Althought Therapy

Understanding Attachment Styles:
A Guide to Building Better Relationships

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles are based on attachment theory, which was developed by several psychologists who studied how children bond with their parents. The two main people who shaped attachment theory were John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s.

Attachment styles are patterns of behavior that show how our childhood experiences affect us as adults. There are four basic types of attachment styles:

  • Dismissive-avoidant attachment
  • Fearful-avoidant attachment
  • Anxious attachment
  • Secure attachment
Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment

A secure attachment style is seen when a child feels safe even when their mother leaves. At first, the child might be upset, but they soon calm down because they know she will return. They feel secure enough to explore their surroundings while she’s away and are happy when she comes back, eagerly looking for her. The mother warmly greets the child, and they reconnect happily.

Such children are comforted knowing they can seek support when upset and their needs will be consistently met. They tend to be confident and secure, exploring their world independently without needing constant reassurance. They feel loved and valued.

Secure attachment develops from consistent care and attention. This often includes a reliable daily routine that the child can depend on. When the child shows a need, the parent responds promptly, building a strong trust. As the child grows, this consistent support boosts their confidence in relationships and strengthens trust and reliability over time.

As the child grows up, they will continue to have a secure attachment style. They will seek relationships similar to the positive examples set by their parents early in life. Often, they will look for people who also have secure and trustworthy relationships. This person will expect their own needs to be met in relationships, and they will also be ready to meet the needs of others.


Summary of Secure Attachment Style:
  • Are secure in their relationships
  • Are generally supportive, available, and open with their friends or partners
  • Can help shift those of other attachment styles into a more secure space

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

The dismissive-avoidant attachment style, often just called avoidant attachment, happens when a child does not seek comfort or show distress when their mother leaves. Instead, the child might focus on their surroundings. When the mother returns, the child does not try to reconnect and may even ignore her.

This avoidant attachment style can develop if parents often ignore or reject their child’s needs for attention and affection. Over time, the child gets used to not having their needs met and stops looking for comfort from their parents. The child may learn to soothe themselves and become more emotionally independent.

A child with an avoidant attachment style may seem overconfident, take risks, and lack empathy. They might come across as cold or distant and not very interested in making friends. Since they’re not used to having their needs met by their parents, they don’t expect to meet the needs of others either. Often, they avoid deep and trusting relationships and prefer casual ones that are just for fun.

As an adult, someone with an avoidant attachment style tends to be dismissive in relationships. They usually focus on individuals meeting their own needs rather than caring for each other. This attitude stems from their childhood experiences where they couldn’t rely on others to meet their needs. As a result, they learn not to trust or expect others to fulfill their needs and believe everyone should be self-reliant.

How can someone with an avoidant attachment style develop a secure attachment style? It requires considerable effort but is definitely possible. 

First, the person needs to identify individuals in their life who have stable and trusting relationships. Next, they must learn to trust and invest in these relationships. This involves caring about others’ feelings and building trust with them.

Summary of Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style:
  • Generally appear withdrawn
  • Be highly independent
  • Be emotionally distant in their relationships
  • Be less likely to connect on an intimate level
  • Find it difficult to be highly involved with their partners
  • Become overwhelmed when they are relied on heavily
  • Retreat physically and emotionally when relied upon

Ambivalent/ Resistant Attachment Style 

An ambivalent attachment style happens when a child gets very upset when their mother leaves. They don’t want to explore or play and stay upset until she comes back. It’s hard to calm them down, and they don’t feel better when their parents try to comfort them because they’re not sure if their needs will be met.

This attachment style develops because the parent inconsistently meets the child’s needs. At times, the parent may be attentive and caring, but other times, they may be distracted and unresponsive. This inconsistency makes it difficult for the child to rely on the parent, as they never know what to expect.

A child with this attachment style often feels anxious and unsure of themselves, lacking confidence. They might frequently doubt their actions and those of others. This child may also seek affection from people who do not return it, and they often feel nervous about trying new activities that other kids their age do without hesitation. They may even show fear when faced with normal childhood experiences. This anxiety also includes a fear of being away from their parents, known as separation anxiety, because they have learned they cannot always depend on their parents to be consistent and supportive.

