Attachment Styles & Adult Relationships


by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


You may have heard the phrase “attachment style” and wondered if it was relevant to you or whether it was just another psychology buzzword being thrown into the vernacular.

The concept of attachment styles has actually been around since the mid 20th-century when psychologist John Bowlby developed a psychological framework known as “attachment theory”. Within this framework, he coined the term “attachment style” to describe the type of bonds that infants form with their primary caregivers and how they reacted upon being separated from them. Later on, psychologists found that because attachment styles persisted throughout one’s life, it was also very relevant to the pattern of behavior within adult relationships.


What is attachment theory?


Attachment theory outlines the following four attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Disorganized

According to attachment theory, children seek closeness with their primary caretaker because of an innate desire to achieve a sense of structure and safety. Consistently receiving this security through repeated interactions with their caretaker fosters the child’s ability to manage stress, cultivate a healthy sense of independence and develop a stable self-concept. This results in a secure attachment style.

If children discover that their caregivers are unreliable, inconsistent, or neglectful, they are more likely to develop an anxious, avoidant, or fearful pattern of relating with other people. This describes the insecure attachment styles—anxious, avoidant or disorganized.



Attachment styles in adults


It is important to note that attachment theory is just a theory and only speculates on what could be happening within adult interactions. There are many infants who grow up in abusive households and become secure, affectionate adults just as babies from idyllic home environments can develop an extremely maladaptive temperament.

It is also important to note that one does not need to experience any significant childhood “trauma” to develop traits of an insecure attachment style. In childhood, everybody receives messages about the “correct” way to communicate and show emotion. These messages don’t always result in the most adaptive or healthy behaviors in adulthood.

With that said, the insecure attachment styles can be summarized as follows:

Anxious Attachment

Adults with anxious attachment fear abandonment. Their emotions tends to swing between feelings of insecurity about their partner leaving to controlling behavior in which they demand validation. Today, this behavior might be described today as “clingy”.  These adults may have had caregivers who also demonstrated  inconsistent patterns of behavior—oscillating from being smothering to dismissive. This establishes the message that that love can be withdrawn suddenly and unexpectedly.


Avoidant Attachment

Adults with avoidant attachment fear emotional closeness or intimacy. They may have difficulty trusting others due to a belief that other people are generally unreliable and unable to meet their needs. As one would expect, these adults may have had caregivers who were critical and didn’t sufficiently meet their physical or emotional needs. These adults learn how to be self-reliant out of necessity.  The thought of losing the safety net of their independence creates instinctual fear.


Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment (also known as fearful-avoidant) is the most rare attachment style. It describes behaviors that exhibit the extreme ends of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Adults with this type of attachment desire and crave affection while at the same time wanting to push it away.  Studies have shown these adults have trouble with emotional regulation and are a high risk for violence within their relationship.


Why should I care about attachment style?


The purpose of discovering your own attachment style is not meant to feel like an exercise in self-diagnosing what is “wrong” with you or maligning your parents for all the mistakes they made. Rather, it provides insight into what is driving your current patterns of thought and behavior when it comes to relationships.

For instance, these common behaviors that might be reflective of one’s attachment style:

  • worrying that your partner doesn’t love you, despite having no evidence (anxious)
  • a strong desire to text constantly throughout the day (anxious)
  • seeking undue reassurance or validation (anxious)
  • cancelling dates due to fear and uncertainty (avoidant)
  • withholding communication by purposely delaying/avoiding responding to texts (avoidant)
  • withholding words of affection/emotion due to fear of being vulnerable (avoidant)
  • extreme need for closeness, coupled with feelings of anger or violence (disorganized)


Being mindful of these types of emotions can help you identify some of the automatic, unhelpful behaviors you may be engaging in without realizing it. While you cannot change your childhood, you do have the ability to erase and re-write the fear-based messages that have become a part of your internal narrative. Above all, know that you are deserving of receiving love and have the capacity to give it to others.



Seeking Mental Health Support

If you believe you could benefit from understanding more about your symptoms or concerns, consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center. Our therapists can provide guidance, support, and strategies tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!

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