Understanding Attachment Styles and How They Affect Your Relationships

Attachment styles psychology is one of the most interesting fields for marriage and family therapists to explore and master today.

Attachment styles are all about figuring out how people relate to other people. Attachment styles in relationships can make or break that relationship. Incompatible relationship attachment styles have been found to have a strong influence on the level of satisfaction in marriages.

Maybe even more important, attachment styles psychology has been found to dramatically affect parenting styles. That can have a lasting influence on how kids raised with those models relate to other people throughout their own lives.

Yet for a concept that is so important, there are still a lot of people who don’t even realize what the types of attachment styles in adults are. They wander through life experiencing the same troubles in relationship after relationship, without ever finding the key to security and happiness.

That makes understanding relationship attachment styles particularly critical for anyone preparing for marriage and family therapist careers. It’s a ticket to better relationships in your personal life, and more effective counseling practices in your professional life.

Why Is It Important To Understand Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles psychology is one of those keys that unlocks a whole lot of mysteries in relationships when you never even realized there was a lock there in the first place. Once you know what the types of attachment styles in adults are and how to decipher them, suddenly a lot of apparently strange behaviors will start to make sense. And armed with that knowledge, you can do a lot of good getting people reconnected to one another.

Figuring out attachment styles in relationships puts you on the fast-track to fixing most relationship problems. The style of attachments that people form with one another can be the underlying cause of everything from infidelity to aggression. You can’t deal with the damage unless you understand the root cause behind it.

You will also learn how to tailor your counseling for people with different relationship attachment styles. You’ll figure out that what might seem like great advice to someone with a secure attachment style could put someone with an anxious attachment style into a complete emotional tailspin. And you don’t want to be the one cleaning up after that crash!

Getting your understanding of the types of attachment styles in adults is a critical part of building up your assessment and counseling strategies. But there are even more important reasons to dive deep into the different attachment styles if you want to succeed as a therapist.

Therapists Need To Know Their Own Relationship Attachment Styles to Succeed

It’s also surprisingly important for therapists to understand that their own attachment style can have a big influence on patient relationships. Attachment styles and relationships aren’t limited to just romantic relationship. Every relationship will show the effects of your attachment style, even the patient/therapist relationship. And the success of that relationship may revolve around the compatibility of those styles.

For example, a therapist that has an avoidant style will often have trouble forming the kind of bonds required in therapeutic relationships, instead focusing on thoughts and intellectual matters rather than feelings. In some cases, this could even be good! But more often, it prevents effective therapy.

Most therapists undergo therapy themselves to gain a better understanding of their own style. More important, you can learn how to shift your styles to work most effectively with the individual client in front of you.

Understanding relationship attachment styles gives you a diagnostic edge, but it also provides a kind of detachment that is useful in therapy. If you understand the templates for attachment styles in psychology, you’re able to look at it more objectively.

What Are The 4 Relationship Attachment Styles?

For such an important concept, it’s actually really easy to learn and understand the various relationship attachment styles. For starters, there are only four types recognized in adults. So if you can count to four, you are already well on your way to mastering attachment styles in psychology.

The different styles were uncovered by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, who was influenced by the fact that he spent much of his youth away from parents, raised by nannies and sent off to boarding school. He created a natural curiosity about attachment formation later in life, those styles are routinely used in marriage and family therapy practice today.

The idea of attachment styles is also becoming more and more mainstream, so it’s not going to be unusual to find patients who walk in the door already having some idea what their style might be. But as a professional, you’ll have to go a lot deeper than just pop-psychology definitions. You will also have to be prepared to break that information down for patients in a way they can digest.

Bowlby defined attachments as lasting psychological connections between individuals. They are bonds that people tend to take for granted in their personal interactions. But Bowlby realized there was nothing simple or natural about them. The ways that different people build different kinds of relationships stack up with their own history of attachment and the repeated behaviors that have been modeled for them over the years.

There are differences between infant attachment styles and types of attachment styles in adults, although the two can be related. For adults, Bowlby found four relationship attachment styles:

1. Anxious Attachment Style

People who have an anxious attachment style are insecure in their intimate relationships. They frequently worry about rejection and abandonment and come across as needy and sensitive. These traits can actually come to lead to exactly the outcome they fear, as their reactions to perceived dismissal can create actual rejection from frustrated partners!

Anxious attachments don’t communicate clearly. Their perceptions of the relationship may exist mostly in their own head, and this can result in an appearance of moodiness and emotionality without any apparent triggers. They may actively provoke conflict as a way of testing the strength of the relationship. Of course, that only serves to destabilize it further.

Because of their internalization of the relationship, they take behaviors too personally and often blame others for issues in the relationship.

