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Attachment styles in a relationship

28.04.2020 klo 11:15 - Written by Written by Lotta Heiskanen, PsL, Psychotherapy Specialist Psychologist, Psychotherapist, the Family Federation of Finland , Family Federation of Finland
Attachment styles refer to repetitive behavioural patterns people adopt in close emotional relationships. Attachment styles are shaped by experiences learned in important relationships. In particular, childhood experiences of how a caring adult has responded to the child's needs and has been available at the time of need have a bearing on attachment styles. Attachment styles are already structured during the first years of the child's life.

Moderate constancy in attachment styles from childhood to early adulthood has been observed. Attachment styles guide people’s expectations, processing of emotions, and communication in adult relationships. They influence the formation of relationships, conflicts and the maintenance of relationships. However, attachment styles also change throughout life. Every new relationship is a new opportunity.

According to the attachment theory, a person has an innate need to form strong and selective emotional relationships throughout life. The strongest emotions in human life are connected to attachment. Connecting to one another is a basic human need from cradle to grave. It does not mean immaturity or addiction.

A close emotional relationship in childhood and adulthood creates the conditions for how you feel about yourself and can be close to another. Positive experiences create positive images about oneself and others: “I am a lovable person as myself and others can be trusted”. Experiences of insecurity in relationships build negative sentiment beliefs about oneself, “I am no good, I am not enough,” or about others “others cannot be trusted”. We head towards new relationships armed with the generalizations we have learned from past experiences.

Secure attachment in childhood and adulthood contributes to mental and physical health. In a safe relationship, partners can have sufficient confidence in each other’s support. They are sufficiently accessible and approachable to each other. They have enough trust in the relationship that they are heard and understood, and that they are important to one another.

Attachment styles are behavioural patterns that serve coping; what you have learned from your experiences. One should not think that attachment styles were of incorrect type. Attachment style has been born because it has served man’s survival in important relationships in the circumstances in which they have lived. Studies have identified four attachment styles of adulthood.

Secure attachment style

A securely attached adult is usually someone you can easily lean to and who finds it easy to support others. They do not have emphasized fears of being rejected or of others getting too close.  A securely attached person finds it easy to send clear messages about their own needs, because the expectations for the other are inherently positive.

They strive for emotional closeness and reciprocal relationships with others. A securely attached adult appreciates close relationships. They are generally warm and open in relationships with others. Their self-image is positive. The relationships of a securely attached person tend to be stable and long lasting, although attachment style is not a guarantee of it.

A securely attached person tolerates loneliness and is generally well balanced in terms of emotional life. They are able to experience different emotions without being unduly subjected to them or denying their existence. It is easier for a securely attached adult to maintain their compassionate ability under pressure – for example, in an argument in a relationship.

Behind an adult’s secure attachment style is a reasonably consistent and responsive nursing experience as a child. A secure attachment style can be achieved later in life even if the early experiences were insecure. Good interpersonal experiences and mental work to deal with potential traumatic experiences later in life can parse the attachment style from insecure to secure.

Avoidant attachment style

It is difficult for an avoidant adult to trust others and let others close. They strive to maintain a protective distance. They are afraid that the other will get too close. An avoidant adult has learned to cope in life alone and by withdrawing.

An avoidant adult can express little emotion and try to be relevant, controlled and rational. An avoidant person may be more susceptible to temporarily lose their capacity to empathy in a stressful situation. They have learned to cope with stressful situations by trying to extinguish their worries and needs. “I can do it – I am okay,” may be a typical answer for an avoidant person in a distressing situation. They seek to counteract the vulnerability, addiction and need for caring aspects in themselves. When an avoidant person copes with this avoidance, they may inadvertently exclude important information relating to their own or others’ well-being.

Avoidant attachment style is often the result of a parent’s rejecting nursing style that emphasizes independent coping at an early age. The parent may have had a distant, resentful, angry or denying approach to the child’s attempts to resort to them.

Anxious-ambivalent attachment style

An anxious-ambivalently attached person is anxious to seek intimacy from their partner. They are inclined to protest, demand and please. They easily experience the fear of being abandoned, rejected, or criticized. They may strongly seek the approval of others and fear that they will expel others by their behaviour.

They may be bitter and easily frustrated if the spouse is absent or unavailable. The spouse, in turn, may feel suffocated. An anxious-ambivalently attached person may experience a longing to merge with one another. They may express their feelings in an exaggerated manner and their search for closeness may be clingy. An anxious-ambivalently attached person is susceptible to temporarily lose their capacity to empathy in a stressful situation. Such a situation could be, for example, an argument in a relationship. They may use compelling ways of seeking attention or reaction from the other. They may have a strong fear of being left alone. They may have a heightened concern about relationships. They have learned to cope with stressful situations by emphasizing their distress and strongly demonstrating the need to get close to the other.

Anxious-ambivalent attachment style is often the result of early nursing experiences in which the object of attachment has been inconsistently available to the child. As a means of coping, the child has begun to seek, through demands, anger, and own efforts, the object of attachment to be present more securely. This behavioural pattern has sometimes been a successful way to relieve stress and deal with the unpredictability of the object of attachment. This has effectively reinforced the clingy behavioural pattern.

Disorganized attachment style

Disorganized attachment style is characterized by a strong conflict between avoidance and approach in relationships. A person may simultaneously communicate “come here, go away”.  It is difficult for them to regulate their own emotions. They may feel as if they get sucked into their emotions uncontrollably or may lose touch with emotional experiences.

A disorganized person is easily susceptible to lose their capacity for empathy, both on their own and another person’s experiences. Their ability for empathy may be comprehensively impaired. When you have had to live in fear, the ability to empathize is not safe. No one has done enough to help understand what is happening to you. The experience of selfhood may be discontinuous and may involve rapid transitions. For example, one may feel helpless at one moment and be hostile and aggressive the next.

Their way of communicating may involve striking contradictions, and it is difficult for them to control their own actions. Relationships may be marked by long-term instability.

They may avoid engaging in affectionate relationships. They may seek to establish relationships through, for example, sexuality, control over the other, submission, or nurturing in a way that does not require seeking safety and attachment.

Disorganized attachment is usually the result of traumatic experiences in which the object of attachment simultaneously represents both danger and safety to the child. When a caregiver repeatedly behaves in ways that do not help the child to regulate their distress, this results in conflicting behaviour. A parent who would provide a solution to the child’s distress is also simultaneously the source of distress. The child is distressed with no solution.

Disorganized attachment may be the result of the caregiver’s hostility, intimidation or fear, neglect, violence, abuse or helplessness to protect and care for the child adequately. The background may also involve untreated trauma history of the caregiving adult. Parental care may have been absent, intrusive or entangling.


Brown, D. & Elliott, D. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults. Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. New York: Norton.

Miculincer, M. & Shaver, P. (2016). Attachment in Adulthood. Structure, Dynamics & Change. New York: The Guildfrod Press.

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