Ever heard of attachment styles?

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Are you very sensitive to your partner’s moods? Do you like to avoid a discussion and do you apologise for it, even if it’s not your fault? Or do you go on the offence, because fighting can feel like relief? How you attach to others is called your attachment style, which was largely shaped by your childhood. But what exactly are attachment styles? Read on!

What are attachment styles?

An attachment style is how you attach to others. There are different kinds of attachment styles, which we’ll explain more about below. “Attachment theory” was first coined in the 1940s and 50s by British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He researched the effects of separating parents and children and came to the conclusion that one’s upbringing largely determines how one attaches to others in later life. Children who are cuddled a lot attach themselves differently to people than children who grow up surrounded by insecurity, for example. This has a direct influence on how a child behaves later in life. Bowlby’s research continues to play an important role in psychiatry today.

What attachment styles are out there?

Bowlby distinguished three different attachment styles. A fourth was later added.

Secure attachment style

By far, the majority of children (and later adults) have this attachment style. And that’s a good thing, as these are children who have learned and trust that their parent or caregiver will be back after they’ve been away for a while. Children with a secure attachment style enjoy being with their caregiver, but are not afraid to explore the world once the caregiver is back. The parents are accessible and sensitive to their child’s needs. Adults with a secure attachment style have the greatest resilience in later life.

Anxious attachment style

If one experienced a lot of stress as a child, perhaps due to inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour from the parent or caregiver, it’s only logical to understand that these children (and later adults) would have an anxious attachment style. These children have a much greater need to be with their caregiver and do little without them. But if the caregiver leaves and then comes back, a child may try to punish that person by ignoring them or misbehaving. The child’s parents have often not been there for the child in the most important moments.

Avoidant attachment style

There is also a group of people who never experienced stress as a child when a caregiver left. The underlying reason is a bit sad: these children grew up with a parent or caregiver who offered little affection and was distant. They become independent relatively quickly, as their parents are often dismissive. These individuals often develop an avoidant attachment style. Difficulty expressing emotions is a widely seen result of this.

As mentioned earlier, a fourth attachment style was later added by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, building on Bowlby’s work.

Disorganised attachment style

The disorganised attachment style is typical for children who grow up with parents or caregivers who are inconsistent. A child tries to get closer, even if this causes stress and anxiety. In addition, there are often radical events: contact with the parent or caregiver is often unpredictable or even dangerous. Children learn that life is unorganised and unsafe and they cannot cope with being (temporarily) separated from their caregiver.

Tip: Would you like to test which attachment style you have? You can find out through this test.

How attachment styles influence your relationship(s)

If you grew up in an unsafe environment, chances are that you attach yourself differently to a partner than someone who has always felt loved. It’s good to know that even if you did grow up in an unsafe environment, you can still build up a stable relationship with a partner or your own children. Knowing which attachment style you have can help you better understand your own reactions to certain situations.

Relationships with a secure attachment style

Adults with a secure attachment style often have satisfying relationships. They feel safe and connected to their partner and do not feel the need to be together constantly. The core values of the relationship are honesty, support, emotional connection and independence.

Relationships with an anxious attachment style

If one of you has an anxious attachment style, this can manifest itself in two ways: being very attached to the partner or pushing them away through strange and disruptive behaviour. Someone with an anxious attachment style often has an almost desperate need for attention and love and feels that a partner should complete or “heal” them. This can manifest itself in jealousy, clinginess, being demanding and getting upset over little things.

Relationships with an avoidant attachment style

Does one of you have an avoidant attachment style? If so, that person probably keeps more distance than the other. People who have this attachment style would rather be alone and independent than show their true colours. They may also feel that they don’t need contact with other people in order to feel good about themselves. If a scenario arises in which they may be hurt, they may shut down emotionally altogether.

Relationships with a disorganised attachment style

If you have a disorganised attachment style, you may find it difficult to allow your emotions to flow, just as people with the avoidant style. In this case, this is mainly caused by insecurity: your emotions can quickly overwhelm you. It’s possible that adults with this attachment style react unpredictably or suffer from mood swings, as well as a fear of being hurt by their partner. With this attachment style, it can be difficult to build a healthy relationship.

How can you work on yourself or your attachment styles?

It’s important to realise that these attachment styles are not personal character descriptions. They describe one aspect of your personality and can help you understand why people react the way they do. In this way, you can determine how to better talk to each other or discuss problems with your partner.

For example, people with an anxious attachment style may have an unrealistic fear that the partner will break up after an argument. And someone with an avoidant attachment style can avoid conflict so much that a problem within the relationship is never expressed. You can work with these kinds of problems yourself, but it certainly won’t hurt to seek professional help. A relationship therapist can offer useful tools. Good luck!

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