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Attachment Styles

Updated: Jan 16

The attachment we feel towards our primary caregivers has a profound effect not only on our own emotional development, but also impacts the health of our future relationships. An attachment in childhood is a need to attain or maintain proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world. We see them as an answer to our need for love, to belong, as an anchor and as safety and security in a large and frightening world. Additionally, we all want appreciation, attention, and support. We want to be loved and valued.

Attachment theory gives us an insight into the process whereby we develop a particular attachment style.

Attachment styles can be seen in 3 important areas:

1. How we select our partners.

2. How we relate to them.

3. The behaviours we display during the course of our relationship.

Psychologists assess attachment using two dimensions: Avoidance and Anxiety. The main attachment styles are:

1. Secure

2. Anxious-Ambivalent

3. Dismissive-Avoidant

4. Fearful-Avoidant

Secure Attachment

People with a secure attachment style have empathy but can set boundaries. They are satisfied in their close relationships and feel safe and stable.

As a child, their parents were probably good at responding to their needs and managing their own stress in healthy ways.

People who have secure relationships:

1. Have a good sense of self-worth

2. Openly express feelings

3. Easily ask for and give support

4. Like being with others but don’t get anxious if they are not

Anxious attachment

What anxious attachment looks like: “Please don’t leave me”.

These people try and always stay in close proximity to their partners and fear abandonment. They constantly feel insecure when away from their partners and often worry about whether they are good enough for them.

What type of parenting causes children to become anxious?

For the anxious child, the parents probably were inconsistent. They might have responded sometimes. Other times, they might have been distracted or just not there. These children might have felt anxious and unsure and felt like their parents were all over the place.

Anxious or disorganized attachments are more likely to happen from:

1. Trauma

2. Neglect

3. Early separation from parents

4. Long hospitalization

5. Inconsistency in parenting and emotional response

6. A caregiver with depression

7. An inexperienced parent


When the child stays too far away from parent; the resulting distress then impels them to continuously attempt to re-establish proximity. If they are high on the anxiety scale, they will be hyper-focused on attachment and 'intensely desire closeness and intimacy in their relationships'.

They will have little trust in their partners and take on stress over possible abandonment. They will therefore spend a great deal of time focusing on what is or what can go wrong. As they move through childhood, they may develop a tendency to become a people pleaser which displays itself prominently in adult life as someone who struggles with asserting themselves.


If this resonates with you, here's a Toolkit you can try practising:

1. Learn communication skills. Learning how to express your emotions and asking for what you need can help you be clear in your relationships.

2. Find someone who is securely attached. This can help you understand what a stable and safe relationship feels like. Also try to build friendships with people who have high self-esteem and good boundaries.

3. Don't disclose too much of yourself in terms of intricate details, past trauma or family history until you know that the listener is a "safe" person.

4. Go to therapy. If you have trouble with your relationships, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist. Therapy can help you resolve some of your earlier childhood experiences that gave you this relationship blueprint.

Avoidant Attachment

What avoidant attachment looks like: “Please stay away from me”

These people are wary of getting close to others and avoid intimacy. They prefer keeping a distance and are guarded and closed.

What type of parenting causes children to become avoidant?

Avoidant attachment is an attachment style a child develops when their parent or main caretaker does not show care or responsiveness towards the child but does provide essential needs like food and shelter. The child disregards their own struggles and needs in order to keep their caregiver close by. They still struggle and feel anxiety and sadness, but they do so alone, and learn to deny the existence or importance of those feelings.

This in adulthood, potentially impacts their romantic relationships, friendships, and other connections. An estimated 30 percent of people show avoidant attachment patterns.

Parents and caregivers downplaying or ignoring the child’s problems can include:

· Avoiding touch or physical contact

· Not addressing medical issues or nutritional needs

· Not responding when a baby or child cries

· Actively discouraging crying.

· Not outwardly showing emotional reactions to issues or achievements

· Making fun of a child’s problems

· Showing annoyance at a child experiencing a problem

Parents are more likely to show these behaviours if they are very young or inexperienced, ill or unable/unwilling to care for their children or have a mental illness and in cases of divorce or death.


An avoidant attached person struggles with emotional intimacy. They tend to be less invested in their relationships and strive to remain psychologically and emotionally distant from their partners. These people assume that their partners will not be responsive when needed and therefore avoid getting too close to them.

Signs of Avoidant Attachment

People of any age who have avoidant attachment styles may:

1. Show symptoms of depression and anxiety.

2. Not outwardly express need for affection or care.

3. Avoid eye contact.

4. Never or rarely ask for help.

5. Eat in abnormal or disordered ways.

6. Trouble showing or feeling their emotions.

7. Discomfort with physical closeness and touch.

8. Accusing their partner of being too clingy or overly attached.

9. Sense of personal independence and freedom is more important than partnership.

10. Not relying on their partner during times of stress, and not letting their partner rely on them.

11. Seem calm and cool in typically high-emotion situations.


If this resonates with you, here's a Toolkit you can try practising:

1. Practice standing your ground and not walking away when you feel uncomfortable. If you have this style, anticipate this emotional reaction in yourself and tell yourself that you will not escape.

