The way we are raised by our parents or caregivers ultimately influences the way we relate to others. These role models are our source of knowledge on what it means to be human—they tend to our needs, teach us how to take care of ourselves, and show us what love is. Through our parents or caregivers, we learn how to regulate our emotions and respond to the world around us.
The bond we form with our parents or caregivers can form our attachment style in all other relationships. Researchers, Bowlby and Ainsworth pioneered a study on the way children behaved when separated from their parents and their behaviors when they returned. They established an attachment theory from four attachment types they identified in children: anxious, avoidant, anxious-avoidant, and secure.
Usually, the attachment style formed in childhood will be the one we will carry throughout the rest of our lives. However, with conscious understanding and effort, we can move from one style into the other.
Growing up with an inconsistent parenting or caregiving style can cause an anxious attachment. Inconsistency creates a lack of trust in others as the child never knows where they stand with their caregiver. They have a hard time feeling emotionally safe in their relationships. This is because they have not mastered feeling emotionally safe within themselves and often lack the ability to self-soothe.
Anxious attachment can develop from a childhood involving:
- Early separation from parents
- Inconsistency in parenting and emotional response
- A parent or caregiver with depression or anxiety
- A parent who is unsure how to raise children or has anxious attachment as well
- A long period of hospitalization
- Periods of neglect in the household where the child’s needs were overlooked.
- Traumatic experiences
Signs of Anxious Attachment
An anxious attachment style displays signs of jealousy and other insecurities in a relationship. They are often clingy and needy, need constant reassurance, and lack boundaries. If you think you may have an anxious attachment style, you may exhibit any of the following signs:
- A deep yearning for intimacy with another and a fear when those needs are not met
- Fearing your emotions and committing to intimacy with others
- Feeling like no amount of reassurance is enough and searching for emotional unavailability signs in their partners
- Become anxious or overly communicative when away from your partner
- Stalking your partner and being overly paranoid when they talk to other people
- Not trusting your partner and questioning their motivations
- Not respecting your partner’s boundaries and seeing the need for space as rejection
- Having a deep fear of abandonment
- Have a hyper-fixation on a person
- Low self-esteem
Having an emotionally unavailable parent or caregiver can cause a child to develop an avoidant attachment. Your parents and caregivers teach us necessary skills for expressing and processing our emotions in a healthy manner. If these skills are not developed, the child may grow up with an avoidant attachment style seeing their emotions as something they need to bottle up and keep to themselves. Avoidants struggle to find safety in emotional closeness.
Typically, avoidantly attached adults experienced childhoods where their caregivers provided essentials like food and shelter but did not extend much beyond that. They did not tune into their child’s emotional needs or distress. Carrying this into adulthood, an avoidantly attached individual may suppress their desire for comfort when upset or distressed and avoid emotional closeness in both their plutonic and romantic relationships. This can be read by others as emotional unavailability.
An avoidantly attached child may have a parent or caregiver with the following attributes:
- Feeling overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities
- Lack empathy
- Lack knowledge on how to support their child emotionally
- Have troubles with commitment and consistency
- Have an avoidant attachment
Signs of Avoidant Attachment
Think you may have avoidant attachment or think you know someone who does? Here are some tell-tale signs:
- Suppressing emotions
- Withdrawing and dealing with difficult situations alone
- Not speaking up about what’s bothering them
- Being avoidant when it comes to emotional intimacy in relationships
- Feeling burdened or overwhelmed by their partners wanting to get emotionally closer
- Fearing rejection
- Withdrawing from unpleasant conversations
- Being overly focused on their own needs and comforts
- Having a negative view of others and elated self-esteem
Anxious-avoidant attachment is the rarest style of the four and combines the attributes of both anxious and avoidant attachment. This style is usually developed from having at least one parent or caregiver that exhibited frightening behavior.
Anxious-avoidant individuals want love from others and crave affection, but they have a hard time feeling comfortable in intimate relationships. This creates a push-pull energy inside of them and can confuse their partners who may see them as being extremely interested at times, and aloof at other times. They may encourage intimacy at the beginning of their relationships, but then emotionally and physically retreat when they feel vulnerable. This is because they crave affection but have been taught not to trust it.
Signs of Anxious-Avoidant Attachment
- They are anxious
- They come on strong and then disappear and then repeat this pattern over and over
- They have a hard time regulating emotions – they have not found healthy coping methods for releasing anger
- They may have an eating disorder or exhibit traits of borderline personality disorder
- They view themselves in a negative light
- They are extremely pessimistic
- A high sex drive and desire to have many sexual partners is common for this style
- They may be quick to anger and become violent when their partners get too intimate as they can perceive intimacy as a threat
Having a secure attachment is the healthiest, most desirable attachment style of the four. Securely attached people are genuinely comfortable with how they interact with others, are open, and are not afraid of intimacy in relationships.
Having a caregiver in our childhood that makes us feel safe, secure, and stable will more than likely result in a secure attachment growing up.
Signs of Secure Attachment in Adults
Think you may have a secure attachment? Here are some tell-tale signs of a secure attachment style in adults:
They are comfortable with opening up: They can express their thoughts and feelings easily. They tend not to dodge questions when asked. If they don’t want to disclose information, they are direct about it but for the most part, they have a willingness to share who they are with you.
They are honest and direct: Securely attached individuals don’t play games. You will always know where you stand with them.
They show empathy: Empathy is freely given to you without making you feel guilty.
You feel they can protect you: They can take care of you because they can take care of themselves.
Strong support: They give support to their relationships and can ask for help when they need it.
They respect boundaries: When you express your boundaries to a securely attached person, they will respect them. If you overstep their boundaries, they will tell you politely tell communicate that with you. They expect the same in return.
They meet you in the middle: A securely attached individual doesn’t take disagreements personally. They will take a step back when things get heated and will have an attitude of wanting to work on the problem together. They are good at compromising.
Comfortable with commitment: The idea of commitment doesn’t scare a securely attached person. They tend to prefer long-term commitments because they are not afraid of intimacy.
Unconditional trust: A securely attached partner won’t exhibit signs of jealousy or be doubtful of your motives without due cause. They tend to enter relationships with a healthy level of trust and remain faithful and reliable.
They don’t hold onto resentment: While they may have had unpleasant experiences in the past, they don’t carry this with them into new relationships or harbor any resentment toward past partners that could jeopardize their new relationship.
It’s important to note that whatever attachment type you are, you can change it. If you are identifying with anxious, avoidant, or anxious-avoidant attachment styles, you can move into a more secure attachment with conscious effort. Consider speaking to a therapist who can help you develop skills to break your childhood patterns. Another way to grow in secure attachment is to develop bonds with securely attached individuals. They can help you feel more emotionally safe and build more intimacy in your relationships.