We often hear about attachment styles in terms of romantic relationships. Are you an anxious type? Avoidant type? Secure? But they can affect friendships, too. “At its simplest level, attachment is an emotional bond with another person,” Dr. Courtney Conley, therapist, author, and professor, as well as the founder of Expanding Horizons Counseling and Wellness, tells TZR in an email. “The early bonds children form with their caregivers can have a lasting impact. As adults, attachment styles can impact romantic relationships, friendships, and relationships within the work setting.” Dr. Sadi Jimenez, naturopathic doctor at My LA Therapy, echoes this. “The way we communicate shows up in every type of relationship we encounter throughout our lifetime,” she tells TZR. “And friendships are a big part of our lives.”
For context, there are four main attachment styles that are widely recognized. “People with an anxious attachment style are usually fearful of losing the other person,” Conley explains. “They fear abandonment and worry that their friend, for instance, isn’t as invested in the relationship as they are. The person feels insecure in the relationship and often looks to the other person for reassurance.”
Meanwhile, people with an avoidant or dismissive attachment style have developed the sense that they can’t rely on others to meet their needs. “They avoid emotional closeness and value their independence,” Conley says. “They do not feel they need another person to ‘complete’ them.”
When someone has a disorganized attachment style, it is an intertwining of both anxious and avoidant. “The person wants closeness with others, but is fearful of it at the same time,” Conley explains. “This can lead to someone being hot and cold, and they may end relationships before they can get hurt.”
And someone who is securely attached recognizes their value as an individual while also recognizing the benefits of a being in a relationship/friendship. “They are comfortable with their need for connection and do not fear emotional closeness,” says Conley. “But they don’t feel that they ‘need’ it either. It’s a healthy balance of being able to rely on someone while also recognizing your value outside of a relationship.” Kyler Shumway, a licensed psychologist, the CEO of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy, and author of The Friendship Formula, adds that when we are securely attached to others, we become emotionally resourced. “Research, too, has found that people who have those kinds of connections tend to be more resilient against stress,” he tells TZR in an email.
If you are not sure which attachment style most describes you, you can take one of many online quizzes. However, Dr. Monica Shah, a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive behavioral therapies, warns against self-diagnosing yourself through online quizzes alone. “It’s not that black-and-white,” she tells TZR, recommending that you discuss your attachment — and communication — styles with your therapist or mental health professional.
Ahead, experts reveal how your attachment style can impact your relationships with friends.
How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Friendships
When it comes to your friendship with someone, looking at your attachment style could be helpful. “It’s less about the level of intimacy and more about the expectations of the role,” says Conley. “For example, in a friendship, you would typically expect to rely on someone for support and comfort — you should be able to trust the person and share your feelings. Your attachment style is going to impact how you operate within any close relationship.”
To see this in action, if two friends have a disagreement, someone with an anxious attachment style might fear losing that friend, Conley explains. “They may over-apologize or use self-degrading talk (i.e., “I am the worst friend”) in an attempt to gain reassurance from the other person,” she says. “Out of fear, an anxious person may also stay in a relationship that isn’t healthy.”
An avoidant person, on the other hand, is less likely to show their level of emotion. “It can sometimes be hard to form a close bond with them, and they may distance themselves,” says Conley. “This can leave the other person feeling like they don’t care [about them] or that their feelings aren’t important.” It can also take time to earn their trust. “They have difficulty letting people in and avoid being vulnerable,” she says. “From a friendship perspective, this can seem one-sided.”
And when a conflict arises with someone with a disorganized attachment style, it is anyone’s guess, says Conley. “They fluctuate between needing reassurance and feeling insecure in relationships to not wanting to rely on others or be emotionally tied to another person,” she explains. “They could cut the relationship off to guard themselves from hurt or they could beg for forgiveness.” They may also have a series of ‘best friends’ — they may have an intensely close relationship one minute, then a fallout where they cut the person off the next.
