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Attachment Theory - What is my Attachment Style and What Does it Mean?

Madison Magnus, M.S. RMHCI “People are only as needy as their unmet needs” - Amir Levine

Attachment Theory is a psychological explanation for how people form relationships and bonds with others. Attachment styles relate to romantic relationships as well as relationships with family members and friends. Attachment theory is based on the premise that people are born with an innate need to forge healthy bonds with caregivers as a child. The ways that we bond with our caretakers, or the lack thereof, has been found to have an impact on the ways that we interact and relate to people throughout our adult lives.

From the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory was first explored in the 1960s (Bretherton, 2013). Bowlby hypothesized that the behaviors that children engage in to avoid disconnecting with a parent like crying, screaming, clinging, etc., can result from instinctual responses of a perceived threat that comes from being separated from their parents. When these behaviors are reinforced (when and/or if a parent reconnects with them after they engage in those behaviors), these instincts were naturally selected and reinforced over generations. These behaviors make up what Bowlby termed an “attachment behavioral system,” the system that guides us in our patterns and habits of forming and maintaining relationships (Fraley, 2010). When this system is applied to our adult lives, these behaviors that were once crying, screaming, and clinging can look more like what are called “protest behaviors”. Protest behaviors serve a similar function of obtaining or reestablishing connection with others, like a partner, to get their attention.

Examples of protest behaviors include:

Excessive attempts to reestablish contact: Excessive texting, calling, messaging etc.

Withdrawing: Ignoring, not taking calls, etc.

Keeping score: Waiting to see how long it takes for them to call you back and waiting the same amount of time before returning their call, waiting for them to apologize, etc.

Acting hostile: Eye rolling, walking away, leaving room

Threatening to leave: Making comments that you can’t do this anymore and that your better off without the person in hopes that they will convince you to stay

Manipulations: Saying you have plans when you don’t, not answering calls, playing games

Making him/her feel jealous: Making plans with an ex, talking about your attractive coworker, texting friends of the opposite sex, etc.

What are the different attachment styles?

Three attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant

- Secure: Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

- Anxious: Anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.

- Avoidant: Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.

People with each of these attachment styles differ in:

● their view of intimacy and togetherness

● the way they deal with conflict

● their attitude towards sex

● their ability to communicate their wishes and needs

● their expectations from their partner and their relationship


- 50% of people are secure

- 20% of people are anxious

- 25% of people are avoidant

- Remaining 3-5% are combination anxious-avoidant

Three statements correspond to the three attachment styles:

● Secure: I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

● Avoidant: I am somewhat uncomfortable with being close to others: I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I'm nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love Partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

● Anxious: I find the others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person and this desire sometimes scares people away.

● Disorganized: I have an extreme desire to be in an intimate relationship but at the same time I am also intensely afraid of actually being in such a relationship.

Two dimensions essentially determine attachment style:

- Your comfort with intimacy and closeness

(or the degree to which you try to avoid intimacy).

- Your anxiety about your partner's love and attentiveness and your preoccupation with the relationship.

Bretherton, I. (2013). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In Attachment theory (pp. 45-84). Routledge.

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