Do you constantly worry about whether someone actually wants to be your friend, and wonder if they are just being nice?
Have you ever found yourself wondering why you always seem to fall for emotionally unavailable romantic partners?
Are you curious about why you find it hard to be vulnerable with others? Do you tend to keep people at arm’s length?
Understanding your attachment style could help you answer these questions about yourself and your relationships. Attachment theory was developed by researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and looks at how your relationship with your primary caregiver as a child influences the way you experience future relationships.
Even as babies, we learned how to relate to other people based on the way that they responded to us. For example, when a baby is hungry and cries, their primary caregiver either recognizes their need and feeds them, or doesn’t recognize the clues and doesn’t feed them. Or, a baby may spill their bottle and their primary caregiver may gently tell them that they need to be careful in the future and wipe it up, or their caregiver may yell at them and tell them they’re clumsy and stupid. In both of these simple examples, you can see how a baby may learn that they can depend on their caregiver to meet their needs even when they make mistakes or they aren’t able to. This then forms a blueprint for how children view relationships, which then continues into adulthood.
Now, before you start to revisit your childhood to question everything, it’s important to emphasize that the majority of parents are doing the best they can and make mistakes. No one is perfect, and that includes parents. This theory looks at patterns, not one-time events or mishaps, and it’s just one of many ways to grow in self-knowledge.
The type of attachment a child forms with their caregiver typically falls into one of four categories: secure, anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. One of the clearest ways I’ve seen these styles explained is in a chart from the book Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do and it describes each attachment style by how an individual with that particular style views themselves and others.
For example, someone with a secure attachment has a positive relationship with themselves and with other people (e.g. “I like and trust myself as well as others.”). Someone with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style feels negatively toward themselves but positively toward others (e.g. “I don’t like or trust myself but I trust others.”). A person with an avoidant attachment style has a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others (e.g. “I like and trust myself but I don’t trust others.”). And someone with a disorganized attachment style has a negative view of themselves and others (e.g. “I don’t like or trust myself or other people.”). (It’s important to note that these are very simplistic depictions of the attachment styles — your own experience might differ from these descriptions.)
Knowing your attachment style can give you clarity about feedback people have given you in the past (e.g. “You always seem so distant and are hard to get to know”), or patterns that you’ve noticed in your relationships (e.g. “I’m always worried that my friends or romantic partner will grow tired of me and leave me”). If you’ve formed a secure attachment as a child, you likely find it easy to form healthy and secure friendships and romantic relationships, and have a good radar for who would make a good friend or partner and who might not. It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone with this attachment style has perfect relationships. We all make mistakes!
If you formed an anxious/ambivalent attachment as a child, you likely find it easy to make friends and start a new relationship. You might find yourself never quite feeling secure in those relationships, however — you might not feel very confident in yourself, and look to others for reassurance that you are “okay”. If this is your attachment style, you might find it helpful to focus on trusting yourself more and becoming more confident in yourself. Not only will you like yourself more, but it will have a positive spillover effect into your relationships. Over time, you might find that you feel less anxious about your relationships and more secure in them.
If you’ve formed an avoidant attachment as a child, you likely find it easier to be by yourself rather than to invest in long-term relationships or start new ones. You may also find it difficult to be vulnerable because you fear that you can’t trust others with your innermost thoughts and emotions. When people try to get close to you, you might feel that they are being too needy or clingy. If this is your attachment style, you might find it helpful to focus on finding trustworthy people in your life to start sharing with. Over time, you might find that it’s actually really wonderful to have relationships based on authenticity and mutual vulnerability.
The disorganized attachment style is less common in the general population, and is often developed when someone goes through abuse or trauma in their childhood. A person with this attachment style often doesn’t like being alone or with others. They often find forming and maintaining relationships to be difficult. If this is your attachment style, you might find it helpful to work with a licensed therapist to help your process and heal from the trauma you experienced in your childhood. There is hope for healing!