Conley also notes that those with anxious and disorganized attachment styles may be more possessive in a relationship. “They may feel threatened when someone has multiple good friends because they fear being replaced,” she says.
However, people who have friendships that stand the test of time are generally securely attached, says Conley, and they understand that conflict is a normal, everyday part of a relationship. “They don’t enjoy it, but they also don’t fear it,” she says. “They are better able to express how they feel, listen to the other side, and develop a plan for moving forward.”
How To Make Your Attachment Style Work For You In Your Friendships
You may wonder if certain friendships are doomed if two attachment styles don’t mesh well. “Not necessarily,” says Jimenez. “Both people would need to be conscious enough, though, to understand themselves and their own communication style, as well as want to learn the communication style of their friend. They must have a willingness to compromise and understand each other.”
Shumway, too, says the key is learning to work through rupture and repair. “For example, when we lift weights, our muscles actually tear and break down,” he says. “But then they heal, grow, and knit back together even stronger than before. And the same is true when it comes to relationships.” He says that although relational challenges can make the bond feel unsteady and broken, if you can work through the discomfort and rebuild together, the friendship becomes deeper, safer, and closer.
“For example, if you have discovered that you have an avoidant attachment style, when you feel yourself wanting to withdraw, try to do the unnatural thing of opening up a conversation,” says Shumway. Similarly, if you have an anxious attachment style, you may fear the worst when it comes to having a conflict with a friend. Yet your therapist can work with you in re-channeling your anxious thoughts into more productive ones, he explains. So instead of fearing that a disagreement may end your friendship, you can learn — and see — that this is probably not the case.
Why It Is Important To Know Your Attachment Style
Shumway says that no matter what attachment style you identify with, it’s important to notice when you feel threatened. “Pay attention to when you feel anxious, hurt, or angry in your interpersonal relationships,” he says. “Try to notice specific words or actions that trigger those feelings. This way, you can begin to gather data about your attachment needs and what situations cause you to feel unwanted, as well as wanted and accepted.”
In addition, Shumway says to figure out the “why” behind your feelings. “Ask yourself why you feel the way you do,” he explains. “Reflect on the action your emotional reaction leads you to — running away, crying, starting an argument, or what have you. Then try to connect the dots between what is happening and what has happened to you in previous relationships, whether they were romantic ones or ones with friends.” He says to ask yourself: Does the situation remind you of something from your past? Have you been hurt by similar words or actions before? What happened then? Now?
Conley, too, says it’s important to look at patterns of behavior and how you reacted, and react, to certain situations and conflicts. “Then you can see the level of impact your attachment style may have on your friendships,” she says. “Awareness is key in order to break patterns that aren’t serving you. You can identify the negative patterns and work to change them.”
You can do this by seeking outside support from someone like a therapist or mental health counselor. “They can help you identify the negative patterns, and reshape your thoughts and beliefs around your interpersonal relationships,” says Conley. “It’s often a process of unpacking things from our past — like from our upbringing — and putting them away a little differently. This way, we can open ourselves up to other ways of thinking.” Shah seconds this. “Whatever you experienced were in your past and childhood, so the therapy room can be a place to rebuild trust and a secure attachment,” says Shah. “It can then transfer from the therapy room to your relationships with others.”
Journaling may also help. “It allows you to put your thoughts onto paper and release strong emotions,” says Conley. “Talking to a trusted friend or relative can also help provide some perspective. However, if you are truly concerned about the lack of cohesiveness in your friendships, seeking professional help is your best bet.”
That said, Shah says to keep an important disclaimer in mind. “While our attachment styles can influence our relationships as we become adults, there is nuance in each of them — it’s not necessarily as clear cut as when we are babies and children,” she says. “We are trying to categorize what and who we are, which is helpful in some respects. However, someone who is securely attached may be so in one relationship, yet more anxious in another one [depending on what triggers may come up]. So it’s something to definitely keep in mind.”