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Adult Attachment Styles: How They Affect Behavior & Relationships

Attachment can be most easily be defined as one’s approach to formulating a connection within close relationships. It is a widely accepted belief that the attachments we develop in early life serve as our fundamental framework for later relationships. Individuals raised in consistently nurturing environments are provided a sense of security which fosters superior emotional regulation and relationship quality in adulthood. Conversely, inconsistent, unattuned, or abusive parenting often creates insecure attachments in childhood which can gravely impact adult relationship functioning.

How do our attachment styles develop?

John Bowlby was the first to propose a developmental theory rooted in child-caregiver attachment. His work emphasized four core beliefs about the development of attachment and the consequences of relational instability in childhood. Bowlby suggested that infants and toddlers typically develop emotional attachments to responsive caregivers. He believed these attachments preferences were revealed through proximity, with the familiar caregiver considered a secure base during times of distress. He noted that events which disrupt attachments, such as sudden separation or the inability for caregivers to be consistent and caring, negatively impact the child’s emotional development. Thus, Bowlby believed that attachments developed in childhood lay the groundwork for later personality development and social behavior in adulthood.  

Building upon Bowlby’s proposal, Mary Ainsworth enhanced attachment theory by contributing a study entitled the “strange situation”. It was through this research that Ainsworth identified three distinct attachment styles exhibited by children in response to caregiver separation: secure, anxious-ambivalent or resistant, and anxious-avoidant. While securely attached children exhibit initial upset over caregiver separation, they are easily calmed and soothed upon caregiver return. They look to their caregivers for reassurance and explore freely with caregivers present. Anxious-ambivalent or resistant children exhibit extreme distress when their caregivers depart. Upon caregiver return, these children seem ambivalent or resistant to caregiver attempts to comfort or soothe. They often appear clingy or needy to onlookers. Conversely, anxious-avoidant children appear oblivious to caregiver departure, avoid the caregiver upon return, and appear apathetic about attachment in general. Later research demonstrates a fourth, less common, attachment style known as disorganized attachment which is marked by contradictory and misdirected behaviors. 

In the 1980’s, Hazen and Shaver discovered a pattern between childhood attachment style and adult romantic relationships. The researchers identified four adult attachment styles which clearly fit with those recognized in childhood by Ainsworth. Thus, Bowlby’s postulation regarding the long-term impact of childhood attachment was supported. Adult attachment styles have since been named secure, preoccupied, dismissing, and unresolved which denote the perpetuation of secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized attachment respectively. 

What are the Adult Attachment Styles & Traits?

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secure attachment

Individuals who exhibit secure attachment in adult relationships are comfortable with intimacy and are not worried about rejection or preoccupied with their close relationships.

  • Comfortable giving and receiving warmth and love in an emotionally close relationship.
  • Feels comfortable depending on their partner and allows partner to depend on them
  • Is willing to make themself available for partner in times of need.
  • Accepts partner’s need for autonomy without feeling rejected or threatened.
  • Displays interdependence rather than enmeshment or stonewalling.
  • Able to trust, forgive, and maintain empathy while tolerating differences.
  • Can communicate emotions, desires, and needs honestly and openly; remains attuned to partner’s needs and responds with compassion.
  • Does not avoid conflict.
  • Manages emotions well; not consumed by relationship issues.
  • Insight, resolution and forgiveness about past relationship issues and hurts.
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preoccupied or anxious attachment

People who display preoccupied attachment tend to be anxious and needy, craving closeness and intimacy, but are often insecure in relationships.

  • Insecure in close relationships.
  • Consumed with worry about rejection and abandonment.
  • Preoccupied with the relationship, attachment needs, and behavior.
  • Often labeled as “needy” requiring ongoing reassurance.
  • Desire to “be one” with partner, which often causes intimate partners to retreat. 
  • Preoccupied about unresolved past issues related to family history, which causes perceptual distortions about current relationships (fear, hurt, anger, rejection).
  • Very sensitive to partner’s actions and moods, often personalizing partner’s behavior.
  • Highly emotional, often argumentative, combative, angry, and controlling with a poor sense of personal boundaries.
  • Difficult to collaborate in communication style. 
  • Often blames others in close relationships, unaware of how their behavior affects those around them.
  • Can be unpredictable and moody and can find connection in argument or conflict.
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Individuals with dismissing attachment styles are often avoidant, uncomfortable with closeness and primarily their independence and freedom. They are not worried about partner’s availability.

  • Emotionally distant, callous, or critical in an intimate relationship, keeping partners at an arm’s length. 
  • Leaves partners wanting more intimacy.
  • Correlates closeness with loss of independence. 
  • Prefers freedom over togetherness.
  • Unable to depend on partner or allow partner to depend on them during difficult times.
  • Communication is typically intellectual, discussing emotions causes great discomfort. 
  • Avoids conflict then tends to volcano.
  • Often cool, controlled, and stoic.
  • Pride taken in self-sufficiency.
  • Stunted emotional range.
  • Great in a crisis, takes charge and manages with ease without the distraction of emotion. 
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unresolved or disorganized attachment

Combination of avoidant and anxious attachment styles. Individuals with unresolved attachment have difficulty tolerating intimacy, yet also demonstrate insecurity and neediness in relationships. This causes their relationships to be tumultuous, filled with the push and pull of “I hate you, don’t leave me”. 

  • Unresolved emotions about childhood attachments, consumed by memories of prior traumas.
  • Difficulty managing emotional intimacy in a relationship. 
  • Grows argumentative and vengeful.
  • Inability to regulate emotions.
  • Repetition of abusive or dysfunctional relationships absorbed from past relational patterns.
  • Often associated with dissociation to avoid pain, severe depression, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and PTSD.
  • Often exhibits lack of empathy and remorse, aggression, addiction, and disregard for rules and laws.

Meet The Author



Meet The Author

Lauren is a Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health. She works with teen, adults and couples. Lauren specializes in codependency, trauma, domestic violence, anxiety, and perfectionism.

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