There’s a saying that we bring our own baggage into every relationship we enter, and whether that’s a carry-on or a full-sized suitcase largely depends on how much we know about ourselves and how we operate. This type of self-awareness can be especially telling when it comes to how we express our attachment styles in relationships.

For example, maybe you’re the type of person who feels comfortable expressing their needs and emotions to their partner, confident in the responsiveness and support you’ll receive. Or, perhaps you become visibly distressed when your partner doesn’t answer your text messages immediately and find yourself flooding their phone with calls until you hear back. Possibly you’re someone who has a hard time defining the relationship because you don’t want to give up your sense of independence, despite liking your S.O. a lot.

These are all examples of attachment styles in action. Formed early in life based on your relationship dynamic with your primary caregivers, your attachment style is “the template for all intimate relationships,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart.

Understanding attachment styles in relationships is crucial as it provides insight into the emotional needs, communication patterns, and coping mechanisms of both yourself and the other people in your life (including friends and coworkers, not just romantic partners). This deeper understanding of how you and others operate can help foster empathy and improve the quality of your connections. Furthermore, it can make it easier to navigate challenges, build secure bonds, and create a foundation for healthy, fulfilling relationships.

The 4 attachment styles and how they affect your relationships

According to Dr. Manly, there are two types of attachment styles—secure and insecure. The latter is further broken down into three subtypes: avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, and disorganized, which account for the four different types of attachment styles.

Secure attachment style

Secure attachment style is characterized by feeling comfortable with emotional intimacy, having trust in your relationships, and being able to effectively balance independence and closeness. According to both Dr. Manly and licensed clinical psychologist Dina Wirick, PhD, secure attachment style is the type that allows someone to form healthy, long-lasting romantic relationships most easily. This isn’t to say people who are securely attached will have entirely smooth sailing when it comes to relationships, but they’ll have an easier time navigating rough waters without losing their sense of self or sabotaging the relationship.

What might this look like in practice? “Individuals with a secure attachment style tend to be ‘rocks’ in a relationship. They are generally self-aware, emotionally available, confident in their relationship abilities, and grounded, in addition to having high emotional intelligence,” says Dr. Manly. They’re able to be intimate and vulnerable, and “struggles are usually overcome with focused honesty, compassion, and respect,” she adds.

Signs of secure attachment include setting and maintaining clear boundaries, navigating through conflict with empathy, and being able to bounce back from discouragements or setbacks.

The positive effects of a secure attachment style on relationships include enhanced emotional intimacy, effective communication, increased trust, and the ability to navigate challenges collaboratively, fostering a stable and fulfilling connection between partners.

Avoidant attachment style

People with an avoidant attachment style tend to downplay the significance of emotional intimacy, prioritize independence, and create distance in relationships as a means of maintaining autonomy. “Those with this style often seem to have strong self-esteem and a very independent streak, however, their hyper-independence and strong defense mechanisms make it difficult to connect on an intimate level,” Dr. Manly says. They may be most comfortable in shorter-term or more superficial relationships like hookups to avoid the deeper level of connection longer-term relationships require. They may also feel aloof or even superior to others, she adds.

People with this attachment style may have issues working through problems with partners, which can make it tough to move the relationship forward. “These are people who are going to run from problems and who don’t want to communicate, and they may shut down instead of working through issues,” says therapist Willow McGinty, LMHC, lead clinician at Thriveworks.

Those with an avoidant attachment style often employ coping mechanisms such as emotional distancing, reluctance to disclose personal feelings, and a tendency to minimize the importance of emotional connections to protect themselves from vulnerability, maintaining a sense of self-reliance and independence in relationships. They may also engage in activities that distract from emotional intimacy or be hesitant to fully invest in close bonds. This could look like consistently prioritizing work over emotional connection, avoiding deep conversations about personal feelings, or frequently seeking personal space and alone time to maintain a sense of independence and emotional self-sufficiency in relationships.

As a result of their tendency to create emotional distance, the partners of people with avoidant attachment styles tend to feel neglected or frustrated. Avoidants may struggle to fully engage in the emotional aspects of a relationship, leading to challenges in building and sustaining a close and connected partnership.

Anxious attachment style

An anxious attachment style, sometimes referred to as an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, is characterized by seeking high levels of closeness and reassurance in relationships, often experiencing heightened anxiety about potential abandonment and relying on external validation for a sense of security.

