Picture this: After the 1,000th swipe on Tinder, you meet someone who seems to have some potential. They’re a good conversationalist, consider themselves a dog person, and want to go on a real date in a well-lit public spot (so you know they’re not a serial killer). After getting to know them more, they mention future plans like traveling together or meeting their sister when she comes into town. The romantic montage is basically forming itself! But then they stop responding and before you know it, it’s been weeks without even a text.
What is an attachment style?
The Attachment Theory is an area of psychology that describes emotional attachment in relationships (not just romantic relationships but connections between all people). While there are categories and lots of online quizzes, it’s different than Enneagram or Myers-Briggs because it takes into account childhood and past experiences, which determine how we interact with others in the present. The theory comes from two researchers, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who found that the way infants get their needs met by their parents significantly contributes to their nature of attachment in relationships for the rest of their lives (crazy, right!?).
If you’re currently racking your brain to remember what infancy was like, don’t stress. There are quizzes for that (I like this one). While its origins are focused on the parent-child relationship, I also think that any relationship can affect your attachment style, whether it was a sibling relationship, friendship, or romantic relationship. Your attachment style doesn’t explain everything about your relationships, but it may explain why you gravitate toward certain people and which problems consistently come up in your love life.
The Four Styles of Attachment
So you have a secure attachment type? Lucky you. You’re comfortable displaying affection to loved ones, and you feel confident in both your romantic relationships and friendships. You have probably been able to accept rejection and move on, labeling it as a matter of incompatibility instead of a fault. You easily depend on people, whether it’s a romantic partner, a best friend, or your sister, and find it easy to get emotionally close to others. When conflict does come up (because it always does), you don’t shut down or react with anxiety. FYI, being the secure type doesn’t mean you haven’t faced hardships or trauma in your life, but it does mean that your emotions were validated and needs were met in your past, which made a strong, lasting impression.
If you can imagine from the name, the anxious attachment type means you feel anxiety in your relationships (self-explanatory, right?). You’re probably living in fear that your relationship will end, or your partner doesn’t care about you anymore, or maybe you don’t like being alone. Anxious types also have trouble trusting people (even people they’re close to), but rely on exterior validation. Think of Gigi from He’s Just Not That Into You: She calls 10 times in a row, focuses more on what the guy thinks of her than what she thinks of him, and feels devastated by every breakup and rejection (side note: no shame in Gigi’s game. We’ve all been Gigi, TBH). But traits of the anxious attachment can also be controlling or manipulative too, like regularly snooping through your partner’s phone or putting your friends down so you feel better about yourself.
The avoidant attachment type can be represented in another rom-com cliché: the heroine who is completely closed off to love (until the right person comes along, of course: Amanda Woods from The Holiday, Sara from Hitch, Julianne from My Best Friend’s Wedding… need I say more?). Avoidant types are independent, not very emotional, and typically commitment-phobic. You get cold feet often or might be a serial ghoster. You want to be alone when you’re feeling down and prefer not to talk about your emotions with others (even those close to you). In romantic relationships, you might feel like your partner is trying to control you or want to leave when you feel yourself getting too attached. Even in heated situations, you’re able to turn off your emotions and not react. Your go-to response during tough conversations might be, “I don’t care,” “fine,” or “whatever.”
Anxious-avoidant attachment types are a combination of the previous two types (again, self-explanatory). You might be afraid of commitment but can also lash out and feel anxious about anyone who gets close to you. You probably suppress emotions (or choose not to share with loved ones) but can have emotional outbursts when under stress or if emotions build up. You probably want to be close to someone but don’t believe that the other person wants to be close to you. In other words, it’s not that you avoid intimacy because you don’t want it (like avoidant attachment types); you avoid intimacy because you think whoever gets close will hurt you.
How your attachment style affects your relationships
Opposites don’t always attract; we’re more likely drawn to people that are the same type. A relationship that’s avoidant or anxious on both sides replicates the patterns you’re used to, or maybe you think those behaviors are normal in relationships. You might even define love with anxious attachment tendencies or feel less safe if someone isn’t as emotionally avoidant as you are (vulnerability is hard!).
Not only does your attachment style affect your relationships, but your relationships can also affect your attachment style. If you were in a toxic relationship, it might have made you untrusting, overly cautious, or insecure. Likewise, a bad friendship may have left you unable to be vulnerable in future ones. So while it’s possible to change your attachment style by being in relationships with people that help you feel safe and secure, work must be done on your own to change your adjustment style and attract secure relationships to you.
How to change your attachment style
If you’re feeling both seen and doomed to a life of less-than-great relationships, don’t stress. Even if you’ve had the same attachment style for as long as you can remember, it does not mean you’re destined to keep it. The mind adapts when new ways of thinking are acknowledged and practiced. If you’re an anxious type, prioritize self-love and surround yourself with people who lift you up. If you’re more of an avoidant type, challenge yourself to open up more. Call your mom to vent after a tough day at work, tell a personal story on a first date, ask friends for advice, and become curious instead of judgmental about everyone you meet. Also, seek out secure friendships, coworkers, and partners; they’ll help you learn trust, vulnerability, or even love. For any attachment style, therapy can also be helpful.
In the end, unlearning attachment styles must start with self-compassion. Even if your attachment style isn’t serving you now, you only adapted it because it served you at some point in your life. When you were younger, your attachment style kept you safe, prevented you from getting hurt, and helped you prioritize your emotional wellbeing. But as an adult, your attachment style might not be serving you and could even be preventing you from forming healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling relationships. Appreciate what your attachment style has done for you, feel empathy for the little girl it was trying to protect, and then choose to change.