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. Maybe 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 can provide insight into your emotional needs, communication patterns, and coping mechanisms, as well as those of other key 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, making it easier to navigate disagreements and build secure bonds.
Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the four attachment styles in relationships, how they develop, how to identify (and change) yours, and answers to other common FAQs.
In This Article
4 attachment styles and how each one can impact a relationship
According to Dr. Manly, there are two main types of attachment styles: secure and insecure. The latter is further broken down into three subtypes: avoidant, anxious, and disorganized.
1. Secure attachment style
A 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 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.
“Individuals with a secure attachment style tend to be ‘rocks’ in a relationship.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
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. In turn, 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.
2. 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 [with them] on an intimate level,” says Dr. Manly. They may be most comfortable in short-term or more superficial relationships, in which they can more easily avoid the deeper level of connection long-term relationships require.
By a similar token, people with an avoidant attachment style may also steer clear of addressing underlying tension or problems in a partnership. “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.
To protect themselves from vulnerability, those with an avoidant attachment style often avoid disclosing personal feelings, holding on tightly to their sense of self-reliance 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 constantly prioritizing work over the relationship, avoiding deep conversations, or frequently seeking personal space and alone time.
As a result, the partners of people with avoidant attachment styles tend to feel neglected or frustrated. Because avoidant people may struggle to fully engage in the emotional aspects of a relationship, challenges can arise with building intimacy and trust.
3. Anxious attachment style
An anxious attachment style, which is 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 constant 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 constantly seek closeness and may hold onto it tightly, they’re especially at risk of falling into codependent relationships.
Individuals with an anxious attachment style may face challenges in relationships as they often exhibit heightened sensitivity to any (real or perceived) threats of abandonment, leading them to frequently seek reassurance from their partner that they still like them and want to be in a relationship with them. This anxious anticipation can result in emotional ups and downs, difficulty trusting, and strain on the relationship as partners may feel overwhelmed by the constant need to validate and reassure.
4. Disorganized attachment style
A disorganized attachment style, sometimes called fearful-avoidant or unresolved attachment style, is characterized by exhibiting inconsistent and unpredictable patterns of behavior in relationships, often stemming from unresolved trauma or conflicting emotions toward caregivers.
“Although the person with a [disorganized] attachment style wants to be connected, they are also deeply fearful of being attached.” —Dr. Manly
According to Dr. Manly, people with disorganized attachment may feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells or 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 can make it tough for a stable, safe relationship to take root and flourish. “Although the person with a [disorganized] attachment style wants to be connected, they are also deeply fearful of being attached, which can lead to toxic dynamics that prevent healthy connection,” says Dr. Manly.
In turn, the partners of people with disorganized attachment never quite know what they’re going to get. “Those with a fearful-avoidant style often have low self-esteem and can sometimes show little respect for their partners,” says Dr. Manly. “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(s) plays a crucial role in shaping their ability to form bonds in adulthood, particularly in romantic relationships, and the ways in which they do so (aka attachment styles).
In particular, how your caregiver(s) in early childhood responded to your emotional cues—such as offering comfort when you were upset—affects how you learn to process and express emotions, thus influencing your behaviors in relationships. Throughout adolescence, your attachment style then takes shape based on those parental figures’ ongoing responses to your emotional needs.
Psychotherapist Erica Cramer, LCSW, likens your attachment style to an internal GPS you develop over time for navigating interpersonal relationships. “It helps us determine which relationships we want to pursue and which ones we want to avoid,” she says. “When we reach a crossroads in a relationship, [our attachment style] also enables us to decide which direction to turn and the best way to move forward.”
Assessing your attachment style
Your behaviors may not fit neatly into the description of 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 related to the different styles—but these methods lack the level of detail and scientific validity necessary to make an accurate determination. A psychologist or therapist 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 begin to get a sense of how you operate in relationships, though, 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 and vulnerability, and explore how these may align with one or more of the different attachment styles above.
Also evaluate any patterns in your interactions with others, such as in the way you communicate in intimate settings or respond to conflict. Recognizing these recurring tendencies can offer valuable insights into your attachment style and its impact on your connections with others.
Changing your attachment style
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.
In particular, inner child or inner teenager healing (aka reparenting) can 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’ve experienced in childhood, you may need professional help from a therapist or psychologist to change your attachment style. A clinician can help you work on whatever issues may be keeping you from forming healthy, loving attachments to others, like trust issues or insecurity.
Building up your self-worth, independence, emotional regulation, and self-esteem can be helpful in this regard, too. So can entering into relationships with securely attached people from whom you can learn and grow. Just 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 shedding light on how you relate to others, understanding attachment styles can help you in the romance department by allowing you to intuit how your partner may relate or respond to you. “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 form a long-term relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style because they have the most trouble committing and opening up, she says.
Cramer notes that anxious and avoidant people often wind up dating 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 mutual fears of intimacy and commitment. 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, relationships where at least one person has an insecure attachment style may be tougher to maintain “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?
Any insecure attachment style can create a toxic relationship dynamic, says McGinty, and is more likely to do so than a secure attachment style. “In some cases, an avoidant person will unconsciously engage in toxic push-away behaviors to retain emotional distance,” says Dr. Manly. Meanwhile, she says, “an anxious person may become very volatile, jealous, and clingy when triggered, creating a great deal of turmoil in the relationship.”
McGinty notes that those with a disorganized attachment style may act in extremely unpredictable ways due to their fear-based mentality. “Their ongoing inner turmoil and mixed messages can create havoc in interpersonal relationships,” she says.
In any case, the first step toward resolving the kinds of toxic relationship behaviors caused by attachment styles is to better understand the basis of each attachment style and how they can show up in relationships. This kind of awareness of self and others can serve as a powerful tool for personal growth in relationships and beyond.