What is Attachment Theory in Simple Terms

In this article:

Brief History on Attachment Theory
The Four Different Attachment Styles
Models of the Self
Why Understanding Your Attachment Style Matters

Brief History on Attachment Theory

You may have heard someone describe their partner as avoidant or anxious. Over the years, attachment theory has become an increasingly popular topic. You may wonder why. Well, this is because attachment theory affects our lives in so many more ways than one. 

Attachment theory was a term first coined by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He wanted to study how a child behaved when separated from the mother. Bowlby believed that children form an attachment based on who could cater to their emotional needs the most. Later on, Mary Ainsworth worked with John Bowlby and developed the Strange Situation Test. Ainsworth identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. However, her findings were only limited to the attachment between a child and their caregiver. It did not explore attachments in romantic relationships. It wasn’t until later on that psychologists considered attachments in adult relationships.

The Four Different Attachment Styles

Psychologists Philip Shaver and Cindy Hazan (1987) were among the first to consider that our attachment styles weren’t limited to caregiver-child relationships but instead extended to romantic relationships. They believed that who we are now is affected by the kind of love and care our parents gave as children. If Bowlby’s theory also worked in romantic relationships, this means we carry our attachments from childhood to adulthood. Based on Hazan and Shaver’s findings, there are three attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, and avoidant. However, in 1990, Kim Bartholomew argued that there were two avoidant attachment types—dismissive and fearful. Based on these two studies combined, here are the four different attachment styles:

Secure Attachment

Secure people have a positive belief about love. They feel comfortable opening up about their emotions and are not afraid of being intimate with their partners. Compared to the other attachment styles, secure people have higher relationship satisfaction. These people most often had a secure and positive childhood. Their parents were attentive to their needs and encouraged them to explore the world without holding them back.

Anxious-preoccupied Attachment

  • In Hazan and Shaver’s study, this statement best represents an anxious-preoccupied, “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.” People under this type are huge people-pleasers because they base their self-worth on their partner’s approval. Sadly, these people are also more likely to stay in abusive relationships than other insecure attachment styles. This is because they hold an unrealistic belief that their partner still has the power to change and make excuses for their partner’s abusive behavior.
  • If someone has an anxious-preoccupied attachment, it could be because they had inconsistent parents growing up. For example, if a parent is always absent, the child develops a fear of abandonment. In the end, they focus too much on getting the parent to stick around that they will never learn how to self-soothe.

Dismissive-avoidant Attachment

  • These people are complete opposites of the anxious-preoccupied. This statement best describes a dismissive-avoidant person, “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close and, often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.” People who have this kind of attachment style tend to prioritize work over relationships and are highly independent. In fact, they value it so much that they think being in a relationship means giving up their independence and freedom. These people like to keep their partners at arm’s length because vulnerability scares them.
  • If someone is dismissive-avoidant, they often have suppressed memories of their childhood. When asked to describe their parents, they would probably say disinterested, rejecting, and critical. As children, parents may have held them back from truly expressing what they felt, whether negative or positive. Their parents probably were not attentive to their needs, so they learned to expect disappointment at an early age.

Fearful-avoidant Attachment

  • Fearful-avoidants are a mix of dismissive-avoidant and anxious-preoccupied people. They are what people would often call “hot and cold” because they can be very warm and affectionate one minute and cold and distant the next. These people crave love and affection but have their running shoes ready because they expect disappointment from their partners. Disorganized attachment is another name for fearful-avoidance.
  • People usually develop a fearful-avoidant attachment when their parents are inconsistent. This could mean that the primary caregiver, usually the mother, is sweet one minute and abusive the next. Because of this volatility, the child does not know whether to fear the caregiver or love them. This can also make them hypersensitive to social cues and their environment. Also, they will subconsciously feel responsible for their partner’s emotions, thus, making them huge people pleasers.

Models of the Self

Another way of describing someone’s attachment style is through Kim Bartholomew and Dale Griffin’s two-dimensional model:

Kim Bartholomew and Dale Griffin’s two-dimensional model of attachment

Anxious-preoccupied people think highly of others but view themselves negatively. Meanwhile, fearful-avoidant people think lowly of themselves and others. On the other hand, dismissive-avoidants view others negatively but think of themselves positively. Lastly, secure people have a positive view of others and themselves.

Why Understanding Your Attachment Style Matters

It’s essential to identify what your attachment style is for a couple of reasons. One, it helps you understand the possible trauma you may have gone through in life. Second, it also teaches you how to navigate your romantic and platonic relationships. Once you begin to learn more about your attachment style, you can begin to understand why you react the way you do in situations. But more importantly, getting to know yourself better is the first step to healing your childhood wounds. To learn what your attachment style is, you can take this quiz by The Attachment Project.

If you wish to learn more about attachment theory, you can check out Scott Young’s book: “Master Your Attachment Style: Learn How to Build Healthy & Long-Lasting Relationships.” He offers a pretty good in-depth look into attachment theory, such as its history, identifying your attachment style’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to navigate your relationships successfully. Thais Gibson’s “Attachment Theory: A Guide to Strengthening the Relationships in Your Life” is also a pretty good book if you’re looking for a quick skim. 

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