Ever wondered how much your life as a kid influences you today? Well, it turns out that there's a good chance that how you act in your romantic relationships as an adult is determined by the relationship you had with your primary caregiver as an infant. This is according to what is known in psychology as Adult Attachment Theory.
Attachment theory mainly deals with the relationship between parents and children in developing how children respond in relationships and how they control their emotions. In the late '80s, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver noticed this trend (which is established within an infant's first two years) extends into adulthood in certain ways. Children who see adults as a safe and secure base will likely have a similar experience with their own relationships as an adult.
Researchers have identified four main attachment types or "styles" in adults, one titled "secure", and three types of insecure styles that include anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.
Here are each of these types explained. Which type do you fall into?
This is the ideal attachment style. The person feels secure about themselves, as well as their relationship. These individuals manage to find a balance between independence and intimacy. It's also the most common among adults. According to Shaver and Hazan, roughly 60 percent of people are securely attached.
A securely-attached style results from a parent/infant relationship where the parent is balanced in their emotions, both positive and negative. These parents are emotionally available and respond appropriately to their child's behaviour.
As the name suggests, these are the worriers. They crave both physical and emotional intimacy to the point where they may become overly dependent (or clingy) to their partner. The anxiously-attached also don't rate themselves very highly and seek constant approval from their partners. People with this attachment style are usually emotionally expressive and impulsive in relationships. They constantly fear that others might not share the same emotional expression and that their partner will abandon them.
This attachment style usually develops due to mixed or inconsistent responses from parents, because the child never knows what to expect. Children of overprotective parents also tend to develop this style of attachment.
These people want independence and shy away from showing any emotion. They put everyone at arm's length, avoid intimacy, and often don't have a high regard for their partner. These are typically the people who suppress and hide their feelings, and usually distance themselves from people who reject them.
Dismissive-avoidant attachment styles usually develop when a child's parent is disinterested and/or are emotionally unavailable, forcing the child to expect rejection, hence keeping everyone at a safe distance to avoid getting hurt.
One of the most difficult styles, and the antithesis of securely-attached, people who are fearful-avoidant both crave intimacy, yet at the same time reject it. These people have negative views of both themselves and other people, they trust no-one, not even themselves. It's a rollercoaster ride where they try to suppress or reject their emotions, yet at the same time want to express them.
This confusing style usually develops as the result of a traumatic childhood, or where their emotional needs weren't met.
These attachment styles are by no means absolute, with so many factors that may influence your attachment style along the way. These include multiple caregivers, for instance where the one parent fosters a secure attachment and the other insecure. Parents aren't perfect either, and most parents don't deliberately neglect their children.
Closer to secure
Thankfully attachment styles aren't permanent and can be improved. By partnering with someone who has a more secure attachment style, the insecure partner benefits from the more secure partner's behaviour. Choosing a more secure partner can be tricky though, as we often partner with those who affirm our view of relationships, such as an anxious style with a dismissive style, because the more intimacy the anxious partner wants, the more the dismissive partner pushes away, thereby creating the rejection that the person might expect.
Knowing your attachment style makes you more aware of how you act and the areas you need to focus on to improve your style. Therapy, both couples and individual, can help a great deal in understanding your type of attachment and provide tools to improve your attachment style.
If you're unsure about your attachment style, here's a handy questionnaire.