Attachment theory and its influence on your relationship

To have a loving, attentive, stable and happy relationship: It's probably something most people want. But why do some keep getting stuck in unsatisfying relationships, even though they long for a trusting relationship and a deep connection with their partner? This blog post sheds some light on attachment theory. I'll explain what attachment styles are, how attachment styles affect your relationship, and how you can create a secure bond with your partner.

Attachment: What is it anyway?

According to the founder of attachment theory, psychologist John Bowlby, this theory describes the tendency of humans to form strong emotional bonds with certain other people. According to Bowlby, people of all ages are happiest and can thrive best when they trust that there is a trusted person or persons behind them who will come to their help when difficulties arise.

Before I go into how each attachment style can affect your relationship, below I first explain the different types and individual differences of adult attachment styles for better understanding. If you do some self-reflection in the process, you may recognize a tendency and know which type you feel most like you belong to.

What is secure attachment?

Attachment theory sees the central elements of secure attachments between partners as dealing with emotional closeness and intimacy, and fear of separation.

Securely attached

This attachment type has a low fear of separation and does not avoid emotional closeness. People with this attachment style feel valued, generally perceive attachment figures as reliable, caring, and responsive. They have low anxiety and avoidance scores. Further, they are able to rely on others and develop close relationships (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007).

Here's how you would describe yourself as a securely attached person:

"I find it easy to get emotionally close to others. I trust them and feel comfortable depending on them and them depending on me. I also don't worry about being alone or about others not accepting me." (Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. ,2010)

Attachment anxiety & avoidance

But what about the individuals who cannot relate to this attachment style? Opposite the securely attached individuals are insecurely attached individuals.

According to Bowlby, attachment experiences can be organized into an "image of self" and an "image of other," which can be associated with high and low levels of expression in terms of anxiety and/ or avoidance.

attachment style relationship
  • Attachment anxiety refers to the extent to which individuals worry about not being loved, rejected, or abandoned by their significant others.
  •  Attachment avoidance refers to the extent to which people avoid intimacy and interdependence with others (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991)

Thus, three other types, namely those of insecure attachment, can be derived.

What characterizes the 3 types of insecure attachment?

1. Insecure-anxious attachment style

People with this attachment style have a high fear of separation and a strong need for closeness, but no trust in the reliability of others. They depend on the approval of others for their personal well-being, but have a high fear of rejection or abandonment by others.

Here's how you would describe yourself as an anxiously attached person:

"I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others resist getting as close to me as I would like. I feel uncomfortable not having close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don't value me as much as I value them." (Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R., 2010).

2. Insecure-avoidant attachment style (also dismissing-avoidant).

This attachment type has little fear of separation, and avoids emotional closeness. Individuals value independence and view close relationships as unimportant. They perceive attachment figures as unreliable (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007).

Here's how you would describe yourself as an avoidant attachment type:
"I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-reliant, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me." (Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. ,2010)

3. Disorganized attachment style (also fearful-avoidant).

This attachment type has high fear of separation and avoids closeness. Disorganized individuals are highly suspicious of others and expect to be rejected by others. As a result, these individuals avoid close relationships and are uncomfortable with intimacy.

This is how you would describe yourself as a disorganized/ fearful-avoidant person:

"I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I desire emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to completely trust or rely on others. I worry about getting hurt if I get too involved with others." (Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. ,2010)

Attachment and relationship: How do attachment styles affect couple relationships?

An interesting study examined the effects of attachment styles on relationships in 144 dating couples in a longitudinal study. They found the following intriguing results:

  • The secure attachment style was associated with greater interdependence, trust, satisfaction, and bonding in the relationship than the anxious or avoidant attachment style.
  •  Attachment styles are associated with different patterns of emotional experience in relationships: Both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles were found to have less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions. The opposite was true for the secure attachment style.
  • People with an insecure attachment style (especially highly avoidant people) tend to have relationships with the other pole, e.g., the anxious attachment type.
  • Avoidant men tend to experience less emotional distress after a relationship ends than other individuals (Simpson, J. A., 1990).

Attachment styles in relationships: Anxious and avoidant attachment style

When one partner is anxiously attached and the other is avoidantly attached, this can lead to many conflicts in the relationship. This is because when the attachment system is activated due to conflict or stress, the anxiously attached partner reacts by approaching: i.e., contacting the partner, etc. In contrast, the avoidant partner reacts with distance, trying to calm the attachment system. Then, the two partners reinforce each other. The more one clings, the more the other distances. As a result, the more the other distances, the more the other clings.