A child with an ambivalent attachment style often grows up to have an anxious attachment style as an adult. As an adult they will become preoccupied in relationships. In relationships, they may become very focused on their partner, feeling anxious and needing a lot of reassurance. They often worry about the stability of the relationship, fear losing it, and desire continuous closeness. This person may also be sensitive to rejection and criticism and might react strongly to disagreements, seeing them as a threat to the relationship.

A person with an ambivalent or resistant attachment style can work towards developing a secure attachment style over time with dedicated effort. To achieve this, they should concentrate on being present and mindful, rather than worrying about the future of their relationships. Much of their anxiety stems from fears about what might happen next. By managing this anxiety and lessening their constant alertness, they can start to relax and build trust in their relationships.

Summary of Anxious Attachment:
  • Is generally highly self-sacrificing in order to “people please”
  • Fears rejection
  • Has a strong fear of being abandoned

Disorganized Attachment Style

A disorganized attachment style often arises from abuse and neglect during childhood. This leads to children becoming highly reactive and defensive when it comes to forming any attachments, potentially resulting in Reactive Attachment Disorder. These children might respond to any relationship efforts with suspicion and defensiveness to guard against further harm, negatively impacting their self-esteem and view of others.

Children with disorganized attachment often exhibit aggression due to a lack of trust in others. They may struggle to control their emotions and frequently push people away. They often do not show respect to others, as they themselves were not respected, and they may not follow directions because they view adults as untrustworthy.

These children may also fear their parents, whom they see as unreliable, keeping them perpetually anxious and ready to defend themselves. They might receive mixed signals at home, such as a parent expressing anger through destructive behavior like throwing objects. If the child imitates this behavior and is then punished, it creates confusion and deepens their mistrust in relationships.

A child with a disorganized attachment style often grows up to have a fearful-avoidant attachment style as an adult. This attachment style develops from deep-seated feelings of unworthiness, exploitation, and lack of safety experienced during their formative years. Such individuals might struggle with dysfunctional relationships characterized by intense emotions and, occasionally, anger outbursts. They crave the closeness they’ve always wanted but tend to pull away from those who offer love and security, protecting themselves from potential hurt. Even as adults, they naturally seek the connection every human needs but might reject it as soon as it begins to manifest, stuck in a cycle of conflicting desires for intimacy and independence.

Can someone with a disorganized or fearful attachment style develop a secure attachment? Absolutely. To foster secure attachments, it’s crucial for such individuals to reassess how they connect with others, often through therapeutic work. Engaging with a therapist can help them challenge their beliefs about relationships and learn to build healthier connections.

Summary of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style:

  • Individuals with this style often display ambivalence in relationships, fluctuating between closeness and distance. This pattern persists across all types of relationships, including romantic ones.
  • They typically engage in deep analysis of social cues such as microexpressions, body language, and speech to detect potential betrayal. This stems from early relationships with untrustworthy caregivers, such as those who were addicts or emotionally unstable.
  • Trust doesn’t come easily to them, and they often anticipate betrayal, feeling that it’s just around the corner.

Psychotherapy and Attachment Styles

Psychotherapy can be a transformative tool for individuals struggling with various attachment styles, offering a pathway to healthier relationships and emotional well-being. For those with insecure attachment styles—whether anxious, avoidant, or disorganized—therapy provides a safe and supportive environment to explore past traumas and understand their effects on current behaviors and relationships. 

Therapists can help individuals recognize and break patterns of negative interactions, develop emotional regulation skills, and build trust in others. Over time, therapy can guide individuals toward developing a secure attachment style, enabling them to form more stable, fulfilling relationships and a stronger sense of self-worth. This therapeutic journey is often crucial for profound personal growth and healing.

Understanding different attachment styles is key to realizing how our early interactions with caregivers shape our relationships and emotional health as adults. Whether someone has a secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style, recognizing these patterns is the first step towards improving oneself and forming healthier relationships.

Therapy and the right support can significantly help in developing a secure attachment, leading to better trust, deeper connections, and greater emotional well-being. By addressing these fundamental aspects of attachment, individuals can pave the way for more fulfilling and stable relationships in their lives.


Attachment Theory: A Guide to Strengthening the Relationships in Your Life by Thais Gibson

Attachment: 60 Trauma-Informed Assessment and Treatment Interventions Across the Lifespan by Christina Reese, PhD, LCPC