- A secure attachment style helps you use skills from a healthy childhood to have healthy relationships.
- But if you have an anxious attachment style, you may be dependent and have issues with self esteem.
- An avoidant attachment style can lead to steering clear of vulnerability and connections entirely.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
The relationships and experiences that you have with your caregivers as a child directly correlate to the types of relationships you have as an adult. This phenomenon is known as attachment theory, and it was defined by a British psychologist named John Bowlby.
While everybody's upbringing is different, there are four general types of attachment styles that Bowlby identified:
Knowing your own attachment style can help you better understand why you are the way you are in relationships, which could help you build healthier ones.
Here's how to tell which attachment style you are and what that means for your relationships.
A secure attachment style is considered the healthiest of the four. People with a secure attachment style are comfortable being independent, but they are also comfortable being vulnerable with a partner says Christie Kederian, EdD, a psychologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice.
"They are well-connected with themselves which allows them to be authentic, engaged, vulnerable, and independent all at the same time," says Kederian. This helps them form loving and stable bonds where they can give and receive love and affection with clear communication.
According to Kederian, someone is most likely to have a secure attachment style if they had a parent or caretaker who:
- Was well connected to them without being overbearing
- Set healthy routines
- Encouraged their child to express their emotions
- Expressed their own emotions in a healthy way
These behaviors can lead to healthy, well-adjusted adults. Kederian says some characteristics of people with a secure attachment type are:
- You have a positive view of yourself.
- You feel comfortable sharing your emotions and asking or answering deeper questions.
- Your emotions are not dependent on other people's actions.
- You feel comfortable being alone with yourself.
- You can navigate disagreements or opposition without getting triggered by past trauma.
People with an anxious attachment style may have a lot more trouble feeling safe and secure in a relationship than those with a secure attachment style.
"People who have anxious attachment may struggle with low self-esteem and worthiness or feeling good enough. This can often cause hyper-dependence on their partner to meet those needs and approval," says Kederian.
A child can develop an anxious attachment style if they had parents or caregivers who:
- Weren't consistent — for example, Kederian says they may have had a caregiver who was supportive and attended to their needs at times, but other times, they were not there to support them.
- Were too overbearing
- Were absent
In addition, children who come from a household with divorced parents or experienced a childhood trauma like abuse may also develop an anxious attachment style. Kederian says this results in early fear of abandonment or rejection which can show up through anxiety and insecurity in adult relationships.
Kederian says some signs of an anxious attachment type are:
- You have low self-esteem.
- You're clingy.
- You're extremely dependent on a partner.
- You struggle with healthy boundaries.
- You have difficulty building trust with a partner.
People with an avoidant attachment style also tend to have trouble forming healthy relationships.
As the name suggests, people with this attachment style may avoid emotional intimacy or vulnerability, making it difficult for them to connect with others.
This avoidance may be due to a fear of abandonment, says Katie Rom Hisel, MA, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice.
Rom Hisel says avoidant attachment style may occur when a child's primary caretaker:
- Didn't meet their basic food, shelter, or emotional needs
- Didn't validate their child's feelings
- Lacked empathy
"Avoidant attachment frequently stems from childhood trauma, but severe trauma isn't required. A consistent non-responsiveness with a caregiver is sufficient," says Rom Hisel.
Rom Hisel says some characteristics of someone with an avoidant attachment style are:
- You avoid emotional intimacy.
- You avoid relying on others for support.
- You suppress your emotions.
- You may view others as "clingy" or "needy" if they want a deeper emotional relationship.
- You focus on your own needs and see yourself as very independent.
A disorganized attachment style is similar to an avoidant attachment style but with some key differences.
Unlike someone with an avoidant attachment style, someone with a disorganized attachment style may initially crave closeness to others and develop intense feelings. "However, due to fears of abandonment and lack of trust, they are likely to push the other partner away," says Rom Hisel.
In these relationships, people may also have trouble communicating and expressing their needs.
Disorganized attachment is most commonly caused by childhood trauma.
"If at a vulnerable age, we learned that those who are meant to protect and care for us also harm us, we are going to experience all relationships from that perspective," says Rom Hisel. This may include experiencing abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual) or witnessing violence amongst caregivers.
Rom Hisel says some common traits of someone with a disorganized attachment style include:
- You have intense, chaotic relationship patterns.
- You have an extreme need for closeness, but simultaneously push others away.
- You experience shame and low self-esteem.
- You have difficulty trusting others.
- You fear that you are unlovable.
- You experience high anxiety.
How to develop a secure attachment style
Even if your upbringing didn't lend itself to developing a secure attachment style, it's possible to make changes in adulthood so that you can have more healthy, fulfilling relationships later in life.
One of the best ways to develop a secure attachment style as an adult is to seek help from a mental health professional.
"Therapy is an opportunity to repair the mistaken beliefs and harms caused in early childhood and practice trust and healthy boundaries. A therapist doesn't give advice but can help you better understand your patterns of interacting with others, challenges in relationships, and how to heal to reach your attachment and relational goals," says Rom Hisel.
Additionally, you will have to actively put work into building your self-esteem, improving your communication skills, and learning to healthily express yourself. Being in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style can be very beneficial, says Kederian.
Regardless of what type of attachment style your partner has, couples' therapy is always a great option to cultivate a healthy relationship.
Your attachment style is determined by the experience you had as a child with your primary caregivers.
Secure attachment style tends to lead to healthy, sustainable relationships, while anxious, avoidant, and disorganized are predictors of more tumultuous partnerships.
But even if you have an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style, and are unhappy, it's possible to make positive changes toward a healthy, fulfilling relationship if you put in the work.