This is how the relationship is in the anxious-avoidant combination:

  • Polarized positions: The anxious partner quickly feels less worthy and "needy," and the avoidant partner feels independent, powerful. Finally, the avoidant one often determines the degree of closeness and distance.
  • Dissatisfaction/uncertainty: In the relationship you do not achieve the desired level of closeness and security.
    Many arguments about trivialities: Different needs for closeness and distance often show up in side issues and minor arguments.
  • The relationship is experienced as a constant struggle.
  • Roller coaster ride from closeness to distance: There is a constant up and down of feelings, because the avoiding partner sometimes gets emotionally closer, while the anxious partner feels comfortable. Then, however, it becomes too much closeness for the avoiding partner and they distance themselves, leading to dissatisfaction for the anxiously attached partner.

How to deal with the anxious-avoidant relationship:

1. Acceptance: When both can´t agree on working on the relationship

First, you can accept that while you can work on yourself and the relationship, you cannot force your partner to change. If your partner is avoidant, then if they don't work on it, they will stay that way. You can decide to end the relationship, of course. Or you can change your expectations and save yourself frustration and disappointment. For this you can accept that in some areas there will never be a complete agreement with your partner. You can then, for example, do things alone or with friends that you would otherwise expect from your partner. Also, this way you stop trying to persuade your partner to change. In addition, you can be consciously grateful for the positive things in the relationship.

2. Work towards secure attachment: I am insecurely attached - now what?

If you've found yourself or your partner in one of the insecure attachment types described above and now worry that you'll be trapped in that attachment style forever, I can reassure you. Some studies are finding encouraging results. Attachment patterns can change throughout life (Caron, Lafon-taine, Bureau, Levesque & Johnson, 2012). Attachment orientations can also develop differently with different partners due to, for example, situational events, changes in life stress or relationship status (e.g., marriage, parenthood), or personality variables (Simpson, Rholes, Campbell, & Wilson, 2003).

So, as you can see, there is no reason to despair. Attachment styles are changeable. But you may be wondering how you can actively work on them.

How can you develop a secure attachment style?

There are some studies that have produced exciting results showing how we can foster secure attachment in our relationship despite insecure attachment styles:

  • Frequent positive relationship experiences, such as appreciation, emotional support, or security provided by the partner, can lead to a decrease in avoidance tendencies in couples (Collins et al. 2010).
  • In particular, self-induced changes that promote a positive view of the self and a sense of autonomy reduce attachment anxiety. This can occur, for example, through situations in which the avoidant person can
    • support their partner in difficult situations or illness (Rholes et al. ,2021),
    • accommodate the partner in important decisions e.g., moving to another city, advocating for him/her, and supporting in personal projects (Farrell et al., 2016),
    • Reflecting on a shared happy memory that affirms the relationship (Collins et al. 2010).
  • In addition, it has been found that the partner of the person who is appreciative and accommodating reciprocates. This also promotes secure attachment.
  • Also, if partners have securely attached role models, this can help them behave that way more and more. You can scan your environment for securely attached people, or think of your own relationship experiences with securely attached ones. Write down what you would like to do more of to move toward the secure attachment style. What behaviors would you like to change?

4 Tips to develop secure attachment according to Amir Levine, Attached:

In the book Attached, psychologist Amir Levine gives tips on how you can change an insecure attachment type to a secure one. To do this, he gives the following advice:

1. Effective communication.

For insecure-anxiously attached, effective communication is especially important when you notice that you are acting toward clinging behavior, or other behavior out of your fear of being abandoned. For insecure-avoidant attachment, effective communication is useful when you notice that you are withdrawing. Then openly communicate your need for more (emotional or physical) space for yourself.

The principles of effective communication are: Being honest and open about your feelings and needs, being specific about the situation that hurt you, and not blaming the other person. Also, it is important to acknowledge that your needs are always okay because they are important to your well-being. In addition, it is also very important to show general interest and importance for the other person's well-being. Want to learn more about open, honest communication? Then read this article about it.

2. The other person's needs are as important as your own

In a relationship, both partners depend on how the other is doing. This is because one person's happiness affects the other's emotions, satisfaction, and even physical health. Therefore, it's important that you prioritize your partner's needs, feelings, and thoughts, as well as your own.

attachment style relationship

3. Assume the best in conflict situations

Hoping for the best in conflict situations helps you avoid falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if you expect your partner to reject you or hurt you, you are more likely to react dismissively and start a negative cycle. This may look like this, for example: Trust that your partner is empathetic and wants to hear your needs.

4. Clarity before interpretation

It's important that you don't expect your partner to know your intentions and thoughts without you communicating them. Also, don't assume you know what your partner is trying to say either. Rather, ask more often to understand what the other person is saying in each case!

Conclusion about attachment styles and relationships 

In the article, you learned what the four types of attachment are. You also learned that attachment styles can change. In addition, you have learned more about the common combination of anxious and avoidant attachment in couples. Finally, you learned that there are several things you can do to build secure attachment. 

Want to understand the impact of your attachment style on your relationship?

This post was written in collaboration with Fatima Herden.


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