How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationships
Our relationships define our lives. The quality of the connection between you and your romantic partner determines whether you feel alone or supported, whether you feel sexually gratified, and even how you plan for the future. The bonds you share with friends shape your confidence and sense of belonging. Your interpersonal dynamics also show up at work, making or breaking your professional goals and earning potential. Relationships matter. Of all your relationships, there is one that mental health researchers and clinicians have discovered has the most long-lasting impact: your relationship with your parents.
What is an attachment style?
An attachment style is a pattern for relating to others based on our interactions with our parents. The concept of attachment dates back to the work of John Bowlby in the 1950s and later Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. Since then, many research studies have continued where Bowlby and Ainsworth left off and discovered that these social coping styles repeat in all sorts of relationships for the rest of our lives.
How does an attachment style form?
As we mentioned, our relationships with our parents or primary caregiver(s) are the main determinant in our later attachment styles. But how exactly does this come to be?
From infancy, young children have a need to attach to a source of safety and security. Even among mammals, humans are particularly defenseless when we are born. We depend on caregivers, usually our parents, to feed us, shelter us, protect and teach us for several years.
But because our minds have become advanced enough to develop and conceptualize complex emotions, we are also emotional from a very early age. The early drive to attach is both profoundly emotional and physical.
Our earliest caregivers model and even ignite our extraordinary abilities to communicate and think. They are also at the root of how we relate to others. Suppose they are consistently available to meet our needs and comfort us when we’re distressed. In that case, we become confident in our relationships. Suppose mom or dad are cold, withholding, neglectful, or even abusive. In that case, our template for connecting to others can be misshaped from the start.
Is there more than one attachment style?
Decades of studies into our early attachments and how they play out later in life have helped researchers divide attachment styles into four main categories:
– Secure attachment style: These individuals enjoy connections to others but do not need them to feel fulfilled. They can participate in robust intimacy and enjoy it without depending on it.
– Anxious (or preoccupied/ambivalent) attachment: This group is characterized by a persistent need for intimacy, approval, or belonging. Within their relationships, they are fearful or anxious about the other individual detaching or abandoning them.
– Avoidant (or dismissive) attachment: Almost the opposite of the group above. These individuals avoid becoming too close to others, value their independence, and feel like lone wolves. In relationships, they may be guarded, distant, or feel burdened by others.
– Disorganized (or fearful-avoidant) attachment: These people are like a 2-in-1. They represent a combination of the previous two attachment styles (anxious and avoidant). They often exhibit unstable or even contradictory approaches to relationships. They want to attach but have a hard time trusting others. They may fluctuate between being loving and clingy to being hostile and indifferent.