Understanding Attachment Styles

“Attachment theory teaches us that true autonomy relies on feeling securely connected to other human beings.”  ~ Nora Samaran

Attachment styles are used to describe patterns of attachment in relationships. These styles are formulated in early infancy and evolve out of the emotional connection to the primary caregiver. Attachment theory states that these early attachment styles remain with us throughout our lives and form the basis for how all further intimate relationships evolve.

If a strong, healthy attachment does not develop as a child, then future relationships may be hindered, and a myriad of mental health conditions can emerge due to a state of chronic insecurity and vulnerability.

John Bowlby (1907 – 1990), a British psychologist and psychoanalyst, is recognized as the founder of attachment theory.  He described attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” and demonstrated early childhood attachments’ impact on development and mental functioning. [1]

Attachment is a basic human principle which all of us inherently and naturally co-create. Our evolution as a species has been dependent on community, proximity to others, trust, and comfort. Without our close relationships and familial groups, we would have been unable to survive. In today’s modern world, we no longer need others to protect us from threat in the same way. However, our healthy development and position within society relies, in part, on the bonds we form with others.

Attachment security and insecurity influence our internal working models (IWM).[2] Our IWM shapes us as individuals and affects the way we perceive ourselves, our judgments of others, how we interact, our self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and how we act in relationships.

Our attachment style, therefore, operates as an internal navigation system and is pivotal in our relational reactions, emotions, and behaviors throughout our lives.

The 4 Attachment Types

Since Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, there has been a wealth of research on the topic conducted by leading scientists and psychologists. It is accepted that four key characteristics define attachment:[3]

  • Proximity Maintenance: Our wish to be near those we are attached to.
  • Safe Haven: Seeking comfort from those we are attached to when afraid or feeling under threat.
  • Secure Base: Viewing the attachment figure as a central point of security from where one can explore and process the surrounding environment.
  • Separation Distress: The distress and anxiety that occurs when separated from the attachment figure.


These critical points develop a relationship and subsequent attachment style between the infant and caregiver. The four attachment styles are as follows:

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment arises from a sense of security with your primary childhood caregiver. It is probable that these individuals felt safe, valued, comforted, and understood as infants. What’s more, their caregivers were likely self-aware, emotionally available, and secure in themselves.

People with secure attachment can freely ask for reassurance, comfortably seek validation, and build healthy relationships. Securely attached people tend to navigate relationships proactively with trust, generosity, and a strong sense of self-love.

Signs of secure attachment include:

  • Ability to trust others
  • Self-regulation of emotions and behaviors
  • Effective Communication Comfort being alone and in intimate relationships
  • Ability to state one’s own needs
  • A high sense of self-worth
  • Emotional availability

 Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment is an insecure attachment style. It is also known as dismissive-avoidant or anxious-avoidant.

These individuals often find physical and emotional intimacy challenging, which can hinder the creation of close relationships and partnerships.

With these types, their caregivers during childhood were likely emotionally distant, absent, neglectful, or overly strict. The infant may have been encouraged to self-soothe, fend for themselves, and be independent. Expressing needs or emotions could be met with rejection or reprimand.

Therefore, those with avoidant attachment develop strong self-reliance, resilience, and autonomy with fear or anxiety around relying on anyone external to themselves for care or support.

Signs of an avoidant attachment include:

  • Fierce independence
  • Discomfort expressing feelings
  • Avoidance of intimacy, both emotional and physical
  • Dismissiveness of others’ needs or emotions
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Significant time spent alone

Ambivalent Attachment

Ambivalent is another type of insecure attachment, also known as anxious-ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied. Ambivalent attachment usually forms from interaction with a caregiver who is inconsistent and not aligned with the child’s needs.

A parent may move between being highly attentive and dismissive, acting overwhelmed by the child, being overly protective and then indifferent, or emphasizing their own needs as a priority over the child’s.

This caregiver-infant relationship is unstable and unpredictable, resulting in a lack of security within the infant. As a child, they will likely fear rejection and neglect, look to others for validation and emotional regulation, and exhibit co-dependent tendencies.

In relationships, this attachment type can feel unworthy of love and seek constant reassurance due to a deep-rooted fear of rejection. They can blame themselves for any challenges in the relationship or perceived changes in their partner’s behavior and develop needy or distrustful tendencies.

Signs of an ambivalent attachment include:

  • Clinginess
  • Seeking reassurance and approval
  • Sensitivity to criticism – perceived or real
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Fear of abandonment and rejection
  • Difficulty spending time alone
  • Jealous tendencies and difficulty trusting others

Disorganized Attachment

Anxious-disorganized attachment is frequently caused by childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES).  If an individual experienced abuse, threat to life, or neglect as a child, they will likely become fearful and experience a chronic lack of safety.

Those with disorganized attachment can exhibit confusing and unpredictable behavior. Although they seek love and comfort, they will often avoid emotional intimacy or reject close relationships out of fear and distrust.

This attachment type is associated with mental health disorders in adulthood, including substance use disorder, major depression, panic disorder, PTSD, and mood disorders.

Signs of disorganized attachment include:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Inability to self-regulate emotions
  • Confusing, contradictory, and erratic behaviors
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Difficulty trusting

Understanding your individual attachment style will help you become more self-aware and resilient and enable you to foster healthy relationships. It is important to note that it is possible to change an attachment type from avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized to secure through self-awareness and therapeutic work.

If you or anyone you know is struggling, please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] N. Fuertes, Jairo et al. “Sex, Parent Attachment, Emotional Adjustment, and Risk-Taking Behaviors”. International Journal of High Risk Behaviors and Addiction, Inpress, no. Inpress, 2016. Kowsar Medical Institute, doi:10.5812/ijhrba.36301. Accessed 9 Jan 2022.

[2] Belsky, Jay. “Developmental Origins of Attachment Styles”. Attachment & Human Development, vol 4, no. 2, 2002, pp. 166-170. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/14616730210157510. Accessed 9 Jan 2022.

[3] Fuertes J N, R. Grindell S, Kestenbaum M, Gorman B. Sex, Parent Attachment, Emotional Adjustment, and Risk-Taking Behaviors, Int J High Risk Behav Addict. 2017 ; 6(2):e36301. doi: 10.5812/ijhrba.36301.

[4] Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50(1-2), 66-104.

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