What Types Of Attachment Are Healthy and Unhealthy?

Updated November 18, 2020

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?
Ask An Expert. Speak With A Licensed Therapist Now.

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Consequences of an Anxious/Avoidant Infant Attachment

An infant with an anxious/avoidant 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 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.

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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 a dismissive-avoidant 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 a dismissive-avoidant 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.

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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 a fearful-avoidant 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the signs of attachment disorder?

According to attachment theory, our attachment behaviors are created in early childhood and are formed based on how we related to our primary caregivers. When our relationships with primary caregivers and attachment figures are shaky, negative attachment patterns can develop as a result. These negative attachment patterns are called “reactive attachment patterns.”

People with reactive attachment disorder (rad) were unable to form a secure and healthy bond with their primary attachment figure in early childhood. Ongoing instances of childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma will cause a negative association or reactive attachment to develop. Reactive attachments are negative attachment patterns that encompass the full spectrum of attachment disorders. Attachment issues and reactive attachment disorder (rad) in adults may show up as a string of broken relationships, friendships, and a lack of more intimate relationships in their lives. Reactive Children with reactive attachment disorder (rad) who develop an insecure attachment style in early childhood will likely grow to have an insecure attachment style and reactive attachment disorder (rad) as adults. Key symptoms of an attachment disorder include the inability to create or maintain important intimate relationships.

What are the four attachment styles?

According to attachment theory, there are four primary attachment styles. The ideal attachment style is a secure attachment where children develop trusting and mutually fulfilling relationships with their attachment figures. Attachment figures are normally parents and other primary caregivers.

Attachment theory shows that people who are unable to develop secure relationships in early childhood are prone to developing a reactive attachment disorder (rad) as a result. The four attachment styles that result from a reactive attachment disorder (rad) are as follows.

  1. Secure Attachment - People with a secure attachment style are said to have a “healthy attachment style.” According to attachment theory, securely attached children will grow up to be securely attached, adults. Psychology researchers believe that having a secure and healthy attachment style has a positive effect on early childhood development and the establishment of healthy relationships later in life.

In contrast, those who developed an insecure attachment style in early childhood will likely carry these insecure attachment styles with them into adulthood. People who were unable to develop healthy attachment styles in early childhood are not doomed to failure. Therapy sessions with a licensed psychotherapist can help people suffering from reactive attachment disorders to learn healthy behaviors that lead to the development of healthy, lasting, and secure relationships.

  1. Anxious-Avoidant Attachment - People with an anxious-avoidant attachment may have trouble forming healthy relationships due to their tendency to vacillate between anxious and avoidant behaviors in relationships. The anxious component of this attachment disorder keeps the person suffering from it on edge and constantly worried about the state of the relationship. The avoidant component of anxious-avoidant attachment disorder causes people to be shy aware of creating intimate relationships.

In the case of anxious-avoidant attachment, the internal issues are so severe that intimate relationships suffer. Symptoms of attachment issues show in children with attachment disorders who are able to form a consistent bond with their primary caregivers. Children with attachment disorders that fall into the anxious ambivalent category are believed to have received intermittent care as infants and children.

This means that inconsistent care and meeting of necessary needs have shaped the child’s attachment experiences into anxious encounters with early attachment figures. These attachment issues will likely carry over into adulthood without proper intervention and treatment.

  1. Resistant/Ambivalent Attachment - Symptoms of resistant or ambivalent attachment are seen in relationships where one partner seems to be in an internal tug of war with their own emotions and an external war with their partners. People with ambivalent attachment styles regularly send mixed messages to their partners. These confused messages often lead to distrust, unresolved conflicts, and arguments. Like others with reactive attachment disorders, people with resistant attachment had varying periods of connectedness with their attachment figures in early childhood. Sometimes parents or other attachment figures would shower them with love and affection. Other times, attachment figures were cold and distant.

A child who is exposed to these confusing behaviors will likely develop the same attachment behaviors with their own spouses and children. These intermittent attachment experiences led to the development of ambivalent attachment in these individuals. People with a resistant or ambivalent attachment may often experience “love/hate” relationships where they feel completely in love with their partner one minute and completely detached the next.

Ambivalent attachment issues can lead to serious issues in intimate relationships, friendships, and marriages.

  1. Disorganized Attachment - People with disorganized attachment styles often appear to be in a state of perpetual confusion. The reason for this is that disorganized behavior was one of the primary behaviors they observed in their primary attachment figures in early childhood. Children with insecure attachments (like disorganized attachment) often grow up to lead scattered lives without a sense of direction as adults. Disorganized attachment behaviors can show u in relationships with families, children, intimate partners, and employers.

People with a disorganized attachment style often have trouble planning and organizing important aspects of their lives. As a result, important relationships and adult responsibilities will often suffer. Attachment theory tells us that our primary attachment behaviors developed in early childhood often lead to attachment issues as adults. Children with reactive attachment disorders and insecure attachment styles will need to relearn bonding and social behaviors in order to overcome attachment disorders and have successful adult relationships.

