If you’ve ever had any kind of relationship with someone who frequently needed validation, had trouble establishing trust, or felt distant (and who hasn’t?!), you’re already familiar with some hallmark signs of adult attachment styles—whether or not you’re aware of it.
The relationship-personality test de rigueur, the 5 Love Languages (you can take the quiz here to learn yours!), can help you understand the ways in which you and your S.O. experience love. But adult attachment theory outlines certain styles—secure, anxious, fearful avoidant, and dismissive avoidant—that provide a framework for understanding how you relate to others and your ability to establish intimacy, says licensed clinical psychologist Dina Wirick, PhD, who has done research on attachment style.
“Your attachment style develops in infancy through your bond with your primary caregiver,” says Dr. Wirick. “This forms the way we see ourselves, others, and the world. It becomes part of who we are and is part of our personality.”
“[Attachment style] forms the way we see ourselves, others, and the world. It becomes part of who we are and is part of our personality.” —clinical psychologist Dina Wirick, PhD
Basically, your attachment style is part of your subconscious, but pretty important to your everyday life—kind of like a GPS for navigating interpersonal relationships, says social worker Erica Cramer, LMSW. “It helps us determine which relationships we want to pursue and which ones we should avoid. When we reach a crossroads in a relationship, it enables us to decide which direction to turn and the best way to move forward,” she says.
So how can you figure out your attachment style? There are lots of online quizzes and questions you can ask yourself that can help you determine which attachment style best fits your personality, but Dr. Wirick warns that most lack scientific validity. “A psychologist who specializes in relationships or emotion-focused therapy is your best bet,” she says of getting a clear diagnostic.
Understanding your attachment style
A secure attachment is the healthiest style, in Dr. Wirick’s opinion. Someone with a secure attachment, she says, is more likely to trust their partner, be vulnerable, and not have a problem with intimacy. Overall, these people tend to feel confident in their relationships.
“Chances are, they were raised by caregiver(s) who were supportive and responsive to their needs,” Cramer says. “They were mostly encouraged to venture out into the world, try new things, and were confident that their caregiver(s) would welcome them with open arms when they returned home.”
Anxious attachers seek reassurance and validation from their partner, often questioning whether their partner truly loves them and if their partner will leave them, says Dr. Wirick. While they want intimacy, they may have trouble with being vulnerable. Those with this attachment style are also likely to assume failed relationships are their own fault and overanalyze where they went wrong, Cramer says.
“As a child, they most likely had caregiver(s) that did not make them feel secure and like the world was a safe place. They may have gotten mixed signals from the caregiver(s) and, as a result, are not sure how to interpret other people’s behavior,” says Cramer.
“Someone with an avoidant attachment has trouble trusting people and does not want intimacy,” says Dr. Wirick. This type of person has trouble opening up and letting people get to know them. They may even become more distant when a partner gets closer.
Not all avoidant attachers are the same though—contemporary researchers have further identified fearful and dismissive styles underneath the avoidant umbrella, which are basically characterized by how much anxiety and avoidance an avoidant person exhibits. “Both types of avoidant styles look similar but are shaped by different early experiences,” she explains.
Those with a fearful-avoidant adult attachment style have high anxiety about abandonment in relationships, which manifest in common avoidant behaviors. These can take the shape of not returning texts, deflecting conversations about commitment, or not expressing emotions.
“Experiencing abuse and trauma from a caregiver, which evokes fear in the child, is likely to lead to a fearful-avoidant style,” Dr. Wirick adds.
If someone has a dismissive-avoidant attachment style, they exhibit general avoidant behaviors but lack anxiety about abandonment. This style is common in children whose caregiver was unaffectionate and unresponsive to their needs, Dr. Wirick specifies.
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.
Furthermore, attachment styles aren’t set in stone, and some people may not fall into one category neatly or exactly. Heck, someone’s style can even change over time, depending on life experiences in various relationships, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Still, knowing your own and your partner’s current attachment styles can only help you communicate within the scope of your relationship. And if that isn’t one key hallmark of partnership success, really, what is?
Want more intel about love languages? Here’s what your Myers-Briggs personality type means for your love language, and how to use them to be the best friend you can be.
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