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  • Writer's pictureHayley McAuley

Attachment styles: what are they and can you change them?

Have you ever wondered why you struggle in some relationships? Do you worry or fear rejection? Do you push and pull in your relationships? If so, read on to find out why this may be.


Attachment styles can influence how individuals form and maintain relationships throughout their lives. These styles, which develop early in childhood through interactions with primary care-givers, shape our approaches to intimacy, trust, and dependence on others. Understanding attachment styles can offer valuable insights into our relational patterns and emotional responses.


The theory of attachment was first proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby and he suggested that children are biologically programmed to seek closeness to their care-givers as a means of survival. This instinctive behaviour leads to the formation of an attachment bond, which serves as a template for future relationships. Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist and colleague of Bowlby, further expanded on this theory through her work on the "Strange Situation" experiment. Ainsworth identified three primary attachment styles in children: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant. Later research added a fourth style, disorganised attachment.


Secure attachment - this style is characterised by a healthy balance of dependence and independence. Children with secure attachment feel confident exploring their environment, knowing they can return to their caregiver for comfort and reassurance. This sense of security stems from caregivers who are consistently responsive and sensitive to their needs. As adults, securely attached individuals tend to have trusting, long-term relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and are generally more satisfied in their relationships.


Anxious-ambivalent - this attachment style arises from inconsistent care-giving. Children with this attachment style often experience anxiety about the availability of their caregiver, leading to clinginess and dependency. These children may struggle with separation and exhibit intense distress when their caregiver leaves. In adulthood, this attachment style can manifest as a preoccupation with relationships and a constant need for reassurance.

Anxiously attached individuals may fear abandonment and often seek excessive closeness, sometimes overwhelming their partners.


Avoidant - this attachment style develops when care-givers are emotionally unavailable or unresponsive. These children learn to suppress their need for connection, becoming overly self-reliant. They may avoid seeking comfort from their care-giver and show little emotional response when separated or reunited. In adult relationships, avoidant attached individuals often value independence over closeness and may struggle with intimacy. They might keep partners at a distance and have difficulty expressing their emotions or relying on others.


Disorganised - attachment style, the fourth style identified later, typically results from care-givers who are frightening or erratic. This style is marked by a lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with the stress of separation. Children with disorganised attachment may display a mix of avoidant and anxious behaviors and can seem confused or apprehensive. In adulthood, this attachment style can lead to chaotic and unpredictable relationships. Disorganised individuals often struggle with self-esteem and may experience a higher incidence of mental health issues.


Understanding your attachment style can be a crucial step towards personal growth and healthier relationships. It allows individuals to recognise patterns in their behavior and make conscious efforts to change maladaptive behaviours. For example, those with anxious attachment can work on building self-confidence and learning to self-soothe, reducing their reliance on external validation. Similarly, individuals with avoidant attachment can practice opening up emotionally and gradually increasing their comfort with intimacy.

Therapeutic interventions can be particularly effective in addressing attachment-related issues. Therapy can help individuals explore their past experiences, understand their attachment styles, and develop healthier ways of relating to others. Additionally, forming relationships with securely attached individuals can provide positive models for intimacy and trust.

By understanding and addressing our attachment styles, we can work towards more secure, fulfilling connections with others. Whether through self-reflection, therapy, or supportive relationships, it is possible to transform our attachment patterns and enhance our emotional well-being.

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