40% of children in the United States develop an insecure attachment. Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are highly indicative of adult relationship success. So, it should be no wonder the divorce rate is on par, with 40%–50% of US marriages ending in divorce.
Are you or your partner dealing with an insecure attachment style? If so, odds are the relationship is getting rocky. That’s why we want to help you understand attachment theory.
Want to know more about the styles that determine your adult relationship behavior? Plus, how these styles form in childhood, and how can you change them as an adult? Then keep reading because this article is for you.
Attachment Theory And Attachment Styles
Developmental psychology expert John Bowlby first realized attachment theory in the late 1960s. His colleague, Mary Ainsworth, fleshed it out a few years after studying young children and their bonds with caregivers. Their caregivers are also called attachment figures.
Strong caregiver-child bonds gave children a feeling of stability and security. These strong bonds also predicted future success, with children seeking out more adventures and new experiences. Securely attached children were more likely to have high self-esteem, too.
Meanwhile, weak caregiver-child bonds forced kids to seek out a secure attachment. In adulthood, they tend to feel more fearful, shy, and reluctant to explore new environments. These children were attached insecurely and also tended to have lower self-confidence.
From these two attachment styles— secure and insecure— attachment theory was born. Now, we know attachment styles form during childhood, but they’re essential for healthy adult relationships.
Let’s discuss some of the ways secure and other attachment styles develop. Plus, we’ll go over how each style contributes to adult relationship success— or failure.
A child develops a secure attachment when their attachment figure comforts them during times of distress. You can recognize a securely attached child because they get upset when separated from their caregiver. When the caregiver returns, the child is overjoyed.
Another hallmark of this attachment style is that the child doesn’t worry about whether the caregiver will return. They are confident in their bond with the caregiver and that the caregiver will eventually return.
Attachments that are secure in childhood typically turn into securely attached adults. They are comfortable showing affection to others and just as fine with being alone. These attachments cultivate better resilience to rejection and are more prone to recognizing a toxic partner or relationship.
For these reasons, this attachment style predicts relationship success for adults. The good news is the majority of people in the US are considered securely attached.
Insecure attachments are common in children who do not learn to bond with their attachment figure for one reason or another.
For example, a child may develop an ambivalent attachment. This often occurs in children who learn that they can’t rely on the caregiver for support during times of distress.
You can typically recognize an ambivalent attachment because they don’t seem joyful when reunited with the caregiver. Instead, they tend to act confusedly while also clinging to the caregiver.
Avoidant attachments tend to develop when caregivers neglect their charges. This manifests in the child as avoidant behavior. Even when the child can be around their caregiver, they seem no more likely to prefer that than to alone time.
In a disorganized attachment, children have mixed emotions about their caregivers. Sometimes, they want to be around the parent, while at other times, they act more like an avoidant child.
Disorganized attachments may stem from inconsistent caregiver behavior. For example, caregivers who have mood-affecting mental health conditions may foster disorganized attachments in their children.
These insecure child-caregiver interactions tend to turn into adult relationship dysfunction, namely, attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, or, in rare cases, a combination of both styles.
Adults who experience attachment anxiety tend to be considered “clingy.” These are the partners who need constant affirmation and reassurance. They are fearful of being single but are also uncomfortable discussing their needs with their partner.
Often, a child with an ambivalent attachment to their caregiver grows up to have adult attachment anxiety.
Attachment avoidance manifests as an extreme need for independence in adulthood. That’s why you often hear it referred to as a dismissive attachment style. Avoidant partners have negative feelings toward intimacy and prefer to be alone during times of deep distress.
As their names suggest, avoidant attachments in childhood tend to lead to attachment avoidance in adulthood.
Researchers believe that anxious-avoidant attachments are relatively rare. That’s because this style combines the features of both anxious and avoidant styles. These are the partners who present confusing behavior. They may want distance sometimes but closeness at other times.
