How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationships

Our particular attachment patterns are established early in life — as far back as our early childhoods. This is explained by attachment theory in psychology. Learning more about what your attachment style is and how it influences your capacity for emotional intimacy can be helpful if you are looking to strengthen and improve your close relationships. 

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 13, 2024

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Each of us has a different attachment style in relationships. Some of us are more likely to trust others, while others tend to be more anxious. Some of us are more hesitant to get too attached; others may be perceived as “clingy.” Our particular attachment patterns are established early in life — as far back as our early childhoods. This is explained by attachment theory in psychology, which says that our relationships with our primary caretakers at a young age influence our adult relationships and attachment styles.

Learning more about what your attachment style is and how it influences your capacity for emotional intimacy can be helpful if you are looking to strengthen and improve your close relationships. 

Understanding Attachment Styles

The basic tenets of attachment theory is that the way we bonded with our earliest caregivers establishes our attachment style, and that we carry these patterns with us through future relationships.

Essentially, all humans crave a secure base which offers them consistent emotional support when they are young. When small children cry, they need their cries responded to promptly and lovingly to feel safe and emotionally stable. Additionally, they need to know that when they go off by themselves to explore, they will be able to come back to a caregiver who is warm and present. 

British psychoanalyst John Bowlby came up with the basic idea of attachment theory and it was further developed by Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist, who described three different types of attachment: secure attachment style, anxious attachment style, and avoidant attachment style. Two additional researchers, Mary Main and Judith Solomon, later added disorganized attachment style to the list.

Let’s take a look at each of the four attachment styles and how they influence our emotional wellness, mental health — and most importantly, our intimate relationships.

Secure Attachment Style

If children are cared for, responded to, and feel confident in their caregiver’s love and support, they are more likely to develop a secure attachment style. Some characteristics of securely attached people include being generally high functioning, being less prone to depression, and exhibiting high levels of self-esteem. 

Positive Effects on Relationships and Intimacy

People with secure attachment styles are more likely to have successful romantic relationships and friendships. They are more likely to have qualities that appeal to others, like warmth in relationships, commitment, and emotional honesty. People with secure attachment also more commonly experience long-term relationships that they view as satisfying.

Communication and Emotional Support in Secure Attachment

Securely attached individuals are more likely to express emotional needs and vulnerabilities in their relationships. They are confident to do so because they trust that their feelings are heard and responded to. Research has found that people with secure attachment styles are more likely to seek help when they are experiencing challenges and are more easily able to recover from relationship conflict.

Anxious Attachment Style 

Anxious attachment style is one of three insecure attachment styles. People with an anxious attachment style find it hard to trust in relationships, may have low self-esteem, and tend to be overbearing and prone to rumination and worry.

Effects on Relationships and Intimacy

Anxiously attached people often experience low satisfaction in relationships, and may experience emotionally erratic types of intimacy. On a basic level, individuals with anxious attachment don’t trust the people they are in close relationships with, and exhibit a high level of stress and insecurity about the relationship.

Need for Reassurance and Validation in Anxious Attachment

People with anxious attachment styles may feel keenly invested in the relationship, to the point where they may come across as needy or lacking appropriate boundaries. They may appear overzealous and clingy. This is because they are constantly craving reassurance from the person they’re involved with. This sometimes drives the person that they are in a relationship with away, which only furthers the feelings of anxiety and distress.

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Avoidant Attachment Style

People with an avoidant attachment style learned to emotionally shut down when their needs weren’t responded to, and they tend to repeat these patterns in adult relationships. This attachment style is characterized by emotional indifference and a high level of self-reliance.

Effects on Relationships and Intimacy

If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may have a decent level of self-confidence and a positive view of yourself, but you may find the idea of entering a romantic relationship unappealing and you may find yourself often having negative views of intimate relationships.

Fear of Intimacy and Emotional Distance in Avoidant Attachment

This style of attachment is defined by a high level of self-reliance and a need for autonomy. People with this style find intimacy off-putting, because it interferes with their need for independence. They don’t want to open themselves up emotionally, because they’ve learned that doing so often has negative consequences. It can be hard to have honest communication with someone who has an avoidant attachment style. 

Disorganized Attachment Style

Disorganized attachment style is a type of insecure attachment style where children don’t show consistent reactions to separation from their parents or lack of responsiveness from their caregivers. Often, people with this style show a mixture of avoidant and anxious styles, but it’s not possible to predict which style will be exhibited and when.

Challenges in Relationships and Intimacy

People with disorganized attachment are more likely to have personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder) or simply very intense, volatile personalities. This can make it challenging to be in a relationship. Individuals with this attachment style tend to be controlling in relationships, and will put down or punish people who aren’t adhering to their requirements. 

