Humans are social creatures, so why is it so hard to connect with other people? Maybe you deeply desire to feel understood yet struggle to share your feelings. Or perhaps you know you’re loved but still feel abandoned when you’re away from your partner.
Attachment styles, or the set of behaviors and beliefs that influence how you function in relationships and respond to emotional connection in close relationships, can help explain what’s going on.
“Attachment behaviors are something we do to meet a need versus something we are,” says Monica Oxford, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing.
Your attachment style is a coping skill, not a personality trait — and understanding it can help you feel more connected and secure in your close relationships.
The three main attachment styles
There are three main attachment styles, or what some psychologists call attachment strategies. (There is also a less common attachment classification given to infants called disorganized attachment, which is associated with infants that have experienced emotional or physical abuse.)
Secure attachment can be thought of as a baseline. It’s characterized by someone who is comfortable with intimacy, can give and receive affection, identifies and states their own emotional needs, and recognizes relationships have periods of greater and less intensity.
Ambivalent attachment, also called anxious-ambivalent or preoccupied-ambivalent, is when someone is distressed by separation or scared of abandonment. A person who has this attachment spends time worrying about their relationship, may become preoccupied with their partners’ availability, may inaccurately interpret their partner’s behaviors as rejection, and needs closeness and intimacy to feel safe.
Avoidant attachment is driven by a desire to please or appease their partner and simultaneously maintain a safe emotional distance. These individuals may create distance to feel physically safe and safe from rejection. Someone who has an avoidant attachment might struggle with emotional intimacy, suppress their negative emotions, seek independence and avoid close connections.
This means even if you have a secure attachment, there’s a high likelihood that someone in your circle doesn’t. And all this behavior exists on a continuum, so you might be secure but have some anxious or avoidant tendencies, Oxford says.
Attachment styles form in infancy
Your attachment style is developed in infancy.
These initial years of life are an influential developmental period in which you learn about the social world and develop 80% of your brain volume, Oxford says. It’s also a time when you are extremely vulnerable and must rely on a caregiver for survival.
“For infants, survival is really about getting access to caregiver comfort when they’re distressed, protection when they’re in danger and attunement in social interactions,” Oxford says.
Ideally, this means that when a baby is hungry or frightened, they can cry, and their caregiver will respond. If a baby doesn’t get what they need, they might adapt by amplifying their wail. Alternatively, they might learn to subdue their cry if the noise threatens their safety or their connection with their caregiver.
“Infants learn over repeated daily interactions how best to get their needs for comfort, protection and attunement met. These patterns then become their world view on how to 'be' in a relationship,” Oxford says. “We discover these patterns, from our experiences in infancy, showing up in our current relationships.” (Think: picking an argument with your SO when you want attention or ignoring them because you’re scared to say how you feel.)
Whatever your attachment style is — and regardless of your opinions about it — it’s not something you chose as a child or an indicator of your value.
As an infant, you formed these strategies to stay safe and find connection. In adulthood, most of us are not consciously aware of our attachment needs and how they play out in relationships. But by learning about your attachment style, you can evaluate if these strategies are still working for you or if you want to try a new lens on intimacy and connection.
How to develop a secure attachment style
It will take some work to unlearn insecure attachment strategies you’ve used since childhood, but developing a secure attachment style is possible in an emotionally and physically safe relationship.
“Attachment style is not fixed. That’s the good news about adulthood,” Oxford says.
Notice when your attachment style is activated
To make change, you first need to know how you act (and react) in relationships. Does it stress you out when your partner travels for work? Do you shut down when they ask about your feelings?
Being curious about your behavior patterns in relationships is the first step to healing.
As adults, we can learn to identify the patterns and remind ourselves that those emotions and anxieties are a result of past experiences and wounds, not necessarily indicative of the closeness of current relationships. Working with a therapist can help you identify the ways in which you get your needs met.
Take the travel example. Maybe you’re supportive of your partner’s work travel but when they leave you find yourself sending angry texts about the laundry they didn’t do or the empty milk carton in the fridge. Deep beneath the anger might be fear of separation. The key is to recognize that the angry texts are helping you meet your attachment needs by getting your partner to respond to you (aka, it’s not about the milk in the fridge).
Reach for self-compassion, not shame
As you’re exploring your relationship patterns, do your best to be kind to yourself.
It’s easy to slip into shame if you find yourself spam-texting your partner as soon as they get to SeaTac or if you notice you’re picking up demanding work projects when your partner asks for more intimate date nights.
“Be curious about what comes up. Don’t be afraid of it and try not to shame yourself because of it,” Oxford says.
Address what you need
You’re having some feelings. You’re pretty sure they’re related to past relationships and not your current one. You’re tapping into self-compassion. Now what?
If you can, go one layer deeper and see what you might need to heal old wounds.
“When our responses to relational stress are brought up to a conscious level, we can look at them a little clearer and talk ourselves through them,” Oxford says.
Ask yourself what you needed in childhood to feel secure, and what you can do to give yourself that care now. Maybe this means reminding yourself you are loved and safe or that you can get yourself out of negative relationships if needed. Learning more about attachment theory or working with a therapist can help you in this process.
This work is powerful because it can help heal past relationship wounds and strengthen future ties. In essence, you are giving yourself the care that you were missing in childhood — and allowing yourself to deepen current connections while you’re at it.