Sex & Relationships - Attachment Styles: What Are They, Really?

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It seems the phrase ‘attachment style’ is thrown around on social media indiscriminately nowadays. It’s the internet’s new favourite buzzword, but what actually are attachment styles and what role do they play in your relationships?

It seems the phrase ‘attachment style’ is thrown around on social media indiscriminately nowadays. It’s the internet’s new favourite buzzword, but what actually are attachment styles and what role do they play in your relationships?

Despite its rather recent TikTok-borne fame, attachment style theory has been around for about fifty years in an attempt to understand how people relate to others in their lives and the behaviours that characterise their relationships. Often, these behaviours are reflexive and stem from unconscious thought processes. There are four different attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised. Anxious, avoidant, and disorganised all can be lumped together as the ‘insecure’ attachment styles. 

Secure attachment is defined by both low anxiety and avoidance. Unsurprisingly, it’s the style best suited for healthy relationships. Those with a secure attachment typically are comfortable expressing their own emotions. They’re content on their own, not needing relationships for validation. They can rely on their friends, family, and romantic partners for support, and are open to being a shoulder in return. 

On the other side of things are the anxious, avoidant, and disorganised styles. All three pose unique difficulties in relationships. For instance, anxious attachment is characterised by fears of abandonment and low self-worth. This can result in a high demand for affection and reassurance in a relationship. Without this reassurance, someone with an anxious attachment may feel they’re unloved. In an anxious attachment there’s low self worth and a high view of the other half of the relationship: people may feel like their partner or friends are too good for them and bound to leave, and may act clingy as a result. The avoidant attachment style is almost the inverse of the anxious style, as it is characterised by high self esteem and a lower view of others. Those with this attachment style prefer independence, particularly emotionally. They will often neglect dealing with their own emotions and cut off relationships that are too intimate. Disorganised attachment shares features of both the anxious and avoidant styles, fluctuating between the two. They often crave emotional or physical intimacy but find it difficult to depend on another person. They may have the tendency to avoid close attachments because of their anxiety. Thus, there’s an element of self sabotage often associated with a disorganised style: people with this attachment style crave intimacy, yet are triggered by too much intimacy, thus retreating. 

No one is likely to fit the criteria for any one attachment style perfectly. These labels are better used to decipher your own behaviours and know how to cope. There’s also the misconception that attachment styles only apply to romantic relationships. On the contrary, these styles frame all of your relationships - romantic, familial, and platonic. Indeed, psychologists believe your earliest relationship with your primary caregivers shape your attachment style: different styles and emotional availability of parenting are thought to determine how a child will form attachments when they grow up. Present and supportive caregivers breed secure attachments, whilst distant or unstable caregivers breed insecure attachments. They may be formed during youth, but the good news is these attachment styles aren’t immutable. Those with an insecure attachment can change their behaviours and, with time, foster healthier relationships and shift to a more secure attachment. However, developing a healthier style isn’t always easy. Learning about your attachment style, however, is a fantastic first step to developing healthier behaviour. After all, you can’t do much fixing if you aren’t even sure what to work on. Once this step is complete, the key is self reflection and communication.

Personally, understanding my attachment style has made it easier to identify when my anxiety is spiralling out of control. I can recognise my fears as nothing more than pesky anxiety and keep them from impacting my behaviour. This has seriously benefited my relationships with others - especially with my boyfriend, as we’re able to communicate more effectively knowing I have an anxious attachment style. My insecurities made romantic relationships difficult: I was constantly preoccupied with where I stood with my partner. Any slight change in tone left me paranoid. Now that I’ve come to grasp how my brain works, I can let my partner know how to best support me. Knowing that I have someone who’s aware of my worries makes me much more secure in our relationship. I no longer sit around and listen to my anxiety nitpicking every nuance of our relationship. I know if there were to be a problem, we’d talk about and work through it. This security has done wonders for my anxiety. 

At the end of the day, understanding your own emotions is crucial to your relationships. That’s the whole point of attachment style theory. If this idea intrigues you, finding your own style is simple. Google will yield a whole host of results if you search for an attachment style quiz. I would recommend the Attachment Project. It’s a quick quiz and their report is straightforward, making it easy to understand what your result means. Should you fancy additional readings, then the Attachment Project is doubly great. The site has a variety of articles that expound on attachment style theory which delve into how different styles form, and how to cope with your own behaviour in a relationship. On the wider web, there’s plenty of videos to watch and studies to be read. There’s a lot to be found in attachment style theory. It contains a host of insights into how we interact with the people around us and has been a worthy tool in dealing with my mental health. I’m someone who’s extremely dubious of mental health fads that occasionally take the internet by storm. I find the internet’s love of mental health buzzwords turn nuanced topics into a vague, five word bullet point. Maybe, though, the internet picked a helpful fad just this once. 

Some food for thought ...