How Does Your “Attachment Style” Impact Your Adult Relationships?

How Does Your Attachment Style Impact Your Relationships

“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” – William D. Tammeus

Your adult attachment style has developed as a result of repetitive interpersonal interactions with important caregivers or parents as children. These early interactions with significant others result in the development of expectations for how readily people are capable of meeting your needs and serve as an emotional blueprint for what to expect from other people. Over time, we begin to develop a sense of ourselves as an autonomous individual based on feedback and emotional containment from our caregivers. As adults, we take these attachment styles into our relationships with others, creating a complex interpersonal “dance” of emotions, motivations, and expectations.

Secure Attachment Style:

Adults with a secure attachment style tend to value relationships and are able to readily identify memories and feelings from their childhoods in non-defensive ways. For adults whose childhood held traumatic memories or unreliable/inconsistent parenting, they can still “acquire” a secure attachment style as an adult based on their willingness and ability to work through those unpleasant experiences and acknowledge their impact. For securely attached adults, they tend to not experience intense anxiety or fear when loved ones are not readily available, as they trust that they will be there when they need them. (This is an example of a relationship expectation learned in infancy/childhood.)

As you read the “typical statements” of adults with each of the four main attachment styles, consider how these statements were learned in relation to expectations from parents or primary caregivers. For example, “I know [my mom] will be there for me when I need [her].”

Typical statements of a secure adult:

  • “I know he will be there for me when I need him.”
  • “He is able to comfort me when I’m distressed.”
  • “I enjoy it when she gets emotionally close, because I feel emotionally close to her.”

Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment Style:

A dismissive/avoidant attachment style is often marked by an adult’s inability to recall many details about his childhood. For example, when asked about family relationships or childhood, this adult may respond with a statement similar to, “My family… my parents… I don’t know. I don’t remember much about growing up.” There may also be a tendency to describe one’s parents in either overly idealized or overly devalued terms – seeing them somewhat dichotomously. This attachment style may impact current adult relationships by the expression of detachment and avoidance of emotional closeness. There may be great value placed on appearing self-reliant, competent, or independent, since as a child these individuals learned that showing vulnerability was unacceptable.

Typical statements of a dismissive adult:

  • “I don’t care if she doesn’t love me / want me.”
  • “I don’t tell him I’m upset because I can take care of my feeling myself.”
  • “No problem. Everything’s fine.”

Preoccupied/Anxious Attachment Style:

A preoccupied or anxious attachment style may manifest itself in an adult appearing to be “all caught up” or ensnared in preoccupations about current or past relationships. It is almost as if these individuals don’t have room in their own minds for their own minds… they are completely filled with thoughts about other people and preserving relationships. The central theme of this attachment style is a fear of losing relationships.

You may guess that this attachment style tends to develop in children whose parents were inconsistently available or unpredictable. This can leave children feeling preoccupied with how to hold on to those important relationships, which were perplexing or unstable. Teyber and McClure (2011) note that “many preoccupied [individuals] grew up enmeshed (and often parentified) with an unpredictable parent who was too often caught up in his/her own emotional upheavals to be able to be a safe haven and provide containment and affect regulation for the child.”

Typical statements of a preoccupied adult:

  • “I’m often wondering whether she really cares about me or not.”
  • “I often feel dependent on him for emotional support.”
  • “I turn to him when I’m upset, but it doesn’t really help me feel much better.”

Fearful Attachment Style:

Fearfully attached adults may display a wide array of symptoms, with some combination of emotions present in both dismissive and preoccupied adults. Two primary themes pervade the fearful attachment style: (1) they are likely to have suffered significant parental hostility or overt rejection, and (2) some have suffered physical or sexual abuse, but have not come to terms with the impact of the abuse. These adults may display a variety of acting out symptoms (e.g., drug/alcohol abuse or self-injurious behavior). These individuals desperately want to approach others and make meaningful connections, although they are terrified at the prospect of genuine relationships with other people because they have learned that relationships can be quite dangerous – even terrifying.

Consider the following “typical statements” as messages that the adult heard from the parent about themselves as a child. As an adult, they are likely to have internalized those hurtful statements and now believe them to be true about themselves. For example, imagine the impact of a parent saying to their young child, “What’s wrong with you?!?” These statements can have a lasting deleterious impact on the growing child’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Typical statements of a fearful adult:

  • “There’s something wrong with me.”
  • “I don’t matter – I just hate myself.”
  • “No one would want to be with someone like me.”

As you read through these four adult attachment styles, consider the way in which the messages that you have internalized about what to expect from other people, relationships, and even yourself is intimately connected to the messages that you received from your primary caregivers. Imagine how differently two people might behave if one of them was raised by parents who provided consistency, stability, and love, versus one raised by parents who were self-absorbed in their own emotional dramas, yet deluded themselves into believing they did “what was best” for their children.

