Attachment Styles Theory

How attached are you to your romantic partner? Do you think these attachment styles have anything to do with how you were raised?

That may seem like a weird question, but psychologists have found that there is a strong connection between the relationship we have with our parents and how we approach romantic relationships as an adult. Adults display one of four different attachment styles. Your attachment style could make a big difference in how you view yourself in a relationship, how you treat your partner, or how you handle a breakup, so take the time to learn about them and make your dating life easier!

What Are Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles refer to how people approach their relationships. While some people are more secure in their relationships, others are more disorganized, ambivalent, or anxious. Studies on attachment styles go back to the 1950s and have evolved to include observations on how adults become attached to their romantic partners. 

What Are the Four Attachment Styles?

Everyone falls under one of four attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment
  • Ambivalent attachment
  • Avoidant attachment
  • Disorganized attachment

In earlier studies, only three attachment styles were identified; disorganized attachment came later. Each of these styles are defined by the behaviors that people display when the attachment figure (parent, partner, etc.) is present or not present.

attachment styles Chart

Attachment Behaviors

When a child feels secure, they are likely to display more exploratory behaviors. These behaviors include exploring the environment with ease, being sociable with others, and enjoying intimacy without anxiety.

On the other hand, if the child does not feel secure, they are likely to display attachment behaviors. These attachment behaviors include:

  • Crying
  • Searching for the attachment figure
  • Following the attachment figure as they leave
  • Staring at the place where the attachment figure last was

What We Seek

From our first waking moments, our parents provide us with our basic needs. They feed us, put a roof over our head, and protect us. These needs form the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – we seek these needs before we seek anything else.

When children display these attachment behaviors, they are looking to fulfill these needs. Attachment behaviors aim to bring the attachment figure closer. When the person is close enough to the attachment figure, they are more likely to feel that their needs will be met and that they will be safe and secure. Safety and security may be physical, emotional, or even financial.

At an early age, these attachment figures are the parents. As the person grows into an adult, the attachment figure may be a lover or partner.

Who Discovered Attachment Styles?

Multiple people are most credited with discovering and identifying attachment styles:

  • John Bowlby
  • Schaffer and Emerson
  • Mary Ainsworth
  • Main and Solomon
  • Hazen and Shaver

John Bowlby

John Bowlby was the first psychologist to study attachment styles theory. He didn’t classify attachment into different styles, but he did set the foundation for studying these styles.

John Bolwby

Bowlby wanted to know why children experienced separation anxiety when they were removed from their parents. Psychologists before him believed that separation anxiety and attachments to parents were learned behavior. Instead, Bowlby believed that attachment was an evolutionary process. After all, parents provide those basic needs that are necessary for survival. He theorized that children formed attachments as a part of an innate desire to stay alive.

Schaffer and Emerson

When do these attachment styles start to form? This is the question that psychologists Schaffer and Emerson tried to answer in their experiments in the 1960s. They found that infants went through different stages in which they formed attachments to primary or secondary caregivers. By eleven months, the infants showed a preference or one caregiver over another. But they also start to form bonds with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other caregivers. Once the infant has formed an attachment to one primary caregiver, they may display behaviors related to separation anxiety or stranger anxiety.

Mary Ainsworth

Where do the four attachment styles come from? Well, three of them come from Mary Ainsworth’s work on the attachment styles theory. Ainsworth is credited alongside Bowlby as one of the pioneers of this theory. Her Strange Situation Classification (SSC) helped to identify three attachment styles and the behaviors that go along with these styles.

During the SSC, Ainsworth observed infants between the ages of 12-18 months through a one-way mirror. The children interacted with both their mother and a stranger in different scenarios. The scenarios lasted about three minutes each:

  • Baby was briefly in the room with their mother and the experimenter
  • Baby and mother were left alone.
  • Stranger joined the mother and baby in the room.
  • Mother left the baby and stranger alone in the room.
  • Mother returned and the stranger left.
  • Baby was left alone in the room.
  • Stranger returned.
  • Mother returned as the stranger left.

How did the infants react to all of these scenarios? Did they search for the attachment figure (mother) or were they content exploring the room and playing with toys?

Ainsworth recorded the infant’s behavior and how intensely the behavior was displayed.

