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You know about love languages, you know about zodiac signs. But one personality type/social behavior bucket you might not be familiar yet with is attachment styles. Whereas love languages and zodiac signs can feel woo-woo for some, attachment-based therapy is a popular form of psychological counseling rooted in decades of study and research. Neat, right?
So let’s get to the 411. Every single person has an attachment style, and you’ve had one since you were a teeny tiny kiddo. Attachment is the bond you formed with your primary caregiver (a parent, for many of us) in your first 18 months of life, influenced by how they met your needs. Your attachment style tends to stay the same into adulthood, manifesting as a social coping behavior and impacting how you relate to others. Whether it’s with a friend or romantic partner, attachment activates in a dyad relationship where you’re one-on-one with someone.
So, take a second to analyze your behavior in relationships and see if you notice any repeating patterns. Always feeling jealous? Struggling with emotional intimacy? Believing that you love your significant other more than they love you? Those patterns might indicate an insecure attachment style.
Ahead, Paula Sacks, LICSW, attachment specialist and author, walks through the basics of attachment styles and how they set the stage for adult romantic relationships. Keep in mind that each of the attachment styles has different traits, and you might not necessarily fit an exact profile. That’s what self-analysis is for!
The Four Attachment Styles
According to Sacks, about two-thirds of the population have a secure attachment type. As children, these people had their needs met when it came to seeking comfort, soothing and support from their caregiver. Since the child’s physical and emotional needs were satisfied, they grew up to become securely attached.
A relationship with two securely attached people is honest and emotionally close. “The partners are happy individually,” Sacks explains. “They can speak up to one another about what they want. They value the relationship. When they self-sacrifice, they’re doing it for the team. They act for the good relationship, not their personal needs.”
Anxious / Preoccupied
Anxious attachment style adults were also anxious babies. “This is the baby that doesn’t leave mom’s side, that is constantly clinging and crying,” Sacks says, noting that anxious/preoccupied attachment is created out of perceived neglect. (Just to be clear, this is not to imply the parents were parenting badly. What parents understood as loving and attentive just might have been perceived differently.)
“This type has hyperactivated their longing, exhibiting self-sacrificing behavior and believing the other person in the relationship is more important than they are,” says Sacks. They have a difficult time with boundaries, and they struggle to be alone. Anxious/preoccupied types have high levels of anxiety that their partner is not invested in them and are scared of being betrayed. They’re so desperate for a bond, they end up breaking it.
Dismissive / Avoidant
“An avoidant baby becomes a dismissive adult because very early on, they have a need that’s not met. It’s survival. They stop needing.” As Sacks describes, these adults become “islands.” They excel in school and life, but they don’t necessarily have joy from it. They look successful on paper, because they do, but feel emotionally empty because they’ve grown up with deactivated longing.
In relationships, they’re aloof and struggle to be dependent on another person. Avoiding emotional closeness is generally the vibe, and they probably have trouble committing to someone because they’re so good at self-soothing. It feels easier to be distant than to get close to someone and be abandoned.
Disorganized / Fearful-Avoidant
There is a fourth attachment style where both the anxious and dismissive behaviors manifest inside of a person, and they’re constantly at war internally about which one to activate while in a dyad. It’s the result of the primary caregiver being a source of both desire and fear.
Sacks say that you get complicated feelings of “I hate you!” and “don’t leave me!” because of trouble with emotional regulation. She notes that this attachment style is best left to the professionals, but if you’d like to learn more, she recommends reading up on the book Emotional Vampires by Dr. Al Berstein
Determining Your Attachment Style
You can take a quiz, like this one, to figure out your attachment style. Keep in mind that there’s a lot of individual variability – just like how not all Pisces daydream and sob, and not all people with a “gifts” love language want to receive expensive jewelry. If you want a deep analysis and counseling on how attachment affects your relationship, it’s always best to discuss it with a licensed pro.
Insecure Attachment IRL
It’s strange to think that as adults we may be mimicking the feelings we had when we were tiny humans in diapers, but it’s a real thing. So how do attachment styles play out in real time? While secure attachment doesn’t necessarily equal a cuteness overload, it does imply a healthy and balanced partnership. Two people dating with insecure attachments, however, is more emotionally challenging.
The anxious person in the relationships will always treat their partner as more important. For the dismissive person, no one is more important than they are, and they love someone being devoted to them. Opposites attract, and according to Sacks, people with anxious and dismissive attachment styles “just can’t get enough of each other.” They long for the qualities they don’t have, but it can create chaos.
Here’s the example she paints: The dismissive asks where the anxious would like to go to dinner. The anxious wants to eat sushi, but wouldn’t be able to enjoy eating sushi knowing the dismissive wanted pizza, and they would get preoccupied with the fact that their S.O. isn’t happy. The anxious person says, “I don’t care where we go,” but eventually starts getting resentful because they’re eating pizza every night. They’re hurt because the dismissive never wants to do anything they anxious person wants to do — but they also never asked or said out loud they want to eat sushi. The dismissive will continue eating pizza, because doing what they want works quite well for them.
Sacks notes that it’s very unlikely to get two dismissive types together, because it looks like two friends living together, each with their own separate lives. “And you don’t get two anxious/preoccupied together because they’ll never know where to go to dinner,” she says. Unless it’s the opposite, it’s not appealing.
Navigating Attachment Issues
It’s one thing to know your attachment style, but the bigger question is what are you going to do with it?
The goal is to move toward secure and healthy attachment, which is where most of us already fall. For others, realizing your attachment style is half the battle. If you’re anxious/preoccupied, the focus is to stop self-sacrificing and say what you want for dinner. If you’re dismissive/avoidant, you’ll need to learn how to focus on your partner. The good news is that there are wonderful experts out there and resources like The Attachment Project that can help with healing old wounds and disrupted attachment styles.
Basically, everyone could use a little bit of help and time to work on their own stuff! Even those of us in secure relationships get stressed and unhappy. But that’s OK because therapy and individual attention are wonderful tools for self-growth.
Whatever your coupling, you want to focus on the relationship. Sacks says, “The important thing is not sushi or pizza, it’s getting along with somebody, having a wonderful time, and being grateful for what you have.”
A version of this story was published March 2021.
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