Unpredictability and Emotional Instability in Disorganized Attachment

When you are in a relationship with someone who has a disorganized attachment style, you may feel like you are constantly on guard, and it may feel impossible to predict the mood of your partner on any given day. People with this style are prone to anger. All of this can make it extremely difficult to be in an emotionally stable, long-term relationship.

Impact of Attachment Styles on Communication

Your attachment style can impact all aspects of your relationship, particularly how you share your feelings with your significant others. “Attachment styles absolutely impact and inform communication styles as it relates to expression of emotion and asserting to get needs met,” explains Alan Deibel, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Grow Therapy.

Communication Patterns and Conflict Resolution in Different Attachment Styles

Relationships aren’t going to be without conflict, but it’s how we manage these conflicts that predicts the wellbeing and longevity of a relationship. According to Deibel, if you have one of the more insecure attachment styles, you are less likely to be able to manage conflict in a healthy way.

For instance, someone who has a more anxious attachment style will often react to conflict with intense fear and the feeling that if the conflict isn’t resolved immediately, the relationship will be over. “This often results in compensatory behaviors such as seeking reassurance and appearing needy or clingy when there is a conflict in the relationship,” Deibel says. “This is typically driven by a deeply held fear of abandonment.”

Unfortunately, these behaviors often result in the relationship ending. “If a partner has an anxious attachment style and their significant other is away on business, they may become worried and increasingly anxious if they aren’t able to get in touch with their partner,” says Deibel. “They may create a narrative in their mind of why their partner is not answering the phone (they don’t love me enough, they don’t think I am important, they are cheating on me with someone else) and as a result, that worried thought may become an accusation which enters a whole new layer of conflict.” 

Avoidant attachers react to conflict in a different, but equally unhealthy way. “They are so averse to conflict that they avoid it at all costs, even if they are upset or their boundaries have been crossed,” Diebel explains. “They may tell themself, it’s easier to not say anything than to say something and have to deal with the backlash.” 

Attachment Styles and Relationship Dynamics

Your attachment style isn’t the only determining factor in your relationship quality, says Deborah Harland, MSW, LCSW, a therapist with Grow Therapy. “Other factors, such as shared values, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and personal growth, also contribute to overall compatibility and relationship success,” she says. However, Harland says that there are some generalities that can be observed in terms of compatibility among the different styles.

Attraction and Compatibility Among Attachment Styles

 According to Harland, secure attachment styles are usually more compatible with other secured attachment styles. “They can form strong, mutually supportive connections based on trust, effective communication, and emotional responsiveness,” she says.

People with an anxious attachment style might be drawn to someone with a more secure attachment style, because of the emotional stability and support they are looking for. If you have an anxious attachment style, it can be challenging to be in a relationship with someone with an avoidant style. “Relationships between anxious-preoccupied individuals and avoidant individuals may face challenges due to the conflicting needs for closeness and independence,” Harland notes. 

In general, those who have an avoidant style may find it challenging to find compatibility with anyone, since autonomy is valued above all else. “However, the potential for compatibility exists with partners who are patient, understanding, and willing to navigate the complexities of the fearful-avoidant attachment style,” Harland says.

Healing and Transforming Attachment Styles

Many people wonder if it’s possible to change their attachment style and develop more secure attachments in relationships. This is something that’s quite possible, according to Harland. “Individuals with different attachment styles can work on developing more secure attachment patterns through self-awareness, therapy, and open communication,” she explains.

Deibel agrees. “Secure attachments can be developed by practicing and operating in healthy and secure relationships,” he says. But this isn’t without challenges. “This can be incredibly difficult if someone has never been taught what a healthy relationship looks like or has had the opportunity to experience one for themselves,” Deibel adds.

Seeking Professional Support and Therapy

If you are beginning the journey of transforming your attachment style, you shouldn’t expect to do so without support. “Speaking with a professional or enrolling in a support group can be incredibly helpful for increasing insights and making intentional actions to improve relationships,” Deibel says. When dealing with attachment issues, trauma therapy or attachment based psychotherapy may be good therapy types to consider. 

Harland recommends seeking professional help for both people in a relationship, especially when communication has broken down or if the relationship is becoming volatile. “Outside professional support should be sought when one or both of the individuals in the relationship are engaging in ways that harm or control the other person,” she recommends. In these cases, couples counseling may be the best step. 

Enhancing Self-Awareness and Personal Growth

Karina Hester, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy, says that it’s possible to develop more secure attachments by making positive choices, like involving yourself with people or situations that are healthy and encourage growth and flexibility.

She shared some tips for developing more secure relationships:

As you begin to work on healing your own attachment issues, it’s possible that your relationships with others will deepen and become more secure. But it’s also possible that as you become more secure, your relationship with others will change, and you’ll realize that it’s time to move on.

Whatever happens, the important thing is that you continue to get the support you need as you grow and heal, and that you feel empowered to make choices—in your life and your relationships—that enable you to become the best version of yourself that you can be.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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