Which Types Of Attachment Are Healthy and Unhealthy?

Updated April 8, 2024by Regain Editorial Team
Is your attachment style healthy?

Nearly everyone feels an attachment to someone. You may have an attachment to one or more of your parents, for example. 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 various studies as well as his clinical experiences with patients. Bowlby's work was primarily with children and adolescents, but he acknowledged that attachments form throughout the lifespan.

Mary Ainsworth, an associate of Bowlby’s, developed the Strange Situation test to find out more about infant attachment. Later, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver used Bowlby's and Ainsworth's concepts to develop adult attachment theory.

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

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Resistant (also called ambivalent)
  • Disorganized

An infant with an unhealthy or insecure attachment may lack optimal development. Attachment issues in children can affect them as they become adults. Once they develop an unhealthy first attachment, they may carry that attachment style into adulthood and can even pass it on to their children.

Secure infant attachment

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.

Benefits of 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 creative
  • More persistent
  • Enhanced learning
  • Copes with difficulties more easily

Anxious/avoidant infant attachment

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

In the Strange Situation test, infants with anxious/avoidant attachment didn't explore much when their caregiver was present. When their caregiver left and returned, they showed no signs that they noticed their absence. Some even avoided their caregiver altogether when they returned.

Infants with an anxious/avoidant attachment style may learn not to seek help and comfort because their primary caregiver could have failed to provide that. They may not express their feelings of distress because they might have learned that the best way to stay close to their caregiver is to hide those feelings.

As they get older, they may develop a critical inner voice that tells them to avoid people, not get involved, and not invest in romantic relationships.

Secure adult attachment has significant benefits, too:

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

Unhealthy adult attachment styles

When you have an insecure adult attachment, your life may be challenging. You may suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges for instance. Your relationships may be volatile since your unhealthy attachment might keep you from connecting with your partner in a positive way. Moreover, an unhealthy attachment style can affect social and work relationships.

Anxious-preoccupied adult attachment

An adult with an anxious-preoccupied attachment tends to think poorly of themselves. They might doubt their competence, for instance. At the same time, they may think well of others, trusting easily and viewing most people as dependable.

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

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 own selfish 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 may dismiss the need for attachment and could avoid getting close to anyone.

A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment may seem like the most independent compared to people with other attachment types. They can be much more rigid in their self-sufficiency than people with a secure attachment. They may not want help from anyone, no matter how much stress they have in their lives. Their answer to most everything might be, "I'd rather do it myself".

In their romantic attachments, an individual with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may appear not to need their partner at all. This can be unsettling to their partner, who may want to feel important and needed. When it comes to loving someone with avoidant attachment, a close relationship may be unattainable. 

Fearful-avoidant adult attachment

Someone with a fearful-avoidant adult attachment has a negative view of both themselves and others. They may not think they or anyone else is generally competent or reliable. They may not seek help from others, and they might not offer it, either. 

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

The consequences of a fearful-avoidant attachment may be apparent in the quality of the relationships you have. If you have a fearful attachment, you might rarely feel confident that your partner cares about you. You may fear that the relationship won’t last. You may hesitate to express these fears to your partner, so things may never get resolved.

Disorganized adult attachment

Disorganized attachment in adults may feature the same mix of unpredictable responses found in disorganized infant attachments. When you have a disorganized attachment style 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 with them later.

Relationships can be volatile when you have a disorganized attachment style. You might want to stay in some relationships, but you may ultimately drive your partner away with your unpredictability. It can also be 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 may want to do is to find out what attachment type you have. You could also try to find out how it developed, but perhaps most importantly, you might need to find out how it's affecting your life now.

Is your attachment style healthy?

Once you get confirmation that you do have an unhealthy attachment to someone, you could be faced with the decision of whether to continue the relationship or dissolve it. Either way, you may need help developing a healthier attachment style. A therapist or relationship counselor can provide you with support and resources as you begin this personal growth journey. 

Benefits of online counseling

Personal issues like relationships and attachment can be difficult to talk about with a stranger, especially in a clinical setting like a therapist’s office. Many people report feeling more at ease in an online therapeutic environment like the kind provided by Regain counselors. Online counseling may not only help you be more vulnerable in sessions, it could also prove more convenient since you can access it from home or anywhere you have an Internet connection. 

Research in the field of mental health has also linked online counseling to positive outcomes for individuals, couples, and families. A recent study demonstrated the effectiveness of therapy when delivered via videoconferencing technology. 

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Compassionate online counseling for attachment issues is available anytime and anywhere you like through Regain. With support from a professional counselor, 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. Start your healing journey today. 

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