What Types Of Attachment Are Healthy and Unhealthy?

Updated April 14, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

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Nearly everyone feels an attachment to someone. You probably have an attachment to one or more parent figures. You might also feel the same way about your children if you have any, your romantic partner, or even a close friend. Understanding the many types of attachment - both healthy and unhealthy - can help you make better relationship choices and improve your life in other ways, too.

What Are the Types of Attachment?

Researchers have studied attachment for many decades. In the mid-1900s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed his attachment theory based on his clinical experiences with patients along with his studies. Bowlby's work was primarily with children and adolescents, but he noted in one of his scientific papers that attachments form throughout the lifespan.

Mary Ainsworth worked with Bowlby. On her own, she developed the Strange Situation test to find out more about infant attachment. Later, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver took Bowlby's and Ainsworth's concepts to develop adult attachment theory.

The following are the main types of attachment infants for their caregivers:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-avoidant
  • Resistant (also called ambivalent)
  • Disorganized

Researchers have identified attachment types in adults and given them the following names:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-preoccupied
  • Dismissive-avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant
  • Disorganized

What Is Secure Attachment?

A secure attachment is ideal for people at all stages of life. It's the only truly healthy form of attachment.

Definition Of Secure Attachment

A secure attachment is defined as a positive attachment a child feels for their parent or one romantic partner feels for another. In a secure attachment, the person feels confident when with their caregiver or romantic partner is near. They feel slightly distressed when they're away but are happy to regain contact again when they return.

Secure Infant Attachment In Infants And Children

In Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test, the infants with secure attachment explored freely when the caregiver was nearby. Whenever the infant felt distressed, they would come close to them for reassurance. Then, they went back to exploring.

When the caregiver left, the infant showed only mild distress. When the caregiver returned, the infant quickly re-established contact.

Secure Adult Attachment

In a secure adult attachment, you feel positive about yourself and see yourself as worthy of love. You also have a positive view of others. You assume that others are usually accepting and responsive.

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Benefits Of Secure Attachment

Benefits of secure attachment in infants include:

  • Healthy physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development
  • Curiosity
  • Being more outgoing
  • Explores their environment freely
  • Enhanced learning

As infants grow into children, they demonstrate these benefits of secure attachment:

  • More socially constructive
  • Less aggressive
  • More empathetic
  • More creativity
  • More persistence
  • Enhanced learning
  • Cope with difficulties more easily.

Adult secure attachment has great benefits, too:

  • Greater ability to form a social network
  • Better at choosing romantic partners
  • Greater ability to form healthy attachments with romantic partners and others
  • Better work and social relationships

Unhealthy Types Of Attachment

Three types of Insecure attachments can happen in infancy and four in adulthood. These include all the attachment types besides secure attachment.

An infant with an unhealthy or insecure attachment lacks optimal development. Their brains become different, and they behave in ways that cause pain for themselves and others. Once they develop an unhealthy first attachment, they tend to carry that disorder into later life and pass it on to their children.

When you have an insecure adult attachment, your life may be miserable. You may suffer from anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. The relationship can't be a healthy one because your unhealthy attachment keeps you from connecting with your partner positively. What's more, the disorder can affect social and work relationships.

Anxious/Avoidant Infant Attachment

Anxious/avoidant infant attachment is an insecure attachment marked by fear and indifference.

What Anxious/Avoidant Infant Attachment Looks Like

In the Strange Situation test, infants with anxious/avoidant attachment don't explore much when their caregiver is present. When their caregiver leaves and returns, they show no signs that they noticed their absence. They may even avoid their caregiver altogether when they return.

They learn not to seek help and comfort, because their primary caregiver has failed to give them that. They don't express their feelings of distress, because they've learned that the best way to stay close to their caregiver is to hide those feelings.

They also develop a critical inner voice that tells them to avoid people, not get involved, and not care about romance.

Think You May Have An Unhealthy Attachment To Someone?
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Consequences of an Anxious/Avoidant Infant Attachment

An infant with this type of attachment may be slow to develop. As they get older, they don't seek out others for help and support. They want to be independent, but their anxiety holds them back. They usually grow into an adult with dismissive attachments.

Resistant Attachment In Infants

Resistant attachment, also called ambivalent attachment, is an insecure infant attachment in which the infant seeks and resists the caregiver at the same time.

What Resistant Infant Attachment Looks Like

In the Strange Situation, an infant with resistant attachment explores less when the parent is near. They show great distress when the parent leaves, but they have a peculiar reaction when their parent returns. They try to get close to the parent while simultaneously resisting close contact.

