Attachment styles and relationships

What is attachment?

Attachment is our emotional bond with other human beings. We can an innate drive to bond with others but we now know that the way we bond with others often follows a blueprint from our very first connection with another – with our primary caregivers. 

Attachment in babies and young children

In the late 1960’s a British psychologist, John Bowlby, used the term attachment to mean the lasting connection between people. He was primarily interested in how babies formed their very first attachment to their primary caregiver, normally their mothers. He concluded that a strong attachment to a caregiver provides a necessary sense of security and safety but not all attachments formed were secure and this could make young children more fearful of new experiences. 

Later research by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s showed that babies had different types of attachment to their mothers by placing them in situations where their mother would briefly leave a room and a stranger would enter before finally being reunited with their mothers. Some children would be seemingly unfazed while others would be extremely anxious and upset. She found that the way the caregivers responded to their children related to what kind of attachment had formed. See chart below with a summary of their findings. Those with consistently empathic mothers formed secure, healthy attachments. Caregivers who were inconsistent, uninterested or erratic had babies with insecure attachments, from avoidant to anxious

Attachment in adults

We don’t grow out of these attachment styles as we mature and you may find yourself recognising  your attachment style in some of the descriptions below. Early attachment styles linger and can have a significant impact on your later relationships. Research on adults has found similar ratios of attachment styles in adults as they see in babies with about 60% of people having a secure attachment style. These styles effect:

  • – How we perceive and feel about emotional closeness with others
    • – How we deal with conflict
  • – Expectations from the relationship and our romantic partner
  • – Ability to communicate our own needs effectively. 

Our attachment style as adults relates to two factors – our anxiety levels and levels of avoidance in relationships


Secure (low anxiety, low avoidance)

Comfortable with emotional closeness, trusting and empathic. Is able to depend on their partner and communicates their needs openly and honestly. Accepts partner’s need for seperateness without feeling rejected. 

Anxious/Preoccupied (high anxiety, low avoidance)

Craves the intimacy and closeness of a relationship but fearful and insecure about the relationship. The fear of rejection and abandonment may make them seem needy and/or highly emotional. 

Dismissing-Avoidant (low anxiety, high avoidance) 

Uncomfortable with emotional closeness and craves independence. Might find it difficult to trust others or depend on them. Happier feeling self sufficient and not dependent on anyone else or anyone being dependant on them. 

Fearful-Avoidant (high anxiety, high avoidance)

Uncomfortable with the closeness of relationships and anxious about their partner’s level of commitment and love. Worries about getting hurt and can oscillate between wanting closeness and pushing others away. 

What can you do about your attachment style?

Being aware of your attachment style is useful to help you understand why we may behave the way we do in relationships. However, in romantic relationships there are two people (generally) and each person will have their own attachment style which will impact on the relationship. For example, someone who is anxious in a relationship with someone who is avoidant will frequently feel rejected by their partner’s lack of closeness while their partner may feel stifled by their partner’s needs. 

Counselling and attachment styles

Counselling can help you understand your attachment style and understand if it is causing problems in your relationships. For example, if it is stopping you have the close relationship you desire or you would like to overcome your discomfort around emotional closeness. As a counsellor, my clients’ attachment styles can have a significant impact on the therapeutic relationship between us and I have to work carefully with them. Understanding your attachment style is a good start before taking steps to reduce any negative impact it might have on your life. Sometimes, with the aid of a counsellor or other mental health professional, it is useful to go back to the past and understand why that attachment style formed in the first place. Simply having a secure relationship with your counsellor can be the first step in healing and moving forward. 

“The propensity to make strong emotional bonds [is] a basic component of human nature”

John Bowlby

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