Individuals with anxious-avoidant attachment styles tend to have a higher risk of depression. Some psychologists suggest this stems directly from the uncertain nature of disorganized child-caregiver interactions.
Why Is A Secure Attachment Style Important?
Today, psychologists understand the importance of attachment styles from an evolutionary perspective.
Early human children with strong bonds to their caregivers would have had higher chances of survival. Early caregivers provided food and protection as well as guidance about how to navigate the world. In other words, secure attachments conferred advantages for early childhood.
Today, that idea still holds. Modern children with secure attachments are better able to deal with and overcome stress. Meanwhile, children who form insecure attachments are often unable to deal with perilous situations. They may also live in a chronic state of elevated stress.
The bottom line on the importance of secure attachments? Research shows that attachments that are securely developed during childhood predict adult relationship success.
How To Encourage A Secure Attachment In Your Relationship
Insecurely attached adults who choose securely attached partners are more likely to succeed when it comes to relationships.
Yet, not all of us are lucky enough to find the ideal attachment style to work with our own. There is some good news, though. Contrary to original beliefs, psychologists now think that insecure attachment styles can change.
For example, a recent study of 70 couples found that attachment avoiders can become more secure. How so? Performing couples’ activities and communicating can boost positive feelings, promote intimacy, and encourage trust in avoidant partners.
Do you or your partner have an insecure attachment and want to cultivate a healthier, more secure one? Then check out our top tips for fostering attachments that are secure in anxious, avoidant, and combined styles.
Mending Avoidant Attachments
A long-term study of 67 heterosexual couples studied partner interactions during times of stress. It concluded that positive responses from a partner increase positive feelings and decrease negative emotions in a relationship. Surprisingly, these results were most robust in avoidant style participants.
Another study looked at the benefits of merely reflecting on positive memories of the relationship. This practice also helped reduce negative feelings toward partners. This was especially true for participants with attachment avoidance.
What does this mean for your relationship? If you or your partner are avoidant, here are some techniques you can use to become more secure:
If you’re the partner of a person with an avoidant attachment, try your best to cultivate a positive environment. Listen to your partner and make him or her feel loved. You’ll be amazed at how little effort it takes to make such a massive difference in your relationship.
Healing Anxious-Avoidant Attachments
In a 2013 study, researchers looked at the benefits of trust and goal validating on romantic partners attached insecurely.
They found that increasing trust reduced attachment anxiety in the short-term. At the same time, trust reduced attachment avoidance over time—meanwhile, goal validating lessened attachment avoidance immediately and attachment anxiety in the long-term.
These results are promising for individuals who experience mixed anxious-avoidant tendencies. So, if your partner has an anxious-avoidant style, here’s what you can do to help:
In the study, the researchers considered goal validating when a partner encouraged the other’s personal goals and motivations.
Meanwhile, increasing trust was measured by whether a partner perceived the other as available and dependable.
Transforming Anxious Attachments
Anxiously attached partners do tend to fare better in relationships. Especially compared to their avoidant counterparts. For this reason, researchers have focused much less on healing anxious attachments.
Still, the 2013 study mentioned above did find the benefits of increasing trust through conversation. It also found positive benefits of partner goal validations.
Additionally, a 2015 study showed that anxiously attached women, in particular, may find relief with couples talk therapy.
That’s why our top tip for anxious styles is to learn how to communicate your needs better.
Therapy For Insecure Attachments
Are you dealing with an insecure attachment style that you want to change to a secure attachment? ReGain’s accredited therapists can help you and your partner improve your relationship with attachment theory principles. Get started with ReGain today!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What does it mean to have a secure attachment style?
Those who are securely attached have a secure baseline in interpersonal relationships. Instead of experiencing concerns that people with an insecure attachment style face, for example, a pervasive fear of intimacy, clinginess, an intense fear of a person leaving without a marked reason to believe they will, jealousy that disrupts the relationship, and so on, you feel secure. When you’re securely attached, you feel as though you are safe enough to express yourself, you don’t worry that a partner will leave you or cheat on you without tangible reasons to believe that this is going on, you don’t have an intense or pervasive fear of closeness with others despite wanting it, and you don’t feel a constant need to seek reassurance.
