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  • Writer's pictureLiz Morrison, LCSW

Breaking Down Attachment Styles in Relationships: What They Are, Why They Matter, and How to Be More

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Being in a romantic relationship with someone can be thrilling. There are exciting new possibilities, challenges to work through, and opportunities for deep connection. For many people, however, relationships can feel terrifying. Intimacy can trigger hard emotions and unconscious coping mechanisms.

These coping mechanisms are often related to your attachment style. Attachment styles are internalized beliefs about relationships and safety. They dictate your behavior, type of communication, and felt sense of security inside a relationship. Attachment styles can ebb and flow throughout one’s life, or alternate depending on the situation.

As a group therapy practice dedicated to helping young adults navigate relationship and life difficulties, we at Liz Morrison Therapy work with clients who feel stuck in cycles of unhealthy relationships and don’t know why. Many people have attachment styles that keep them from having the types of relationships they crave. If you resonate with the pain that comes from confusing relationship dynamics, there’s nothing wrong with you. And luckily, your attachment style isn’t a life sentence. Here’s what you need to know about attachment styles in relationships for young adults – and how to make progress toward more secure attachment.

Attachment Styles and Why They Matter

Attachment styles are typically split into two categories: secure and insecure. Saying an attachment style is either “secure” or “insecure” can help you understand a quite complicated system. However, categorizing something that’s inherently nuanced and dynamic into such simplistic terms can be a problem. The language and discussion around attachment styles often lead to the idea that secure is good and insecure is bad. In truth, there’s no moral worth attached to any of these styles.

Secure attachment refers to someone’s ability to feel confident and secure in their relationship, be able to attune to their needs, feel comfortable expressing emotions, set healthy boundaries, and bring up any issues in a calm and rational manner. Someone with a secure attachment feels like they can trust their partner and aren't afraid of emotional intimacy. They also aren't afraid of being without a partner.

Insecure attachment styles often result from neglect, rejection, abandonment, or inadequate comfort from a caregiver in childhood. They can also develop from trauma – such as infidelity or a painful friend breakup – in an adult relationship. They’re caused by relational wounds, are often unconscious, and are a natural attempt at staying safe, secure, and in control. However, contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong or bad about them. They’re a remarkably clever adaptation of your brain and body to keep you safe and cared for.

Attachment styles can change throughout your life. A traumatic experience can pull you out of secure attachment into insecure attachment. Or you can feel more insecurely attached in certain relationships and more securely attached in others.

The problems arise when you remain unaware of your insecure attachment styles and their impacts on your relationships. They can wreak havoc when left unchecked. By shedding light on your attachment style, you can develop more self-compassion around your experiences. You can learn to ask for what you need in relationships, work through unhelpful patterns, and build trust in yourself and your partner.

What Are the Different Attachment Styles in Relationships?

The following three types of insecure attachment can show up in relationships.

1. Avoidant attachment

Someone with an avoidant attachment style, also known as dismissive attachment, values autonomy and independence. They may have a deep-seated fear of intimacy and end up pushing their partner away, even though they value connection and love.

This attachment style often comes from caretakers who were unavailable, absent, or neglectful. They were often unable to understand their child or help them feel seen. Or maybe they were strict and controlling. Usually, the child felt like a burden for having needs and desires. As a result, they learned they were better off relying on themselves to get their needs met.

Avoidant attachment qualities can look like:

  • Holding people at arm’s length

  • Difficulty being vulnerable, open, and honest

  • Feeling easily flooded or overwhelmed during arguments or challenges

  • Wanting a lot of space from partners, especially during conflict

  • Shutting down or giving the silent treatment when your nervous system is triggered

  • Becoming irritated by another’s “neediness” or bids for connection

  • Feeling smothered by emotional or physical intimacy

  • Reluctance to rely on or trust a partner to be there for them

  • Prefers to rely on themselves

  • Discomfort with expressing heir true feelings

2. Anxious or anxious-preoccupied attachment

Someone with an anxious attachment values connection and intimacy. They fear rejection and abandonment. They may emotionally cling to their partner in an attempt to keep them close, which can ultimately backfire.

Parents or caretakers of people who are anxiously attached were often inconsistent in their affection, love, or attention. It taught the child that being louder or more apparent in their distress is the only way they would get the connection they needed.

Anxious attachment qualities include:

  • Worrying about time or space apart from a partner

  • Fear around unresolved conflict

  • Desire to seek constant validation

  • Extreme discomfort if they think someone is mad or upset at them

  • Stress about being alone

  • May connect their self-worth with a partner’s love or affection

  • Intensely focused on their partner’s level of availability and responsiveness

  • Question their worthiness

3. Disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment

Fearful-avoidant attachment is a combination of both avoidant and anxious. Someone with the attachment style deeply craves love and intimacy, but is terrified when they actually get it. This style of attachment can arise from trauma, such as being afraid of a caretaker. A child learns that the person who’s supposed to protect them – a parent – isn’t safe. As adults, someone with this attachment style may feel contradictory and opposing pulls toward both closeness and distance, and they may have difficulty regulating and expressing their emotions.

Fearful-avoidant attachment qualities can include:

  • Desire for intimacy, then nervous system dysregulation when intimacy occurs

  • Distrust of voicing their feelings and needs

  • Fear of relying on others

  • Unclear or inconsistent triggers

  • A “push/pull” dynamic, in which there is both a longing and fear for connection

How to Increase Secure Attachment in a Relationship

Changing your attachment style isn’t quick or easy work. It takes a long time to work through your triggers and recalibrate your nervous system toward safety. Here are three ways to work toward secure attachment.

1. Become aware of your attachment style. Nonjudgmental awareness of your attachment is key to changing it. Ask yourself: What triggers insecurity and fear in me? When do I get irritated or dysregulated with partners or friends? What’s my communication like when I do get dysregulated?

2. Find a partner or partners with whom you feel safe. Healing from relationship dynamics can only take place from within safe, caring, and nonjudgmental relationships. If you don’t feel seen, understood, or properly cared for, chances are your attachment style won’t get any more secure. Additionally, both people within a relationship need to prioritize this work for it to be effective. If you and your partner(s) have patience and willingness, that’s a great start.

3. Seek support. Work with a mental health professional to help you understand your attachment style, navigate attachment in your relationships in a healthy way, and work toward feeling safer and more secure in your connections.

Therapy Can Help You Heal Your Attachment Style

Relationships are tough, and unhelpful behaviors that stem from insecure attachment styles can make them tougher. You aren’t alone in your challenges. If you want support breaking the cycle of unhealthy behaviors due to your attachment style, we at Liz Morrison Therapy are here to help.

We’re here to help you understand and navigate your attachment style, find tools to cultivate healthier behaviors, and get the connection you crave. You can find freedom from painful relationship patterns and work toward healthier relationships.

Feel free to get in touch with us for a free 15-minute phone consultation. We can answer any questions you have, see whether we’re a good fit, and start working toward a better future today.


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