Attachment Styles, or Comfort with Intimacy, Influence How People Behave
When trying to make sense of our close relationships, it also helps to understand how people form romantic attachments to each other.
To begin with, people differ in their comfort with intimacy in a very predictable manner.
Different Styles of Attachment
Briefly, the way we form an attachment to our romantic partners is based upon the kind of care we received as an infant. As infants, we typically form an attachment to our primary caregiver in one of four ways.
Please note, this page draws on the work of Bartholomew, Bowlby, Shaver and Hazan’s work on attachment styles and Cole and Leet’s review of research on attachment styles.
If you are not aware of your attachment style, please take our attachment style test before continuing. You will be sent back to this page after taking the test.
When caregivers are consistently available and responsive, infants form a secure style of attachment (also see Ainsworth). Secure children feel safe and comfortable, and are able to explore and develop new skills with minimal anxiety or concern.
When caregivers are inconsistent or overly protective, however, infants form an anxious or preoccupied attachment to the person primarily responsible for their care. Anxious or preoccupied children monitor their caregivers more closely, attempt to stay by their caregiver’s side and respond more dramatically when in trouble. Anxious children are simply more fearful and less confident than infants who are securely attached.
When caregivers are stretched too thin, infants are likely to develop a dismissing style of attachment (dismissing attachment is also called avoidant attachment). Dismissing children show few signs of needing their caregivers, they do not spend a lot of time trying to get their caregiver’s attention, and they do their best to cope with problems on their own.
Finally, some individuals form an fearful-avoidant style of attachment, which includes both anxious and dismissing tendencies. Such individuals experience mixed emotions, seeking both closeness and distance in their relationships.
When we fall in love as an adult, the style of attachment formed as an infant influences how we treat our romantic partners.
People who formed a secure attachment to their caregivers tend to form a secure attachment to the person they love.
Individuals with a secure style of attachment have more satisfying and longer lasting relationships. Secure individuals are comfortable being close to their partners. They are comfortable having someone depend on them just as they are comfortable being dependent on another individual. Being more trusting, open, and understanding, they approach problems and issues that may arise with their partners in a constructive manner.
People who formed an anxious or preoccupied attachment as an infant, by comparison, are more likely to be preoccupied with their relationships as an adult. Anxious or preoccupied adults are constantly worried and anxious about their love life—they crave and desperately need intimacy—but, they never stop questioning their partner’s love (“do you really love me?”). Anxious individuals are concerned that their partners will leave them. They rarely feel completely loved and they experience extreme emotional highs and lows. One minute their romantic partner can make their day by showing them the smallest level of interest and the next minute they are worried that their partner doesn’t care about them. Overall, anxiously attached individuals are hard to satisfy; their fear of not being loved leads them to exaggerate their emotions and engage in controlling behaviors.
People who had a dismissing style of attachment as an infant are likely to form a dismissing attachment to their romantic partners. As adults, dismissing individuals are uncomfortable with intimacy—they actually fear it. They do not like it when people get close, and they don’t like being dependent on a partner or having someone be dependent on them. Dismissing individuals tend not to trust others, and they are more self-sufficient, cynical, and independent in nature. They are less likely to fall deeply in love and need a lot less affection and intimacy. Dismissing individuals are more apt to put their time into their careers, hobbies, and activities rather than their relationships. They also get easily annoyed with their relational partners and often display negative feelings and hostility toward their loved ones.
Finally, an fearful-avoidant individual’s behavior is difficult to predict because it is based on mixed emotions—the need to be close to a partner while simultaneously wanting to push a partner away.
Attachment Styles Influence How We React
Knowing if you have a secure, anxious/preoccupied, dismissing or fearful-avoidant style of attachment is important because it influences what happens in our romantic relationships.
Attachments styles influence how people think, feel, and behave. Almost every relational behavior from jealousy to infidelity to deception is influenced by one’s style of attachment.
The following example shows how important attachment styles can be:
Imagine that you are engaged and that your fiancé is going out with his or her friends for the evening. Your fiancé says that he or she will be home by midnight and that he or she will give you a call at that time.
Now, imagine that you have a secure attachment style and it is after 1a.m. and you notice that the phone hasn’t rung. You are probably thinking that all is well, your fiancé is out having fun and he or she will call you in the morning—no big deal.
Now, imagine that you have an anxious or preoccupied style of attachment. The exact same scenario—its 1a.m. and the phone hasn’t rung. What’s going through your mind and how are you dealing with the situation? How many times have you thought about calling your fiancé? Maybe you’ve even decided to go out and track him or her down.
Finally, consider what a person with a dismissing style of attachment would be experiencing. Do you even notice the phone hasn’t rung? Probably not.
Now, let’s fast forward to the next morning. Your fiancé calls early in the morning.
How would a secure individual respond? As a securely attached individual you are pleased to hear from your fiancé and would probably ask “What happened last night?” As a secure person, you are most likely to be satisfied with the explanation that is given.
As an anxious/preoccupied person, however, you will be a complete wreck, having been up all night imagining the worst and most likely plotting some sort of way to get even. By the time the phone finally rings, your anger and frustration can’t help but show, whether through sulking or putting your fiancé on the defensive by asking accusatory questions (“How could you do that? Where were you? Who were you with? Why didn’t you call when you said you would?”).
Finally, as a dismissing individual you will probably be wondering why your fiancé is bothering to call so early in the morning—“What do you want?”
It helps to understand how we form attachments to romantic partners because our style of attachment influences so much of what happens in our close relationships. One’s attachment style influences our experience of...
- sexual behavior
- and hundreds of other relational behaviors
For example, anxious/preoccupied individuals are more likely to experience jealousy, while dismissing individuals are much less likely to do so. Anxious/preoccupied individuals are more likely to over disclose personal information, while dismissing individuals are more tight-lipped. Anxious/preoccupied individuals are overly eager to make relational commitments while dismissing individuals are uncomfortable doing so (also see can an anxious and a dismissing individual make a relationship work?).
- how attachment styles influence lying and deception
- how attachment styles influence forgiveness
- more information on how individuals form attachments
- a blog highlighting research on attachment
- overview of how attachment issues influence romantic relationships
- common relationship issues – more information on love, conflict, maintaining a healthy relationship