Often when it comes to romantic relationships, we can end up being ruled by our emotions.

We may do little things that drive our partners a little crazy, or things that leave us feeling clingy, needy, or distant.

These experiences often leave us questioning why we are the way we are in romantic relationships, if we can change, and how.

As hard as it might be to accept, we all tend to recreate unhealthy patterns in our adult relationships that stem from our childhood, which may be hard to break. Couples and individuals often bring such concerns into counselling, hoping to find the solutions as to why their relationship is not working.

The answer to such questions may be simply explained by Attachment Theory.

Understanding Attachment Theory

Attachment theory comes from the work of John Bowlby (1907-1990), a British psychoanalyst who wished to gain an understanding into the distress infants experienced when separated from their parents or care givers.

Bowlby observed that separated infants would go to great lengths to prevent separation, or re-establish a connection with a parent/caregiver, through behaviours such as seeking out a parent/caregiver, clinging to parent/caregiver, and/or crying. According to Bowlby, these behaviours are a result of a motivational system, which he defined as an attachment behaviour system. He believed that these behaviours were an adaptive response to separation from someone who provides protection, care and support.

Bowlby’s attachment theory was further expanded upon in the 1970’s by Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), from her work on the “strange situation”, that examined the impact attachment has on behaviour. In the study, researchers observed children aged 12 to 18 months and recorded their responses when left alone and re-united with their mothers.

Through their recorded interactions the researchers found three major styles of attachment: secure, anxious-resistant and avoidant. A fourth was later added by Ainsworth’s colleague Mary Main, called disorganised-insecure attachment. Ainsworth’s work has since been supported through numerous studies that have highlighted how the attachment styles we have as infants can impact our behaviours later in life.

In the 1980’s researchers Hazan and Shaver further explored Bowlby’s ideas in the context of romantic relationships, and found that the emotional bond between adult romantic partners acts in the same way as a motivational system and the emotional bond between infants and their caregivers.

3 Main Attachment Styles

1 – Secure

In Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation”, infants who had secure attachment styles showed that they were visibly upset when a parent/caregiver left a room, however were happy and calm upon their return.

This behaviour was considered to be the result of infants who experienced warmth and responsive interactions with parents/caregivers. As adults, those who have secure attachment are individuals who are often secure with themselves, and have positive views of themselves, of others and their partners.

According to Levine and Heller (2010), authors of the self-help book Attached, you can be considered to have a secure attachment style if being warm and loving in a relationship comes naturally to you, you enjoy being intimate and you don’t get upset over relationship matters. Communicating about your needs and feelings to your partner is easy for you, and you are strong at reading and responding to your partners emotional bids.

2 – Anxious

Anxious babies in the “strange situation” became extremely distressed when their parent/ caregiver left the room, and acted ambivalent to the parent/caregiver on their return, while at the same time displaying they were angry towards the parent/caregiver.

These infants took more time to calm down, and when finally calm were likely to push the parent/caregiver away and begin crying again. These behaviours were said to result from inconsistent parent/caregivers who were not quick to respond to the infant’s needs and wants.

In adulthood, individuals with the anxious attachment style tend to feel insecure about themselves and their relationships, and regularly place high importance on how others perceive them, often needing reassurances and validation from those around them.

Levine and Heller (2010) suggest that you may have an anxious attachment style if you often fear your partner is not wanting to be as close to you as you would like them to be. Additionally, you may be very sensitive to small changes in your partner’s moods, often experiencing more negative emotions within the relationship, and likely to get upset more easily. As a result, you behave in ways that can be detrimental to the relationship, and act out and say things you may later regret.

3 – Avoidant

Babies who were avoidant were identified in the “strange situation”, based on a lack of reaction when a parent/caregiver left or returned to a room. These infants often ignored the parent/ caregiver and acted indifferently.

This behaviour is proposed to be a result of having distant and unavailable parents/caregivers resulting in the infant, child and later adult, to be solely dependent on themselves and not reliant on anyone else. As an adult, individuals with the avoidant attachment style are more independent than others, are more comfortable with and have a preference for being alone due to their childhood experiences, where they have learnt that being close or intimate with others has the potential to cause pain.

According to Levine and Heller (2010) if you feel it is important to maintain your independence and prefer autonomy to relationships, then you may have an avoidant attachment style. Furthermore, even if you do long to be close to others you may find it difficult as it may be uncomfortable for you, and therefore you may keep your partner at arm’s length and engage in behaviours that can create physical and emotional distance.

When Attachment Styles Suit One Another

When you consider the three attachment styles and their differences, it’s not too surprising that some relationships may be more successful than others.

When it comes to being in a relationship, individuals who have a more secure attachment style can be in relationships with people who have either an anxious or avoidant attachment style. Individuals with a secure attachment style can provide individuals with an avoidant attachment style the space they may crave, and are comfortable with providing validation and reassurances to people who have an anxious attachment style.

Additionally, people with secure attachment styles can act as a great role model for people with anxious or avoidant attachment, and guide these individuals to having a more secure attachment style.

However, people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles may find people with a secure attachment style as boring, interpreting the lack of drama within the relationship as a lack of chemistry. They may therefore prefer the tumultuousness that being in a relationship with another anxious or avoidant attached person may give, often interpreting this as passion and chemistry.

When anxious attachment styles come together the relationship can be unpredictable; whereas a relationship between people with avoidant attachment styles may be difficult to get off the ground, as partners may value independence over the relationship.

When people who have an anxious attachment style partner up with an individual with an avoidant attachment style, there is the potential for the partners to experience conflict as these attachment styles can play into each other – with the “avoidant” validating the fear that drives the “anxious”, resulting in behaviours of neediness from the “anxious” partner, which then in turn validates the “avoidant’s” need for space, independence and belief that intimacy can be painful.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

Yes, you can!

According to research and the self-help book Attached by Levine and Heller (2010), our attachment styles are not set in stone and are adaptable.

We can learn from people who have a secure attachment style, to effectively communicate our needs and feelings and be more trusting in intimate relationships. With influence from a secure attachment style partner, we can become more aware of how we are, how we act and respond in relationships, and reflect on what we do best and what we do not.

Working with a trained therapist is another great way to learn about what your attachment style is; how it has evolved; and how it impacts your romantic relationships.

If you or your therapist identify that you may have an anxious attachment style, then strategies will be discussed on how to assist you in overcoming any potential obstacles to relationships your attachment style may cause, and help lead you to a more secure attachment style.

If you and your therapist identify that you have an avoidant attachment style, then your therapist can guide you to overcoming your struggles with intimacy and help you towards relationships that are meaningful and have a level of intimacy that is satisfying to you and your partner.