What does a secure attachment style look like?
Signs of secure attachment include but aren’t limited to:
How do you become a secure attachment style?
Therapy can help both kids and adults with insecure attachment styles become more securely attached. If you’re an adult and you’re aware of how an insecure attachment style impacts your life, you can bring up your concerns with a counselor and talk about ways to navigate the impact of your behaviors and worries related to attachment. This doesn’t mean that things will change overnight. Still, it does mean that you’ll have the tools to do things like talk about attachment styles with your partner and explain yours, reassure and comfort yourself independently and work through feelings or instincts related to attachment when they arise, redirect impulses to engage in actions related to attachment styles that may negatively impact your relationships, work through concerns such as codependency, and more.
What are the characteristics of secure attachment?
Characteristics of secure attachment include positive self-esteem, a healthy sense of individuality, independence, and autonomy, trust, the ability to set boundaries, the ability to express one’s unique feelings and needs, feeling comfortable with closeness as well as a healthy amount of space, being able to develop healthy relationships, and being able to move through or rebound after facing rejection. Securely attached children will show signs of secure attachment as well, though, of course, early attachment and infant attachment will look different than adult attachment or the way secure attachment presents in adult romantic relationships. When it comes to early attachment, securely attached children can be recognized largely because securely attached children will be happy and experience comfort when a caregiver returns. If a child learns that a caregiver will come back and meet their emotional needs and physical needs in early attachment, they are more likely to become securely attached.
What does insecure attachment look like in adults?
The insecure attachment will look different depending on the person’s unique attachment system. Insecure attachment may present as dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant attachment, anxious preoccupied attachment, or disorganized attachment. Remember that attachment theory suggests a link between infant attachment or early attachment and the attachment style or attachment security someone feels like an adult. If, as a child, you had a secure base (meaning, a secure base of attachment with your parents, parent, or guardian – this is your first attachment figure, after all), you are more likely to be secure, though this is not always the case. If someone has an avoidant attachment style as an adult, they may avoid intimacy or experience an urge to leave when they start to get close to people. If someone has an anxious preoccupied attachment style, although they still have an insecure attachment style, it will look very different than someone with an avoidant attachment style. Someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment style is more likely to cling and seek reassurance. Although avoidant attachment and anxious attachment look different, they are both forms of insecure attachment. If you are highly fearful of getting close to others or being terrified of being left, you may have an insecure attachment style. Disorganized attachment is also insecure, and many people with The disorganized attachment style will have profound difficulties when it comes to last and connections in some way or another. Trust issues will be prevalent, and a person may experience pervasive difficulty with emotional regulation. Overall, the disorganized attachment will make attaching to others feel unsafe.
Do I have a secure attachment style?
The best way to tell if you have a secure attachment style is to learn about the different attachment styles and their characteristics. Then, look at your own attachment patterns and how they match up to the different attachment styles. Be honest with yourself and remember no intellectual or moral value in having an insecure attachment style vs. a secure attachment style. Yes, Secure attachment does make relationships easier because they feel safer, but it doesn’t say anything about your intelligence or your will as a person. Even with knowledge about attachment styles and attachment theory, your attachment system is still there. Also, note that although early attachment and infant attachment matters, some parents do all that they can, and their child still is not securely attached, so if you are insecurely attached despite an incredible bond with your parents or caregiver, know that this is very much a possibility and that it doesn’t necessarily say anything about them as a caregiver. The early attachment has an influence, but it doesn’t do it all to guarantee how to attach to others later in life. Acknowledge the traits that you would like to work on without judgment. What you can do if you want to talk about attachment styles and your concerns about adult attachment or navigate insecure attachment styles is talking to a therapist or counselor. A licensed professional will help you form healthy, happy relationships and give you a safe space to verbalize anything that is on your mind.