles and don’t like the view? You can actively shift your style, and become more secure in your relationships. Talking to a therapist is the best way to start – and opening up about your experiences is key. “Instead of coming in and saying that you have a certain attachment style, it may be more helpful to talk about how you feel – talk about your fears, how you ‘are’ in a relationship,” says Durvasula. “Reflect on relationships from the past that may have ended and what that was like for you. Do you see connections between your early childhood environment and your present attachment style?”

You should also consider being honest with your partner about the change you want to make, and involve them in the process. “A person with one of the three insecure attachment styles has deep, unconscious expectations about how others will respond to their needs,” says Palmer. “These expectations were learned in childhood from your interaction with your parents. When you notice feelings of neediness or mistrust, share those feelings with your loved one. If your loved one has a secure attachment style, they will be able to help you challenge those expectations.”

What if your loved one also has an insecure attachment style? Then talk with each other about what you're each afraid of and what triggers your insecurities, so you can make sure you're giving each other what you need. Maybe it's as simple as promising to text each other when you know it's a situation that can set off the other person — like being late for that romantic dinner! — so there's no anxiety on either side.

Bottom line: You have a huge amount of control when it comes to choosing how to react in your relationships. “You can learn how to self-regulate your strong emotions that arise in relationships instead of impulsively acting on them,” says Palmer. “Allow yourself to change your expectations about how your loved one will respond. Try trusting your loved one enough that you're willing to be vulnerable with them.” This will make your bond stronger than ever – and both of you so much happier.

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