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Attachment is the primary way that human beings relate to one another. How we learn to establish relationships — our attachment styles — develop during the first two years of life. Recognizing your attachment style can help you highlight specific behaviors developed as a child that persist into toddler age, adolescence, teen years, and adulthood. Understanding attachment styles helps adults adjust behaviors that may interfere with their ability to bond and maintain healthy relationships.

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The Theory That Started It All

John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who believed that family experiences profoundly impact a child’s emotional and behavioral well-being. He theorized that infant behaviors like crying, clinging, and screaming developed as survival instincts of ancient humans. Bowlby identified this group of behaviors as an "attachment behavioral system" that could increase the survival rate of infants and, therefore, continued through natural selection from one generation to the next. He also believed this system serves as a guide for human beings’ attachment patterns with other humans throughout their lives.

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Childhood Attachment Styles

Research indicates four attachment styles that contribute to the way that children establish connections with others:

  • Secure attachment: Resilient and successful in developing interactions with others.
  • Anxious-avoidant attachment: Able to handle stressful situations less effectively; often exhibit antisocial behavior. Likely to withdraw.
  • Anxious-resistant attachment: Social isolation and avoidance of peer interaction.
  • Disorganized-disoriented attachment: Sources of support viewed as threats.
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Children’s Behavior in Attachment Styles

A 2010 study separated children from their parents to determine how they reacted in unfamiliar environments. Children with a secure attachment were easily comforted when reunited with their parents. Anxious-resistant attachment children lashed out at their parents for leaving. Children with avoidant attachments exhibited minimal to no distress when researchers separated them. The disorganized-disoriented attachment style group had no predictable attachment behaviors or patterns.

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Ways Childhood Attachment Styles Affect Adulthood

Attachment systems are more visible in infants and young children, but in adulthood, these systems continue to affect the way people behave, feel, and think. Researchers theorize that attachment styles activate whenever a person feels anxious, fearful, or distressed. If the individual is unable to reduce their anxieties, the attachment style can hinder their ability to form healthy adult relationships.

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Secure Attachment Style in Adult Relationships

The majority of people have secure attachment styles and have no problem establishing deep emotional connections. They are likely to feel secure and satisfied in their relationships. Individuals with secure attachments know that those they are attached to are available for support. In turn, they show their support for these relationships.

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Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults

Individuals with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style easily initiate relationships and start new friendships. Soon after, they start noticing irritating characteristics in their new friend or romantic interest. Affection from another person triggers anxiety. People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may complain about feeling suffocated in a relationship. They tend to have an exit strategy in place.

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Anxious Attachment Style in Adults

People who require constant reassurance and affection from their relationships may have an anxious attachment style. They seem to be in an ongoing state of stress and anxiety about these relationships and have difficulty being alone or single. These individuals also crave attachment, and this can lead to abusive and unhealthy relationships. A significant percentage of people with anxious attachment style experience irrational behavior and have issues regulating their emotions.

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Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults

People with an anxious-avoidant attachment style make up only a small percentage of the population. They deliberately create distance between themselves and others to avoid depending on them. Intimacy issues are common, and they find it difficult to trust the other person in the relationship. These individuals tend to spend more time alone or in dysfunctional relationships. Many also deal with substance abuse, depression, and other mental health issues.

anxious avoidant dysfunctional relationship South_agency / Getty Images

Determining Attachment Style

It can be helpful for people to know their attachment style. This knowledge sheds light on the health of our relationships and ways to improve them. Online tests are available; individuals can answer questionnaires to determine their attachment styles. Specific tests offer insight into relationships with friends, parents, co-workers, and romantic partners.

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Changing Attachment Styles

Adult attachment styles mirror those acquired in childhood. Difficult circumstances in early years can lead to issues creating and sustaining relationships later on. Adults can change the way they create bonds with others by rewiring their brains through therapy and consciously forming attachments with those who have a more secure attachment style.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.