An overview and introduction to attachment theory and the 4 styles by Nicola Foster, Relationship Therapist and Coach.
Do you count kisses on your texts?
Do you love close connection but then find it’s too much?
Do reach out repeatedly to your partner more after a disagreement? (and find yourself surprised that you’re doing it!)
If you’ve answered yes to one of these, then there is a good chance you’ve been affected by attachment theory. This blog offers an introduction to the key principles of this fascinating topic of attachment theory. Understanding more about it could help you avoid some of the most common arguments and difficulties.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is a powerful framework for understanding how we all differ in our approach to relationships. Attachment theory began with the work of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby in the 1950s. They studied how bonds formed between babies and their primary caregivers. What they saw was that young babies form closer bonds with caregivers who are good at responding to their needs.
As babies turn into adults, the attachment style they developed in infancy can influence how safe they feel in relationships. In essence, when we get close to someone and come to depend on them, in stressful situations our attachment style will influence how we deal with the stress. Ongoing research into childhood and adult attachment continues today
This article introduces the 4 main attachment styles and offers insights into how to gain a better understanding of yourself and your loved ones. These are classified into 4 main categories; secure, insecure anxious, insecure avoidant and disorganized.
Let’s look briefly at each of the four styles:
Statistically, it’s estimated that over 50% of the population are secure, and that for them being in an intimate relationship in adulthood is relatively easy. They trust other people easily and don’t become too anxious when they’re relating. Anecdotally, it appears that it’s hard to find securely attached folks hanging out on the dating apps, because they tend to stay in relationships for a long time.
Anxiously attached people tend to be overly preoccupied with their partners and whether they love them back. One clue to spotting anxious attachment is counting and interpreting the number of kisses on a text exchange. It’s about longing for closeness and when that closeness feels threatened it feels frightening or uncomfortable. Anxious attachment often leads to hypervigilance for any sign of potential abandonment, and this can lead to anxiety and frustration in relationships. For healing they need plenty of reassurance and consistency. Analysis of studies in North America and Europe found that roughly 20% of the population are anxious.
Insecure avoidant (or anxious avoidant)
Relating can feel challenging for people with insecure avoidant attachment style. It’s possible that during childhood development stages they were left alone or felt it necessary to create distance from caregivers. They will be very independent and prefer to stay safe by avoiding closeness. This style is often shortened to ‘avoidant’. I like to speak of it as anxiously avoidant. What I’ve learned in my relationship therapy practice is that many of my clients find being close in relationship difficult and need space and time alone. It can be a very challenging and painful place to be, because there’s a push-pull of wanting intimacy – and at the same time they find it suffocating. Anxious avoidant people can grow by practising connection in safe and healthy ways. Estimates show that 25% of the population are avoidant.
Disorganized (or fearful)
Disorganized attachment is characterised by fear. Often, it’s correlated with a lot of disruption in childhood and erratic things happening in childhood. This means that they can swing between both the avoidant and anxious styles in an unpredictable way. According to the research this group is a small percentage of the population. As a therapist and workshop leader I see a much higher proportion – which is unsurprising given that they come to me looking for support in their relationship struggles.What’s really helpful for anyone in this group, is to be able to re-establish a fundamental sense of safety and self-regulation.
How does attachment theory affect everyday relationships?
I first discovered attachment theory several years ago when I read ‘Attached’, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. It really helped me to see how some attachment patterns had badly affected my past relationships. I learned how to ask for support when my attachment system was activated and to give myself a lot of compassion for my relational needs too.
I’ve subsequently spoken with hundreds of couples in my work as a relationship therapist. Often, it’s differences in attachment styles that are at the centre of problems in relating.
And, what’s really exciting is that once a couple can see how they are stuck in an attachment pattern, it gets much easier to do something about it.
Accepting Yourself. Accepting Others.
Reading this, you may have started to give yourself a hard time for how you have been in past relationships. Please try to see yourself with the greatest compassion. We can only ever do our best with the information we have at the time. Our attachment style evolved to keep us safe. We need to give ourselves credit for our adaptability in finding ways to keep our connections safe.
With all the new resources, support and information available to us, we can choose to grow and challenge old stuck behaviours that are getting in our way. Trauma and Attachment expert Diane Poole Heller’s recent book ‘The Power of Attachment’ is packed with ideas on how to reduce relationship anxiety and find more safety. I also offer support to help with
Also, take a moment to pause and notice whether you have any judgments creeping in. Maybe you’re jealous of the secure ones? Annoyed by the anxious ones? Wanting to avoid the avoidant ones? It’s a perfectly human habit to make the other person wrong, so that we can be right. But, what’s really helpful is to see each time we relate with someone with a different style to ours, it’s a wonderful opportunity to help and support each other to grow and to heal. As clinical psychologist, attachment expert and author, Stan Tatkin says “we are hurt in relationship and we heal in relationship”.
What attachment style are you?
You may, by now, have recognised one style as being more pertinent to you. For a more accurate assessment, I recommend this test: https://www.yourpersonality.net/attachment/
I like this test because it gives an opportunity to see how you are in different relationships and save your results to see how your style changes. Attachment theory is a complex area and your attachment styles do change in different relationships and over time.
Release yourself from old relationship patterns
Learning about your style can help you to escape from patterns that aren’t working for you. I’ve seen how when people choose to look at their attachment patterns, they can create healthier relationships. I’ve seen single friends rediscover renewed optimism about choosing a future partner. I’ve seen couples put in place new, open and authentic communication strategies so that they can get more support from their partner.
I find it really empowering to see that with intention and practice we can work to become more secure and regulated in our relationships. The good news is that we can change. Recent research in neuroscience shows evidence of how the brain is more elastic than we thought, and how it can rewire and heal. (Recommended read: the Brain That Changes Itself)
I’m Nicola Foster. I’m a relationship therapist, based in the South West of the UK and my passion is to help people create happy, healthy relationships.