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Attachment styles identify how a person relates to other people. Attachment patterns develop in childhood and carry on throughout adulthood. Broadly speaking, the two main types of attachment are secure and insecure.
This article discusses the different types of insecure attachment styles, what causes them, and how to cope with them as an adult.
What Is Insecure Attachment?
Insecure attachment is a relational pattern that causes a person to feel insecure about their relationships with other people. When they have an insecure attachment style, a person may have trouble developing meaningful adult relationships with others.
Depending on the type of insecure attachment pattern they have, a person may have:
- Anxiety about losing the people they love or being rejected.
- Avoidance of close relationships.
- Discomfort with intimacy and closeness in relationships.
- Negative self-image or low self-esteem.
- Suppression of emotions.
- Dismissal of harmful events or experiences.
- Distrust for others.
Attachment Style and Relationships
Understanding your attachment style can help you identify the challenges you’re facing in relating to other people in your life.
Types of Insecure Attachment
Insecure attachment can be broken down into three categories: avoidant, anxious, and ambivalent. Each category defines a group of behavioral patterns that play a role in how a person connects with others.
Avoidant attachment describes a person that has trouble tolerating emotional intimacy or closeness with other people. They may not actively seek out intimate connections with others. An adult with an avoidant-insecure attachment may:
- Have difficulties with intimacy.
- Avoid getting involved in social and romantic relationships.
- Be unwilling to speak to others about how they’re thinking or feeling.
- Suppress negative emotions or thoughts so they don’t have to deal with them openly.
- Value their independence and strive to remain autonomous in relationships because of their discomfort around getting too close to another person.
Ambivalent attachment, anxious-preoccupied, or ambivalent anxious, is a style of attachment where a person needs and craves intimacy but struggles to trust or fully rely on a partner.
A person with an ambivalent attachment style may want intimacy but is scared or worried that they will lose the person they care about if they open up to them. As such, a person with anxious-avoidant attachment’s desire for connection is inconsistent with their behavioral patterns.
They also have fears surrounding their relationships and worry about rejection from their partners. In their worry, they can become anxious, needy, manipulative, or dismissive toward loved ones. Ultimately, these behaviors can lead to the breakups that the person with this attachment style fears.
Disorganized attachment is when a person has conflicting behaviors—for example, they go back and forth between wanting to be loved and avoiding love in an effort to protect themselves.
A person with a disorganized attachment may act in confusing and erratic ways in their relationships. They are often scared and anxious during the formation of new relationships because they’re not sure if it’s safe.
Other characteristics that a person with a disorganized attachment style may have include:
- Negative self-image
- Low self-esteem
- Damaging self-talk
- Extreme loneliness
- Fear of rejection
- Doubting others in their lives when forming relationships
- Distrust of others
How to Help Partners
You can’t “cure” your partner of their attachment style, but you can be there for them while they learn how to cope with it.
For example, a partner with an insecure attachment could benefit from therapy. Showing your secure attachment to them while they do this important work will help them feel safer.
What Causes Insecure Attachment?
Childhood experiences shape all types of attachment, and each type will be shaped by different experiences.
Adults who develop an avoidant attachment style often had a childhood experience where their parents or caregivers were emotionally unavailable in a way that left them feeling unloved or rejected.
They may have dealt with their caregivers being distant, closed off, or especially hurtful and dismissive when they felt they needed care the most. For example, in times when they were scared, sick, or hurt.
Parental or caregiver actions that can lead to avoidant attachment include:
- Telling a child to toughen up when they are sad.
- Ignoring a child’s cries, fear, or other types of distress.
- Putting distance between themselves and a child when they express distressed emotions.
- Making a child feel ashamed of themselves for being emotional.
Ambivalent attachment develops when a parent or caregiver is inconsistent in their response to a child’s emotional needs. Often, a child’s caregiver would be emotionally available some of the time, but cold and closed off at other times.
The reason behind the inconsistent emotional love and support provided by the parent or caregiver is not fully understood by the child. They do not understand why they get love on some occasions but not others. Therefore, the child grows up fearful that they will not get the emotional support or love that they need at any given time.
Disorganized attachment develops when a parent or caregiver is consistently neglectful of their child’s needs when they are in distress.
Some parents or caregivers may use tactics of fear or intimidation to make the child refrain from expressing their emotions, such as yelling at the child to stop being upset. In some cases, disorganized attachment can develop because of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse that a child experiences.
Even when they are subject to abuse, a child still feels connected to their parent or caregiver—but is fearful of them. This leads to the constant swing between wanting love and fearing for safety.
Disorganized Attachment and Personality Disorders
Research has shown that many personality disorders are strongly related to a disorganized attachment style. That being said, studies have also shown that insecure attachment of any type is linked with personality disorders more than secure attachment (a type of attachment that develops when a child’s emotional needs are consistently met and that leads to healthy relationships in adulthood).