“The anxiously attached person feels deeply flawed but often elevates a partner to ‘perfect’ status,” Dr. Manly says. “Often hyper-dependent, the anxiously attached person can become angry or reactive if upset or unnerved.” Because they may want to manufacture closeness and hold onto it whenever it’s in their midst, they’re especially at risk of falling into codependent relationships.

Individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may face challenges in relationships as they often exhibit heightened sensitivity to perceived threats of abandonment, leading to excessive worry and seeking constant reassurance. This anxious anticipation can result in emotional ups and downs, difficulty trusting, and potential strain on the relationship as partners may feel overwhelmed by the constant need to validate and reassure.

Disorganized attachment style

A disorganized attachment style, sometimes called fearful-avoidant or unresolved, is characterized by individuals exhibiting inconsistent and unpredictable patterns of behavior in relationships, often stemming from unresolved trauma or conflicting emotions toward caregivers. According to Dr. Manly, people with this attachment style may feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells and don’t have a good handle on their emotional responses. They often want to be in relationships, she says, but have an unconscious fear of getting close to others—this vacillating makes it tough for a stable, safe, connected relationship to take root and flourish. Even if they want to connect, they may pull away before they have a chance to, or see issues where there aren’t.

As a result, their romantic relationships are usually unstable and rife with constant conflict. “Although the person with an unresolved style wants to be connected, they are deeply fearful of being attached; this leads to toxic dynamics that prevent healthy connection,” says Dr. Manly.

It can be really tough to date this attachment type because you don’t know what you’re going to get. “Those with a fearful-avoidant style often have low self-esteem and can sometimes have little respect for their partners,” she says. “Unpredictability and drama, both internal and external, are the hallmarks of the fearful-avoidant style.”

How attachment styles develop

Attachment theory, developed by psychiatrists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, suggests that the relationship between a child and their caregiver plays a crucial role in shaping their ability to form bonds in adulthood, particularly in romantic relationships. These bonds begin to take shape in early childhood, with significant influences occurring before 18 months of age.

How your caregivers responded to your emotional cues, such as offering comfort when you were upset, plays a role in shaping these bonds and influences your behaviors, affecting how you process and express emotions. Your attachment style continues to solidify during adolescence based on your caregiver’s ongoing responses to your emotional needs.

Psychotherapist Erica Cramer, LCSW, likens attachment styles to a GPS for navigating interpersonal relationships. “It helps us determine which relationships we want to pursue and which ones we should avoid,” she says. “When we reach a crossroads in a relationship, it enables us to decide which direction to turn and the best way to move forward.”

When a secure attachment style is in force, an individual can engage in romantic relationships in a positive, grounded way, explains Dr. Manly. “When an insecure attachment style is at work, romantic relationships will often suffer tremendously due to the lack of internal stability, self-attunement, and attunement to others,” she says.

Assessing your attachment style

You may not fit neatly into one attachment style and may be a blend of two or more types, according to Dr. Manly, who also says that certain relationships or partners can bring out certain behaviors associated with one style, and mute the ones associated with others.

If you’re curious to learn which attachment style you may have, you can take an online attachment style test and ask yourself some questions that can help you determine which attachment style best fits your personality, but these methods lack the level of detail and scientific validity to make an accurate determination. A psychologist who specializes in relationships or emotion-focused therapy is your best bet for getting a clear idea of which attachment style you have, says Dr. Wirick.

To just begin to get a sense of how you operate in relationships, engaging in self-reflection is a great place to start. Take the time to reflect on your emotional responses, tendencies, and relationship dynamics. Consider your reactions to intimacy, trust, and vulnerability, and explore how these may align with different attachment styles.

Evaluate recurring patterns in your interactions with others. Identify common themes in your relationships, such as communication styles, responses to conflict, and levels of emotional openness. Recognizing these patterns can offer valuable insights into your attachment style and its impact on your connections with others.

Changing attachment patterns

A beautiful aspect of attachment style is that those who did not have a secure attachment style growing up can develop it with concerted, mindful effort, Dr. Manly says. The ability to change your attachment style depends on life experiences in various relationships, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is why who you surround yourself with is so important. The more time you can spend with secure people, the more opportunities you have to learn from them, and the less likely you are to have your insecure attachment styles triggered by their behavior.