Consequences Of A Resistant Infant Attachment

The resistant infant becomes a resistant child. As they get older, they continue to display the same combination of positivity and negativity. Their teachers may have a hard time understanding and dealing with them. Because they don't feel they have a safe base to return to, they're hesitant to explore and learn.

Also, they don't tend to reach out to others so that they may have poor social skills. When they grow up, they tend to form anxious-preoccupied attachments.

Disorganized Infant Attachment

An incoherent repose characterizes a disorganized infant attachment to caregivers. This infant attachment type is sometimes called disoriented attachment.

What Disorganized Infant Attachment Looks Like

There's no predicting how an infant with a disorganized type of attachment will behave towards their caregiver. These infants showed no consistent responses at all in the Strange Situation Test. They might play near the caregiver or completely ignore them. When the caregiver returns, they might kick, ignore, or reach out to the caregiver at any given time.

Consequences Of A Disorganized Infant Attachment

Because of the unpredictability of the infant's behavior, they're hard to care for. As they grow up, they have a greater incidence of serious psychopathology. They tend to be maladjusted throughout life unless something happens to set a change in motion.

Anxious-Preoccupied Adult Attachment

An adult with an anxious-preoccupied attachment tends to think poorly of themselves. They doubt their competence. They think well of others, trusting easily and viewing them as dependable.

Source: rawpixel.com

What An Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Looks Like

An adult with a preoccupied attachment seeks help when they're distressed. In fact, they rely on others' help so much that they can sometimes become dependent on them or set aside their thoughts and feelings in preference for theirs.

Consequences Of An Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

Perhaps the greatest risk associated with anxious-preoccupied attachment as an adult is the tendency to let others take control of your decisions. This can cause you to be easily-scammed or used by others for their purposes. It can also cause you to develop an unhealthy dependence on them.

Dismissive-Avoidant Adult Attachment

A dismissive-avoidant adult attachment is characterized by a positive view of oneself and a negative view of others. Someone with this type of attachment dismisses the need for attachment and avoids getting close to anyone.

What A Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Looks Like

A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment may seem like the most independent of people with any of the other types of attachment. In fact, they're much more rigid in their self-sufficiency than people with a secure attachment.

They don't want any help from anyone, no matter how much stress they have in their lives. Their answer to everything is "I'd rather do it myself."

In their romantic attachments, they appear not to need their partner at all. This can be unsettling to their partner, who wants to believe in their importance to the person who has the dismissive-avoidant attachment.

Consequences Of A Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

When you have this type of attachment for someone, you don't develop a close relationship with them. Even if they're your life-long partner, you avoid letting them into the inner sanctum of your life. You stay completely separate, not sharing your feelings with them or asking them for help when you need it.

Source: rawpixel.com

Fearful-Avoidant Adult Attachment

Someone with a fearful-avoidant adult attachment has a negative view of both themselves and others. They don't think they or anyone else is generally competent or reliable. They don't seek help, and they don't offer it. They desire connection.

What a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Looks Like

If you have this type of attachment, you intensely desire a connection, but you don't feel secure in it when you're with someone. Instead of enjoying time with your partner, you worry that they're about to leave you - even when they show no real signs of doing so.

Consequences of a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

The consequences of a fearful-avoidant attachment are largely in the quality of the relationships you have. If you have a fearful attachment, you rarely feel confident that your partner cares about you. You rarely feel that the relationship will last. You fear to express your fears to your partner, so nothing is ever resolved.

Disorganized Adult Attachment

Disorganized attachment in adults has the same mix of unpredictable responses found in disorganized infant attachments.

What A Disorganized Adult Attachment Looks Like

When you have a disorganized attachment as an adult, you may not know quite how to feel about your partner. You might seek their help at one moment, ignore them the next, and fight them later.

Consequences Of A Disorganized Adult Attachment

Relationships tend to be very volatile when you have a disorganized attachment. You might want to stay in some relationships, but you may ultimately drive your partner away with your unpredictability. It's also hard to keep a job or advance your career when no one knows what to expect from you.

What Can I Do If I Have An Unhealthy Attachment?

If you suspect you have an unhealthy, insecure attachment, the first thing you need is to find out what attachment type you have. You can find out how it likely developed, but more importantly, you need to find out how it's affecting your life now.

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Once you get confirmation that you do have an unhealthy attachment to someone, you'll be faced with the decision of whether to continue the relationship or dissolve it. Either way, you'll need help developing a healthier attachment style.

You can talk to a licensed counselor about your attachment issues at ReGain.us when and where you like. All your communications are conducted through a secure online connection for privacy and convenience. You can learn how to overcome your attachment problems or deal with any mental health issues that keep you from enjoying a full and happy life, alone and with others you care about.


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