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Attachment Styles: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Attachment Styles: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

by Spencer Lee, MSW

You may have heard the term “anxious attachment style”, or “secure attachment” before. I know I hear those terms floating around on podcasts, Instagram, Tiktok, etc., when discussing relationships. Attachment styles are used to describe and categorize how a person interacts with those around them and how they handle conflict in relationships. The term was first coined by John Bowlby, a British psychologist who studied how babies responded to their parents briefly leaving the room and returning. All babies became confused and/or distressed when their caregiver left; however, when their caregiver returned, the babies reacted in several different ways that Bowlby labeled as secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-ambivalent, otherwise known as anxiously attached.

When parents returned, babies labeled as securely attached calmed down and returned to playing with toys. The insecure-avoidant babies, when reunited, were far less engaged-almost as if they were holding a grudge or giving the silent treatment because the parent left them. The parent’s return was not helping them return to the happy state they started out in before the parent left the room. Lastly, the insecure-ambivalent baby remained upset when the parent returned to the room- they cried and even swatted toys away. The baby was unable to be soothed or return to play quickly.

What defines a secure or “healthy” attachment style is the baby’s ability to overcome the distress from separation when the caregiver returns and be able to return to play. The various attachment styles that we develop as infants also carry into our adult lives, affecting how we interact with others, such as romantic partners. These patterns of interaction are often hard to see and therefore hard to change which makes understanding them crucial to improving your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your relationship.

What do they look like in relationships?

Take a look at this example and how each attachment style may play out: Sally and Mike get into an argument about the dishes. Mike tells Sally that he needs some time to calm down before continuing talking about the dishes, so he goes for a short drive by himself.

Secure attachment: Sally understands that sometimes couples argue and that it does not mean the relationship will fail. Sally does not see Mike’s actions as a reflection of herself or the relationship. While she waits for Mike to return, she also takes a moment to calm down and reads a book. When Mike returns, she may still be annoyed about the dishes, but can talk things out with Mike and come to a conclusion.

Insecure-Avoidant attachment: Sally is angry and feels abandoned while Mike is gone. Mike returns, apologizes to Sally, and wants to continue talking to come to a resolution. Sally doesn’t say anything back to Mike. Mike approaches Sally and tries to hug her. Sally pushes him off, yells at him, and goes to the other room, shutting the door behind her. Sally wants to be close to Mike but is afraid. She believes being in a relationship with Mike, and therefore being vulnerable, is dangerous because it inevitably leads to being hurt. With that being said, Sally is always hesitant to enter relationships and shuts down when she feels tension in a relationship.

Insecure-ambivalent/anxious attachment: Sally really wanted to go with Mike during his drive to cool off and became even more distressed when he wanted to go alone. While Mike is on his drive, Sally is calling him and texting non-stop. She is apologizing for the dishes and the argument and beginning him to return home. Sally feels like the relationship is crumbling in her hands because of their disagreement. To find comfort again, Sally needs lots of reassurance from Mike that the relationship is okay. To get this reassurance, Sally might find herself doing several things like starting an argument to “test” Mike and the relationship or seeking verbal comfort from Mike by often asking things like “Are we okay?”.

How did I end up with the attachment style I have?

Attachment styles are primarily formed by how our emotional needs are met as an infant and the family dynamics of one’s childhood. Securely attached individuals typically had their emotional needs met as a child, which created feelings of safety and confidence. On the other hand, insecurely attached individuals may have gotten mixed messages or negative messages at times from their caregivers, resulting in difficulty trusting themselves and others in future relationships.

Thinking about attachment styles can feel very fated- like you are destined to one way of being, and it’s your parents’ fault. The good news is that many factors influence attachment styles and can be changed over time. For example, research has found that factors such as socioeconomic status and culture can affect a person’s attachment style.

Therapy can be helpful in identifying your attachment style and working to become more securely attached to create healthy and fulfilling relationships. Although attachment styles are formed at a young age, they are learned behaviors that can be unlearned and relearned. Not only do we have the power to choose how we respond in relationships, but also the ability to make it happen.