For example, if you’re an anxious person who surrounds yourself with avoidant people, that emotional distance may make you feel the need to seek reassurance even more. Or, if you’re an anxious person who surrounds yourself with other anxious people, you’ll also be reinforcing (and more likely to engage in) the same insecure attachment patterns.

Inner child or inner teenager healing (aka reparenting) can also go a long way toward growing into a securely attached person, says McGinty. In fact, exhibiting behaviors of a secure attachment style is a sign that your inner child is healing.

Depending on what you experienced, you may need professional help from a therapist or psychologist to change your attachment style. In therapy, a clinician can help you work on whatever issues are keeping you from forming healthy, loving attachments to others, like trust issues or anxiety.

Building up your self-worth, independence, emotional regulation, and self-esteem can be really helpful. So can entering into relationships with securely attached people and working on issues that stress these bonds. Keep in mind that your psyche is a constant project—secure attachment is a practice not a fixed state of being.

How attachment styles may affect romantic compatibility

Beyond helping to color how you relate to others, understanding attachment styles can help you in the romance department by being able to intuit how your partner relates to you and how compatible you are. “If you know what makes your partner tick, it will be easier for you to meet their needs and expectations of your relationship,” says Cramer.

Dr. Wirick says secure attachers are usually able to establish a healthy relationship with anyone, though it can be difficult to establish a long-term relationship with someone who has an avoidant-attachment style because they have trouble committing and opening up, she adds.

Cramer notes that anxious and avoidant people often date one another, but the relationship tends to end poorly, because the anxious person clings to the avoidant person, and the avoidant person runs away. Two avoidant people may also struggle in a partnership due to intimacy fears and commitment issues. Two anxious people, though, are capable of a more seamlessly successful relationship so long as they’re able to help keep each other’s anxiety at a manageable level, she adds.

FAQs about attachment styles in relationships

What is the best attachment style for couples?

Healthy, long-lasting relationships are built on trust and intimacy, which are typically easiest to access for those with a secure attachment style. “When a secure attachment style is in force, an individual is able to engage in romantic relationships in a positive, grounded way,” says Dr. Manly.

On the other hand, insecure attachment styles are typically marked with the types of events and behaviors that stress relationships and may cause them to end or “suffer tremendously due to the lack of internal stability, self-attunement, and attunement to others,” she says.

What is the most common attachment style?

Although we tend to focus on the more challenging attachment styles, Dr. Manly says the most common attachment style is secure attachment. On the flip side, she says the least common attachment style is disorganized or fearful-avoidant.

Which attachment style is toxic in a relationship?

According to Dr. Manly and McGinty, any insecure attachment style can create a toxic relationship dynamic—and is more likely to do so than a secure attachment style. “In some cases, the avoidant person will unconsciously engage in toxic push-away behaviors to retain emotional distance,” Dr. Manly explains. Meanwhile, she says, “The anxious-preoccupied person may become very volatile, jealous, and clingy when triggered; this can create a great deal of turmoil in a romantic relationship.”

McGinty notes that disorganized attachment styles are extremely unpredictable due to their fear-based mentality. “Their ongoing inner turmoil and mixed messages can create havoc in interpersonal relationships,” she says.

Understanding how attachment styles form and influence relationships is crucial for fostering self-awareness and building healthier connections. This type of self-knowledge serves as a powerful tool for personal growth in relationships. By cultivating secure attachments and continuously investing in effective communication, you’re paving the way for more fulfilling and resilient partnerships.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Simpson, Jeffry A, and W Steven Rholes. “Adult Attachment, Stress, and Romantic Relationships.” Current opinion in psychology vol. 13 (2017): 19-24. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006
  2. Moretti, Marlene M, and Maya Peled. “Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 9,8 (2004): 551-555. doi:10.1093/pch/9.8.551

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Harmony Evans is an award-winning author of Harlequin Kimani Romance, African-American romance, and so on. Harmony Evans is an award-winning author for Harlequin Kimani Romance, the leading publisher of African-American romance. Her 2nd novel, STEALING KISSES, will be released in November 2013. Harmony is a single mom to a beautiful, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who makes her grateful for life daily. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, knitting, reading, and of course, napping and also review some of the best-selling and popular brands and services in the market and also write comprehensive blogs.


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