2. When someone tells you how much they care, graciously accept the gesture.

3. When it is time for a relationship to end, listen to the other person, speak your mind gently but truthfully, and then release them.

4. Finally, try to stay through the relationship ending. A well ended relationship gives closure to all concerned.

Disorganized or Fearful Attachment

What Fearful Attachment looks like: "Come Here, Go Away"

These people can both desperately want and avoid close relationships.

What type of parenting causes children to become fearful?

1. If the parent yells at the approaching child, or even worse becomes physically abusive, then this "attachment figure" is now a source of fear.

2. A terrified parent (who may themselves be an abuse victim) also cannot adequately soothe a distressed child. In either case, the attachment system does not serve its intended function. The child cannot escape the anxiety coming from the environment and cannot be comforted by the parent. To make matters worse, the parent’s behaviour might actually increase the child's anxiety and compel the child to once again approach the scary parent.

3. The parent does not need to always be overtly threatening. A parent who is depressed or mentally ill can be frightening because the child knows that the parent cannot provide protection or comfort.

How does this person feel?

Imagine feeling lonely inside and craving love and affection. Then you meet someone wonderful. You are full of joy and excitement. Now you can feel good like you have always wanted. But sometime later, you begin to experience a deep sense of anxiety and impending doom. Across the coming weeks, you feel increasingly restless, start to pick up on signs that your partner is having second thoughts, maybe changing his mind. Perhaps he/she has realized that they are mistaken about how good they thought you were, now that they are beginning to see the ‘real you’. You try to act happy, because you know that is how a "normal" person would feel. But you are unable to hide or manage your anxiety. When your partner asks you, you try to explain your anxious feelings in long discussions which temporarily reassure you, but this effort also makes you sound whining and needy. At some point, you begin to get that awful feeling in your gut. "Why am I losing this wonderful person again? Why does this keep happening to me?!"


What happened is that these people unlocked a deep-seated voice in them which attempts to protect them and keep them safe by shouting out that they will get hurt again. This voice desperately wants love and affection but only with a guarantee. It would rather have them sad and lonely than injured.

When and why does this happen? When a child needs to be loved and soothed by the parent, but the parent is unable to provide the comfort but becomes the danger itself, the child can develop fearful attachment.

Children raised in loveless or threatening environments will become hypervigilant for threat cues. They can be seen to approach the parent for comfort or love, only to stop and withdraw or wander about aimlessly. As adults, they will simultaneously desire closeness and intimacy and approach potential partners, but then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close and withdraw; The mixed message given to others is "come here but also go away."

The person with this "fearful" attachment style is not likely to be fully conscious that they are enacting this process and may feel extremely misunderstood and victimized in their relationships. This person may not perceive that they are actually the one doing the distancing and rejecting.


If this resonates with you, here's a Toolkit you can try practising:

1. If you see yourself in these patterns, take heart, do try and identify which of the parental behaviours you may have experienced. It could be physical abuse or assault or angry hostility. Once you understand why your emotions today as an adult feel so irrational, dysregulated and at times, just plain crazy, you can start the process of change and realigning your emotional expectations, so it does not continue to disrupt your relationships.

2. Recognize that the distress you feel may have nothing to do with your present partner; that person may simply be a trigger and your emotions may not be giving you accurate feedback about what is going on in your relationships. Think about it as a post-traumatic stress reaction.

3. Take time out before you take action based on strong emotions. Be sure that you get all of the facts on the table and make a conscious choice for how you want to respond before taking action.

4. Practice setting healthy boundaries. If you didn’t have good boundaries set out for you in childhood, this may not come naturally. You may have to understand what defines healthy boundaries.

5. When you disclose too much too fast, you may experience intense anxiety that will make you want to run away and cut off the relationship. Alternately, you may become vulnerable to exploitation and the pain will reaffirm your internal trauma.

6. Therefore, slow down if you tend to disclose your most closely guarded secrets too early in the relationship. Ask yourself why you think they are someone you can trust with your well-being. Evaluate carefully when and how to lower your guard.

7. When you are in a calmer emotional space, ask yourself what behaviours you are willing to accept from your relationship partners; then communicate this information directly in a non-defensive manner.

8. Do keep in mind that it is not in any other person’s power to “make” you feel good inside. That’s actually your job.

Regardless of which of the above attachment styles you have, this is what to look for in the other person.

If you are wondering whether you can work out the attachment style of a potential partner, do be aware that you might not see it until you start getting close and intimate with the person. Signs that give away their internal styles are:

1. The person becomes dysregulated if their personal security is threatened such as a serious illness or being threatened with disciplinary action or job loss.

2. Observe them in their unguarded moments and in difficult and challenging times. This is when their true patterns reveal themselves.

3. Do not ignore or rationalize any red flags. Where there is a flag, there is an army and potentially, a battle.


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