Insecure Attachment Examples
Certain behaviors or patterns of behavior can help identify which type of insecure attachment a child or adult has.
A sign of avoidant attachment in childhood might be:
- A child not seeking comfort from their parents (e.g., when the child falls off their bike and scrapes their knee, they will cope with the pain on their own instead of going to a caregiver).
As an adult, someone with an avoidant attachment style will be less inclined to share their feelings with others. A sign of avoidant attachment in adulthood might be:
- A person’s partner asks how they’re doing, and they respond with “fine,” even though they’ve had a stressful day.
Children who are learning to develop an ambivalent attachment style will be wary of strangers and experience separation anxiety when their parents leave. A sign of ambivalent attachment in a child might be:
- A child is feeling great distress when dropped off at a babysitter’s house, but avoids comfort from their parents or caregivers when they return to pick them up.
In adulthood, a person with this type of attachment style will be highly worried that their partner doesn’t feel the same way as them. A sign of ambivalent attachment in adulthood might be:
- A person needing constant reassurance from their partner or having serious and heightened emotional responses to breakups.
A disorganized attachment style will present differently depending on age. Signs of disorganized attachment in a child might be:
- A child avoids being close to their parents out of fear. They spend a lot of time hiding out in their room to avoid being involved in a confrontation. When they do come out of their room, they act aggressively in front of their parents as a way to mimic what they learn as a way to connect.
An adult with a disorganized attachment style will also avoid close intimacy. Signs of disorganized attachment in adulthood might be:
- A person avoids public displays of affection with their partner and reacts in an extreme way if their partner asks why they do not want to engage with them openly.
Recognizing Behaviors Based on Attachment Styles
It can be hard to see yourself showing behaviors that are driven by your attachment style. You will need to be self-aware and honest with yourself about how your behavior affects your relationships with others.
Insecure Attachment in Adulthood
Even though insecure attachment develops in childhood, you can still feel the effects of it when you’re an adult—especially in your relationships.
Insecure attachment in relationships varies depending on the type but for the most part, a person with an insecure attachment will have trouble maintaining healthy relationships.
They will either be aloof and avoid intimacy altogether, or they will be fearful of losing the relationships to the point of needing constant reassurance from loved ones.
In some cases, a person will desire love but be fearful of getting it, so they avoid intimacy to protect themselves.
How to Overcome Insecure Attachment
Psychologists such as John Bowlby (who was partly responsible for the development of attachment theory), thought that an attachment style cannot be changed. When a person reaches adulthood, they will still be at the mercy of the attachment style that they developed as a child and it will find its way into all of their intimate relationships.
However, newer research on attachment theory has found that there are ways people can learn to cope with and even overcome insecure attachment.
Different types of psychotherapy can help people with their attachment styles. One example is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people look at and challenge their distorted thoughts and negative behaviors.
Different psychodynamic psychotherapies, such as transference-focused psychotherapy, have also been shown to help people understand and rework aspects of problematic relational patterns.
Psychotherapy can also help uncover developmental experiences and traumas that shape adult attachment patterns and help empower people to change these unconscious influences on their behavior. Couples or group therapy is also helpful for some people, depending on their needs and therapy goals.
Other ways a person can overcome insecure attachment include:
- Learning secure attachment in adulthood. By developing secure relationships in adulthood, a person can change the way they view relationships and intimacy.
- Other forms of therapy. Psychotherapy can help uncover certain traumas that are key to overcoming negative thinking and behavioral patterns in adulthood. When a person is aware of the root of their feelings, they have more power over changing them.
To change your insecure attachment style into a secure one, you have to “earn” your security. This can be done by exploring the effects that your unconscious decisions have on your world and relationships and coming to terms with what events in your childhood led you to have those views.
Insecure attachment stems from negative experiences during childhood. Insecure attachments can be avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized. Even though they start in childhood, attachment styles continue to affect how a person relates to the people around them as adults.
However, there are ways to change your patterns so that you can develop a secure attachment style in adulthood, like going to therapy and learning about things that happened in your life that may have shaped how you experience the world.
Coping with an insecure attachment style is difficult, but if you’re aware of it, you’re already one step closer to developing a secure attachment. Your actions and behaviors may be extensions of your childhood experiences, but you don’t have to accept your insecure attachment. Everyone is capable of positive change.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are three signs of insecure attachment?
Three signs that a person has insecure attachment include the inability to engage in intimacy, struggling to form healthy relationships with others, and unpredictable or inconsistent behavior with loved ones. While there are more signs that are type-dependent, these are typically indicative that someone has gone through experiences that caused them to develop an insecure attachment style.
How do you deal with a partner who has an insecure attachment style?
Dealing with a partner with an insecure attachment style can be difficult. The best thing you can do is show the person you love what secure attachment looks like. This could involve being open and vulnerable yourself, providing consistent emotional support, and engaging in positive relationship behaviors.