Results of Ainsworth’s Study

She noticed that the infants generally fell under one of three categories. 70% of the infants felt secure when the mother was around. During these moments of security, even when the stranger was around, the infant felt comfortable exploring their environment. They were distressed when the mother left, but happy when the mother returned. These babies were categorized as having a secure attachment style

The second group of infants, only 15% of the infants observed, were more distressed than the first. They resisted the stranger and even resisted the mother when she returned to the room. These infants were highly unlikely to explore the area around them. Ainsworth classified these infants as having a resistant attachment style, also known as the anxious attachment style

The last group of infants, the final 15%, did not appear to be that attached to the mother. They weren’t distressed when the mother left and weren’t overly thrilled when the mother came back. Infants in this group seemed as comfortable with the stranger as they did with their mother. Ainsworth classified these children as having an avoidant attachment style

Main and Solomon

Until the 1980s, these three different attachment styles were the most accepted. The disorganized-insecure attachment was added in 1986. Ainsworth did observe attachment behaviors that described children in this category, but they were not classified as their own group until Main and Soloman’s observations. These behaviors include:

  • Wandering or displaying undirected movements
  • Looking confused
  • Freezing
  • Other contradictory behaviors

Main and Soloman observed that these children typically experienced maltreatment and their trauma went unresolved. Due to the lack of closure on this treatment, the children were not sure of how to act and this frustration sometimes led to aggression.

Hazan and Shaver

When we read about different attachment styles, we are more likely to relate them to our adult relationships. You might take a quiz to see what your attachment style is or contemplate how this affects your relationship with your partner. But until 1987, psychologists only talked about attachment styles as they related to children.

In 1987, Hazan and Shaver observed adults in romantic relationships and noticed the parallels between these relationships and the relationships between children and their parents. Both sets of people engage in bodily contact. Both feel more safe and secure when the other person is around. From these observations, Hazan and Shaver argued that a romantic partner may act as an attachment figure.

Why Attachment Theory Is Important

Reddit user nenindis shared her thoughts on attachment theory in the FemaleDatingStrategy subreddit:

“My therapist recommended that I read ‘Attached’ by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller. At first, it seemed weird to me, but, then this book was a real eye – opener. Why? Because it helped me assess my own attachment style, alongside my significant other’s attachment style so that I can determine how compatible we are on a level that’s different and deeper to me than, say, liking the same kind of music. Sure, being a metal head myself with a metal head SO is great, but knowing our attachment styles (Secure and Secure) fit? It gave me extra confidence.

Psychology can be your friend, sisters. It can help you predict someone else’s behavior. Psychology can save you weeks, months, years of heartbreak. It can be a very resourceful tool for you. It can be your friend in your vetting process by offering you a more specific frame to work with while you’re out there living your queen life.”

You don’t have to be a female to benefit from learning about attachment styles! If you want to form a deep connection with someone, it is worth understanding your attachment style and how that affects your compatibility with others.

Can Attachment Styles Change Over Time?

You are not doomed to one attachment style forever. Attachment styles can change as a person grows up. Not everyone with an absent parent is ambivalent or avoidant in nature. People with secure childhoods may also develop mistrust later in life! 

If you are looking to change your attachment style, you are taking the right first steps. Awareness, mindfulness, and an open mind are key to acknowledging the attachment issues you have had in the past and trusting people more. 

Consider taking the next steps on your journey to more secure relationships: 

  • Mindfulness practices: meditation and mindfulness can help you recognize the thoughts and feelings that come up when you enter into relationships or experience vulnerability. 
  • Therapy: a relationship therapist can help you identify your attachment style and offer you tools and strategies to become more secure in your relationships.
  • Healthy relationships: dedicating yourself to healthy relationships can help you build trust over time. If you’re surrounding yourself with people who you can trust, you will begin to see everyone around you as more trustworthy. If you go back to relationships where you are hurt and unprotected, not much will change. 

What Is Your Attachment Style? 

Learn more about the your attachment style to figure out where you fit into Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theories of attachment. You can start with taking the quiz at the top of the page! Note that the results are not a “diagnosis” or set in stone. Attachment styles can change. Reach out to a mental health professional for more information about how your childhood may impact your adult relationships.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.