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Understanding the role of attachment styles in adult relationships

Updated: Jan 14

Do you ever wonder why you tend to react or behave in certain ways with your partner? It could be because of your attachment style.

Attachment theory was created by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the late 1950s, and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth further developed the theory in the following years after doing her own research studies.

Attachment is described as the emotional bond formed between a child and their primary caregiver (usually the mother) in response to the child’s cues for safety and support. The quality of this bond can determine how the person relates with others throughout their life and the level of intimacy someone feels capable of. Further experiences between infancy and adulthood, as well as personality, can affect the quality of our attachment in relationships.

Attachment theory has become mainstream in recent years and can help us understand our behaviour patterns and ways of showing up in relationships. Often this is unconscious until we read a post or blog and think ‘Oh, that’s me!’ and it can be one part of the complex puzzle of who we are and why we do what we do.

So, let’s explore the attachment styles in more detail...

Secure Attachment (I call this style the Bond Builder) indicates a healthy and positive emotional bond has been formed. The caregiver is responsive and attuned to the child’s needs. The child trusts and has confidence in the caregiver as a secure "home base".

In adulthood, this person is likely to be confident in themselves, able to trust others, feel stable in the face of challenges, and have a hopeful outlook on life. They tend to have good emotional regulation, and a positive self-image and see others in a positive light also. In relationships, they can set boundaries and express themselves well, seek out the support and intimacy of their partner (and also enjoy alone time), and can healthily manage conflict.

This style of attachment is ideal in relationships, but this doesn't mean you won't ever experience points where you feel a little insecure or unstable - it's just a good base to start from.

Now let's talk about insecure attachment styles...

Anxious Attachment (I call this style the Silent Diplomat) comes about when the caregiver is inconsistently responsive or available to a child's needs which leads to the child feeling the caregiver is unpredictable, and they develop a fear of abandonment or rejection.

As anxiously attached children develop into adults, this fear transfers into their intimate relationships and may result in intense emotions, struggles with jealousy, and the constant need for reassurance and validation from their partner. Their self-esteem is likely lower with emotional dependence on their partner for happiness and security. People-pleasing behaviours are often high, as is seeing others as more worthy or important than them. They will keep the peace, and minimise their own needs and concerns to avoid conflict (because that could lead to rejection/abandonment). They may cling if they sense their partner pulling back or trying to create space.

Avoidant Attachment (I call this style the Autonomous Navigator) arises when the caregiver is less available or responsive to a child's needs, leading the child to downplay their emotional needs, developing self-reliance and emotional independence.

Adults with an avoidant attachment style generally have high self-esteem gained through their independence, but they may find it challenging to trust others fully. They prefer emotional distance and self-sufficiency even when in a relationship. They tend to have trouble opening up emotionally and avoid vulnerability so forming deep bonds can be challenging. They might struggle to express their own needs or respond to the emotional needs of their partner due to the strong need for autonomy and dislike of others relying on them.

Disorganised Attachment (I call this style the Uneasy Explorer) emerges when a child experiences inconsistent caregiving or traumatic events. What develops from this is an internal conflict as they desire closeness, but also have a deep fear of rejection or harm from others.

In adulthood, they may desire emotional intimacy but struggle with trust and the fear of vulnerability with a partner, oscillating between seeking closeness and pushing them away. This makes having a healthy relationship difficult, as they are hot and cold, and tend to have a negative view of themselves and others.

Having a partner with a different attachment style can present some challenges, especially if your needs and relational tendencies are conflicting. However, the good news is, in the right circumstances (with the right support from your partner or a therapist, understanding yourself on a deeper level, and supportive strategies) you can adjust your attachment behaviours and start to develop a more secure style.

We are all individuals with our own experiences, and we are all capable of growth and change. Understanding your attachment style (and your partner's) is just the starting point.

If you need counselling support to start unpacking your relationship dynamics, you can book an appointment here.

If you'd like to learn which style you are, I also have a free quiz, check it out here.


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