What Is Attachment Theory In Relationships? Experts Sound Off
Relationships are complicated, no matter who you are or who you're with. Between having different backgrounds, belief systems, and lifestyle preferences, there's bound to be bumps along the way. Adding to the complexity is the contracting styles in which people engage in relationships, known as attachment theory; and even trickier, still, is how they're deeply rooted in each person's past experiences.
While attachment theory can pertain to platonic or romantic relationships, mental health professionals often use the model to address the latter. "Self-awareness is always helpful, especially as we navigate romantic relationships," explains Cara Kraft, a therapist at NYC Cognitive Therapy, a private practice in Manhattan. "Through better understanding of ourselves, we can know our needs in a relationship, the strengths that we offer, our communication style, and our vulnerabilities. This awareness may help us determine compatibility with a new partner, or find new ways of communicating and relating to a current partner."
Attachment styles are separated into four main categories — secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized — and knowing yours (and your S.O.'s) can shed light on how the two of you bond. Ahead, Kraft, along with Lisa Concepcion, Certified LoveLife Strategist and founder of LoveQuestCoaching.com, break down each category to help you gain a better understanding of your own love life.
The 4 Attachment Theory Styles
Unsurprisingly, those with this type of attachment style have the best foundation for healthy romantic relationships (although, it's never a guarantee). When security develops in the formative years, it's the result of a reliable connection between parents and their children. "Generally, securely attached adults possess strong self-esteem," Kraft says. "They are comfortable sharing their emotions and needs, and also responding to those of others." Concepcion agrees. "People with the secure attachment style are reliable, consistent, communicative, trustworthy, and they are attuned to their partner's moods, sense of humor, mannerisms, vocal tone [etc.]," she explains.
One thing to note: This kind of emotional stability can attract those who are craving it (aka, partners who fall into the other three categories). "People with a secure attachment style are obviously really appealing to people who may have an anxious attachment style," Concepcion points out. "However, someone with a secure attachment style [who] lacks patience or is fully committed to maintaining positivity in their life might get turned off to someone more 'needy,' and instead hold out for a partner who is also secure."
Still, it's possible for the old "opposites attract" adage to hold true. "Sometimes, someone with an insecure attachment style will shift into being more secure once trust is established," she says.
Speaking of trust, those who form anxious attachments are extremely susceptible to having trust issues. Anxious partners "need constant reassurance that they are valued and loved [and] that you won't leave them," says Concepcion. "They also might go above and beyond to 'people please' and be a chameleon." Some key traits of this include moodiness, neediness, jealousy, and being (seemingly) impossible to please, overall.
Again, Kraft says this can stem back to childhood. "In response to the seemingly unpredictable and inconsistent responses or attention from a caregiver, these individuals expressed great distress upon the depart and return of a caregiver," she explains. "As children, they struggled to develop self-soothing capabilities in the absence of a caregiver."
However, anxious attachments can result from adulthood trauma, too. Concepcion theorizes that the internet and social media culture may have something to do with it. "I've absolutely noticed a heightened sense of anxious attachment since the rise of online dating, social media, hook-up sites etc.," she says, pointing out that easier access to emotional and sexual infidelity has lead to — you guessed it — more issues with trust. The resulting anxious mindset may be, "'My wife cheated on me with her old flame who she reconnected with on Facebook so, now I can't trust women because I can't monitor her social media,'" she says as an example. She concludes, "Unresolved trauma will impact attachment styles when new (albeit limiting) beliefs are created."
"You'll hear them say things like, 'I need space, I like my alone time, I'm not really into anything too serious,'" says Concepcion of people with this attachment style. Sound familiar?
If these feelings stem from the past, "a caregiver may not have always been readily available or responsive to their needs as children," explains Kraft. As a coping mechanism, she says, they've learned to put up an emotional barrier to protect themselves from feelings of rejection or abandonment.
As for adults who learn to become avoidant, Concepcion once again correlates a it to society's social media obsession. For instance, one might think, "'Forget about commitment. Everyone is just swiping and looking for the bigger, better deal, so I'm just going to focus on my peace and making money,'" she says.
With tightly held beliefs that often surface as fear, mistrust, and unpredictable and self-defeating behavior, disorganized attachments are most likely tied to unresolved childhood trauma. "They yearn for closeness, yet fear it," says Concepcion. "They often attract abusive relationships in adulthood or escape through drug or alcohol addiction, given their terrible self-talk and low self worth. They were [likely] abused as kids, either sexually, physically or emotionally ... the child's ability to feel safe [was] severely compromised."
At the same time, she adds that while those with disorganized attachments might crave intimacy, subsequent toxic relationships become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "They're the type of person most likely to ghost," she says and illustrates an example of this mindset: "'I'll reject them before they can reject me because I am awful and soon they will realize this, so let me just stop it before it starts.'"
How Prevalent Is Each Attachment Style?
In the past decade especially, Concepcion has observed a notable shift in the prevalence of certain attachment styles. "In 2011, it's cited that just over 50 percent of people were securely attached," she says. But in today's society, "more and more people are falling into the 'anxious' and 'avoidant' categories. I would say that as a new generation matured in the last decade, and many in older generations went from [being] married to divorced, we see a whole other onset of traumas and insecurities around relationships."
Kraft also lends some interesting statistics. "A number of studies* have found that the majority of adults fall into the secure attachment style (55 percent), with avoidant (25 percent) and anxious styles being relatively close (20 percent), and disorganized or unspecified being more rare (5 percent)."
Can Attachment Styles Be Changed?
Attachment styles can vary throughout your lifetime, depending on your experiences. Unfortunately, they can go from secure to not following an incident like infidelity, but the pendulum can swing the other way, too. "When people start to become more aware of their patterns in relationships and are done with them and want to change, then they'll usually seek out a therapist or perhaps coaches, workshops or seminars to help them transform," says Concepcion. "It is possible to shift, and it doesn't have to take five to 10 years of therapy."
She continues, "I coach people with anxious attachment, and even disorganized, and once they learn how to show up to parent those versions of themselves who were ignored, it's a massive transformation. This work impacts all relationships, not just romantic ones."
Mickelson, K.D., Kessler, R.C., & Shaver, R.R. (1997). Adult attachment in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), 1092-1106. Hazan, C, & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.