How bonds are learned and formed in early childhood can heavily impact and inform how adults approach relationships later in life. This is known as attachment theory.

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is the notion that suggests how people approach and function within relationships as adults is developed during childhood through the mode in which a primary caregiver interacts with a child. 

Championed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, this theory posits that children consciously and subconsciously learn through interactions and behaviors shown to them through a parent or primary caregiver. Essentially, this impacts the way we trust, interact, and whether or not we feel secure around others.  

Attachments can generally be categorized into a secure attachment or an insecure attachment, of which there are three subcategories.

Secure

Secure Attachment

Those with a secure attachment style tend to have a positive view of themselves and those around them. They are generally confident, warm, and content within themselves and can express their needs and feelings to romantic partners without the fear of abandonment. Those with a secure attachment style will display signs of emotional closeness with people and are not afraid to create intimate connections with others. 

This attachment style is developed from a sense of security and trust from the primary caregiver to a child. If the child feels loved, valued, heard, and safe, they are likely to exhibit these healthy attachments as an adult.

Insecure

Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment

The grounding for the anxious/preoccupied attachment style often stems from inconsistent parenting in childhood. Sometimes the caregiver will be responsive to the child’s needs, and other times they will not. 

The anxious attachment style manifests through a fear of abandonment. People with this attachment style often have a negative self-image and feel that their partner is not as invested in the relationship as they are themselves. Therefore the adult may seek constant reassurance and support from their partner. 

Not receiving enough approval or attention in the relationship may make the adult feel clingy and nervous about being alone. Someone with this attachment style may also feel very sensitive and jealous.

They often feel that they need their partner to complete them due to low self-esteem. As a result, they become overly anxious to hold on to their partner, ultimately pushing them away.  

Avoidant/Dismissive Attachment

Emotionally, the avoidant/dismissive person would see themselves as independent and self-reliant. However, they tend to push people away and may exhibit signs of arrogance and self-centeredness.

They often prioritize other things over intimate relationships, such as work, travel, social life, and fun. More often than not, they have commitment issues, even within a relationship. They prefer not to depend on others and often have trouble forming trusting relationships.

Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment 

Those who have this attachment style generally have an unstable view of both themselves and others. Emotional bonds and intimacy are desired and feared for these people; they wish for close connections and have trouble trusting others.

They may be emotionally volatile and experience mood swings that cause them to fluctuate between highs and lows, which can be confusing for their partner.

This attachment style is often rooted in abuse or trauma during childhood. When a child’s primary source of comfort and safety becomes something to be frightened of, it can cause significant instability and distrust within future relationships.

The Good News

The good news is that people are not fixed, and behaviors are not static – it is possible to change! With some work, you can go from an insecure attachment to a secure one. 

Accepting that the past does not need to predict current relationships. However, it will make you feel more free and able to change behavior patterns and destructive habits. 

Noticing patterns in relationships and vulnerabilities can help you to focus on what you need to change and how you can move forward in the future to create secure bonds with people. 

Healthy and secure relationships are achievable. Making time to focus on yourself and understanding how to improve your relationships will be incredibly rewarding and potentially life-changing.

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