If you’ve ever Googled relationship issues, chances are
you’ve come across references to ‘attachment style’ when it comes to dating, choosing
a partner; or how it plays out in the relationship you are currently in.
Attachment style is based on attachment theory, which refers to research done by UK psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s. Put simply, Bowlby studied the impact of our earliest relationships (between children and parents or primary caregivers) and how this environment influenced the way we love; and expect to be loved. Later research shows that relationships and other life experiences also impact the style in which we attach to others.
Different attachment styles
There are three main types of attachment styles: secure,
anxious, avoidant and anxious/avoidant, and a smaller proportion described as ‘fearful’.
Roughly 50 percent of the world’s population is secure, 20 percent is
anxious, 25 percent is avoidant and fearful accounts for around 5 percent.
Securely attached people make good partners. Usually
trustworthy, and secure in themselves, they openly offer love and affection and
can be independent too. They can also happily partner with more anxious or
avoidant partners and tend to have a calming influence on them.
A more anxiously attached person can feel stressed
about their relationship and require a lot of reassurance. They are also more
vulnerable to ending up in abusive relationships, as they can struggle with
Recognisable often by their extreme independence and
discomfort with intimacy, more commonly described as a ‘commitment phobe’ – is
the avoidant type.
A person responds to the lack of bonding in their
earlier life by being fearful of future connections. While they will actively
seek out a relationship, at heart they are afraid of intimacy and commitment
and can respond negatively to those seeking to get closer to them.
The anxious avoidant combination is common
Unfortunately, anxiously attached persons often pair
up with avoidants; in fact many people in such relationships will talk of the
spark they felt at the beginning of the relationship. A tension exists, where
the person seeking intimacy works harder and harder to get it (pursues) while
the avoidant retreats, resulting in neither having a satisfactory relationship
The good news is that attachment styles are not
totally fixed, and they can change. Being with a secure partner, for example,
can be very reassuring for an anxious partner and similarly an avoidant partner
may receive some of the independence they crave.
How does this apply to relationships?
Anxious types can work on nurturing themselves,
creating boundaries in their relationships and building self-esteem. Avoidant
types may need to learn how to open up more to others, and inform themselves about
the expectations of a healthy relationship.
This type of work can be done with open
communication and good dialogue in a couple, or with the assistance a good,
skilled relationship psychotherapist.
If you’re dating, it can be helpful to recognise
your own attachment style and to try to identify your potential partner’s type.
It is especially helpful for identifying red flags or to build awareness about patterns
and the type of partner you tend to seek out.
See also: Red flags, it’s not me it’s you.
and Heller – Attached, the new science of adult attachment and how it can help
you find – and keep – love