Talking to a licensed psychotherapy expert can help people with disorganized attachment styles to unlearn unhealthy behaviors and re-learn new healthier behaviors.

How do you fix attachment issues?

Attachment problems are the result of deep-seated emotional issues that children with attachment disorders often have as a result of abuse or neglect in early childhood.

Start healing from childhood trauma and old wounds by talking to a licensed therapist about the challenges you’ve been having in your life. Therapists have been clinically trained to diagnose, treat, and provide other mental health support services for people who suffer from attachment disorders. Sessions with licensed therapists can help you develop healthier attachment patterns by resolving unhealed emotional trauma and healing childhood wounds.

Adults and children with reactive attachment disorder need clinical intervention to learn new behaviors and communications strategies and overcome negative childhood attachment patterns. ReGain provides 24-hour online access to licensed therapists that have been clinically trained to treat reactive attachment disorder. The therapists at ReGain are board-certified and have thousands of hours of hands-on clinical therapy training. All of the online therapists at ReGain hold a minimum of a master’s degree in their chosen field. Learn more about the licensed therapists available online by visiting the FAQs page on the ReGain therapy platform.

What are the signs of attachment disorder in adults?

Insecure attachment styles in adults often show up as issues with maintaining intimate relationships, friendships, and even employment. Symptoms of reactive attachment disorder include avoidant, dismissive, or disorganized behavior in relationship to adult partners, attachment figures, and other authority figures.

People with anxiety disorders often concurrently suffer from a reactive attachment disorder. Having a reactive attachment disorder can prevent people from developing healthy and lasting relationships. Psychotherapy sessions with a licensed clinical therapist are the recommended treatment for mitigating the symptoms of reactive attachment disorders and adults and children with symptoms of attachment disorder.

What does insecure attachment look like in adults?

Do you or someone you know have trouble creating or keeping close or relationships? Having trouble forming strong emotional bonds is one of the primary indicators of insecure attachment in adults. Adults with insecure attachment disorder often have difficulty building healthy social connections and relationships due to their issues with anxious, avoidant, resistant, or ambivalent attachment. Symptoms of attachment disorders are present in adults and children with attachment disorders when attachment problems and related attachment behaviors regularly prevent them from having healthy relationships.

Negative symptoms of insecure attachment disorders can cause people to lose key relationships with friends, family, and employers. An insecurely attached person may actually appear to be sabotaging their own relationships in response to self-fulfilling prophecies that make them believe that these relationships were doomed to failure at the start. People with insecure attachment styles can learn to function as securely attached adults through counseling and psychotherapy.

What does insecure attachment look like?

People with attachment issues and serious attachment problems often have trouble trusting others and creating healthy relationships. It’s not uncommon to see people with attachment problems like insecure attachment cycling in and out of relationships. This rapid rebounding in relationships stems largely from not realizing that they have an attachment disorder. Insecure attachments are created in early childhood when children fail to form healthy and secure attachments to their primary caregivers.

Children with attachment disorders often have trouble with parents and authority figures and grow up to be adults who have ongoing relationship challenges. If you or someone you know is suffering from reactive attachment disorder as a result of an insecure attachment in early childhood, talk to a licensed therapy professional for diagnosis, treatment, and support. A licensed therapist or counselor, like those available on the ReGain online therapy platform, can help you make sense out of your attachment issues and teach you healthier behavior strategies and techniques.

Do I have attachment issues?

If you have attachment problems that keep you from maintaining healthy relationships, according to attachment theory, it is possible that you have a reactive attachment disorder. Talk to a licensed clinical therapist to learn more about insecure attachment issues and reactive attachment disorder (rad) A licensed clinical therapists can provide you with a series of psychological tests and assessments that determine if you have severe attachment issues, or an attachment disorder like reactive attachment disorder (rad).

Once you complete a psychological assessment and have a consultation with your therapist, the therapist will tell you if they suspect an attachment disorder and recommend a course of therapy to begin treating the disorder. It’s not uncommon for more than one mental health disorder to affect people who have been victims of childhood abuse, neglect, or other trauma. The first step to healing the present is to learn how to let go of the past in a way that isn’t damaging to your mental health.

How does insecure attachment affect adulthood?

Children with reactive attachment disorder will carry the negative behaviors that result from their attachment issues as a result of an insecure attachment disorder into adulthood. Adults with attachment disorders like reactive attachment disorder (rad) often experience issues creating and managing intimate relationships and friendships. Adults with insecure attachments disorders started out as children who likely developed a reactive attachment disorder in response to childhood abuse, neglect, or indifference. According to attachment theory, the attachment styles we develop in early childhood follow us through life.

This means if you developed a reactive attachment disorder (rad) as a child, that disorder would follow you through life (along with the negative consequences of insecure attachment disorders) unless you seek clinical help. The negative consequences of living with an insecure attachment disorder can leave someone suffering from the disorder feeling alone and afraid. Anxiety can set in when people are aware that their insecure attachment is the issue, but they aren’t sure how to solve the problem on their own. A licensed therapist can help people suffering from insecure attachment disorder learn how to heal from past trauma and create healthy and secure relationships.

 

 


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