2. Disorganized Attachment Style

A disorganized, or unresolved, attachment style revolves around uncertainty resulting from prior relationship traumas. Disorganized individuals may have experienced losses of people close to them in the past. They tend to avoid becoming close to others as a way of avoiding future losses.

Like individuals with an anxious attachment style, they can provoke fights or arguments, but as a way of creating space and distance rather than as a test of strength. They come across as antisocial and narcissistic, and can be susceptible to substance abuse and criminality.

Since they have trouble regulating their own emotions, these individuals are also prone to maltreating children or other dependents.

3. Avoidant Attachment Style

Avoidant, or dismissive, attachment style attempts to keep partners at arm’s length. These individuals value their independence and prefer autonomy to intimacy. They come across as cool and controlling and won’t depend on their partner.

This style tends to separate emotion from the relationship and evaluate connections on a pragmatic, intellectual level. They will typically try to avoid conflict, but may react explosively when it is unavoidable. They will be perceived as emotionally unavailable by most partners.

4. Secure Attachment Style

A secure attachment style is the ideal. Individuals who feel secure in their relationships can be both emotionally available and reliable without becoming overly dependent or compulsive. They are secure in themselves but also appreciate and value their partners and recognize and meet their needs.

Because they are secure in themselves, people exhibiting this attachment style can also communicate their own needs and emotions more freely. They are trusting and empathetic, able to tolerate differences and forgive mis-steps.

They have an ability to be close and intimate and also offer space and to be secure in separation. They make excellent parents who are in tune with their child’s needs, and tend to raise kids who will also have a secure attachment style.

What Is The Most Common Attachment Style?

If you’re interested in a career in counseling or therapy of any kind, you will have to learn to recognize all four of the most common attachment styles in psychology, but you can use one great trick to kick-start your analysis.

That trick is realizing that almost no one fits clearly into one single attachment style!

The reality is that attachment styles in relationships can change based on the relationship itself. A person who has a secure attachment in one relationship might have an avoidant style in another. Or, even more commonly, a person might show a combination of different style traits even in the course of a single relationship with just one other person!

Think about all the various situations that people go through with the partners, co-workers, or family. It’s rare for anyone to just fit right into a single slot with every interaction. They can be in turns needy, dismissive, stable, or disorganized, depending on the situation and the other person they are interacting with.

It Turns Out That Most People Are Pretty All Right

There is some good news about relationship attachment style prevalence, though. Research conducted at the University of Denver suggests that around 60 percent of people primarily have secure attachments. While they may have some traits that wander into more insecure, damaging styles, most people are basically confident, empathetic, and caring. Does that make your heart glow, or what?

Only about twenty percent of people have an avoidant attachment, and another twenty percent an anxious attachment style. But even those individuals can have some relationships where they exhibit more secure attachment styles. There is hope for everyone!

That combination of styles can make diagnosis a little more difficult, but usually the patterns come out with careful investigation. You can see the same kinds of problems coming up from relationship to relationship, and that will give you a pretty good idea what the biggest style in the room will be.

How Does Attachment Style Affect Relationships?

How does attachment style affect relationships should be obvious once you understand what an attachment style is, but let’s go ahead and spell it out.

The biggest way that relationship attachment styles impact the relationships themselves is through miscommunication. People with different attachment styles will see their relationship through different lenses. They’re never on the same page as their partners. Their reactions will seem uneven and out of step with one another. It’s like a game of telephone with only two people… every message seems to get mixed up between them.

That’s because attachments are all about underlying assumptions. A person with a secure style basically assumes the best; they take things at face value, say what they mean, and offer both respect and affection.

But put them together with someone who is basically anxious, and all the subtext changes. They assume the worst, because that’s been their experience. They look for hidden signs in what people tell them, reading the wrong meaning into even simple statements. They may try to use or withhold affection as a sort of test rather than simply something that belongs to a healthy relationship.

For therapists, you can see these patterns assert themselves from relationship to relationship. The echoes of an attachment style will show up everywhere from the most intimate relationships to how a person engages with coworkers. Without professional guidance, a lot of people never realize what their relationship attachment style is. And if you can’t figure out what it is, you can’t very easily change it.

At heart, attachment styles are about getting individual needs met. A professional therapist can recognize the ways that maladaptive attachment styles are self-sabotaging. For example, a person with an insecure or avoidant attachment type might actively seek out partners that are distant or cool

Maybe even worse is the fact that poor attachment styles can bleed down through generations. A parent with an insecure attachment style is likely to create attachment style problems in their children, for example. That kind of cascade effect comes crashing down through generations and across boundaries, making lives more difficult and causing more harm for future partners and kids.

But no one relationship attachment style has to be permanent. Armed with the right information about relationship attachment styles, therapists can help anyone work toward more lasting, stable, secure connections in all their relationships.