In 2023, just about anyone studying up on how to be a better partner or improve a romantic connection is likely to encounter attachment styles in relationships.
Even if you aren’t familiar with attachment theory, the four popular attachment styles may ring a bell: anxious, avoidant, disorganized and secure.
This framework for human emotions and development has become a darling of relationship experts and pop psychology, frequently surfacing in podcasts, self-help articles, books and perhaps a meme you saw earlier today.
Anyone can now take a free 5-minute quiz to try to identify their own attachment style.
While many applications today are oversimplified or misinterpreted, the theory builds upon decades of rigorous research in the field of psychology.
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The Basics of Attachment Theory
The cornerstone and early roots of attachment theory, starting some 75 years ago, zeroed in on infants and their bond to their primary caretaker — typically a mother.
The basic idea is that the relational environment and behavior that a human experiences as a security-seeking infant carries lasting effects throughout life, especially pertaining to romantic bonds.
In simple terms, a secure infancy should promote secure attachment styles, while an insecure infancy might produce more insecure behaviors in relationships.
The guiding principles emerged in the 1950s under the collaborative work of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and Mary Salter Ainsworth, a psychologist who also served as a WWII officer in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
A Cause for Emotional Disorder?
Bowlby shared his basic ideas concerning attachment years before formal studies and a series of clinical work tested it alongside Ainsworth’s research, starting in the 1950s.
“The precursors of emotional disorders and delinquency could be found in early attachment-related experiences, specifically separations from, or inconsistent or harsh treatment by, mothers (and often fathers or other men who were involved with the mothers),” Bowlby wrote in 1944.
Some years later, Ainsworth expanded her security theory with work in Uganda and Baltimore. This field observation generated principles of maternal behavior and infant attachment, which combined with Bowlby’s findings in a series of papers through the 1990s.
The Four Attachment Styles
Ainsworth and Bowlby’s body of work, including Ainsworth’s landmark "Strange Situation Procedure" in 1969, ultimately led to the four main attachment styles we know today:
Avoidant Attachment (or dismissive attachment): Often associated with a lone-wolf or self-sufficient persona. Those who move this way might come across as emotionally guarded, steering away from emotional conversations and vulnerability. They are less likely to seek comfort and support or offer that care to partners.
Anxious Attachment (or preoccupied attachment): This type can appear needy, untrusting or clingy in their actions toward a partner. Fear of abandonment often motivates their behavior. They might seek consistent reassurance that they are safe and secure in their relationship.
Disorganized Attachment (or fearful-avoidant attachment): The most extreme and least common of the styles. It often involves irrational, unpredictable and intense behavior in partnerships. In many instances, it accompanies mental health or personality disorders.
Secure Attachment: This ideal type is the most likely to trust their partner and form long-lasting, healthy relationships. It typically corresponds with emotional availability and reliability in partnership.
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Interpreting the Findings
Over the years, some experts have questioned how rigidly people should define attachment styles and to what degree these types influence an individual’s life. The research evidence is mixed.
Much of the literature now underscores that each style is a spectrum, one of many variables in relational development and it's hardly fixed for individuals.
Respected U.K. attachment researcher Elizabeth Meins has voiced public concerns that the theory has been routinely misunderstood within relationship and psychology circles.
She has said that attachment experiences are overrated as a predictive tool for behavior and development. And the premise can place misguided pressure on parents.
“Somewhere along the line, the idea that early attachment is the best predictor of all aspects of later development has gained credence,” Meins wrote in 2017. “I stand by my claim that laying so much emphasis on attachment isn’t helpful. Being made to worry about whether you have a secure attachment with your baby won’t make you a better parent.”
The Reach of Attachment Theory
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this framework is the degree to which it has shaped the field of relationships and development.
Two academics back in 2012 described its influence this way: “Perhaps no single theory in the psychological sciences has generated more empirical research during the past 30 years than attachment theory.”
That research has only continued since 2012, generating a mix of revisions, challenges and some support for its tenets. As you might expect, the cumulative pool of evidence points to something much more complex than any simple relational litmus test.
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