The messages that you received about your own self-worth/strengths and what to expect in close relationships with other people is imprinted on you as you grow into adulthood. However, even if you weren’t raised in a stable home that could provide a foundation for a secure attachment style, you have the opportunity to work through any losses, mixed messages, or traumatic experiences that you had in childhood now, as an adult. With adulthood comes the opportunity to cultivate the mindful wisdom necessary to heal any old wounds and to become the strong, loving, and consistent parent that you would like to be for your own children.

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If you are interested in learning what your adult attachment style is, try this free attachment style quiz, based on the widely used “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised” (ECR-R) questionnaire.

Teyber, E., & McClure, F. H. (2011). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model. (6 ed., pp. 232-279). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Featured image: 嗚…大家都欺負我!! by sⓘndy° / CC BY-SA 2.0

9 Responses to How Does Your “Attachment Style” Impact Your Adult Relationships?
  1. Random
    April 18, 2012 | 10:55 pm

    I wanted to take the assessment of attachment style to see whether or not I’m correct in suspecting that I have the fearful attachment style. However, I can’t take it because it phrases all of the questions in terms of romantic relationships. I barely get close enough to people to make friends, so imagining a romantic relationship is not possible for me. I could not get past that and just closed it.

    Interestingly, unlike a lot of the people with the fearful attachment style, I wasn’t abused by my parents. My dad just was not in my life (left when I was 6) and my mom died suddenly when I was 11. I don’t really remember what I was like before that happened, but since then, fearful describes my attachment style the best. Is it possible for things other than abuse to cause a fearful attachment style? What kind of help should I seek to fix this? Thank you for this post, it is helping me understand myself.

    • Laura
      April 28, 2012 | 11:40 am

      I can understand how this particular assessment of attachment style, “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised” (ECR-R), was difficult to respond to, since many of the questions are worded in terms of romantic relationships. It sounds like you feel a sense of identification with a fearful attachment style, but are interested in how to assess and understand this attachment style as distinct from romantic relationships. You can explore some different ways of assessing attachment style here: Self-Report Measures of Adult Attachment.

      Based on what you have written, you have experienced some very painful losses in your life with the absence of your dad and the sudden death of your mom. I am so sorry for your losses. You sound as though you are taking a brave and active stance toward understanding yourself, your experiences, and the ways in which your past may be impacting your current relationships and well-being. The types of issues that you have mentioned here can be worked through in psychotherapy; it may be helpful for you to consult with a mental health professional in your area who can meet with you in person to understand what type of treatment may be most beneficial for you. I wish you the best as you move forward with understanding yourself and engaging in the process of emotional healing. Thank you for visiting and for your comment.

    • Clare
      April 28, 2013 | 3:12 am

      I’m in the same position. I have tried the ECR-R questionnaire in the hopes of learning more about the way I relate to those around me but as I have never had a romantic relationship (I am 44), it isn’t possible to answer the questions. I really feel that this is a problem with this questionnaire because it assumes respondents have been romantically involved. Those that haven’t feel excluded and as though they do not even warrant consideration. There are other ways of relating to people after all.

  2. lisa la
    October 30, 2012 | 7:17 pm

    This article really expressed the main points clearly and I found it very informative. I also appreciated this article I read recently: http://www.psychalive.org/2010/07/what-is-your-attachment-style/

  3. Dale Hudson
    November 2, 2012 | 12:34 pm

    I am interested in your thoughts regarding the leader-follower interactions at work or in organizations and whether their interactions might be an attachment /caregiver relationship? I am of the opinion that they can be given the blurred boundaries between work-life as well as types of uncertainty faced by organizations. If true it makes an interesting conversation trying to define a fearful/avoidant leader.

  4. CP
    April 12, 2013 | 5:29 pm

    Though most information about attachment theory is based in caregiver-child relationships, more and more research is pointing to the fact that there are many other influences when it comes to attachment. The theory originated with caregiver-child relationships, but that is by no means where it ends. One’s attachment can change (for better or worse) as one ages, and it can also be different for different relationships at the same time.

    For myself, my upbringing was good, and as far as I can discern, I had and have a secure attachment to my parents. However, I had a somewhat traumatic event happen in childhood, when I was about 10, when all my friends (about 5 at the time) overtly rejected me all at once leaving me friendless. This shattered my trust in others and I’ve had fearful attachments to others ever since, having trouble making friends and long term relationships. I still have a secure attachment to my parents however. In general, I tend to have a more secure attachment with elders and a more fearful one with peers.

  5. Back to Therapy | Not Your Victim
    April 22, 2013 | 6:27 am

    […] week on (infant) Attachment Theory and its effects that last into adulthood and it really hurt. (Handy link with more information here) When I recognized bits of myself in the lesser areas of attachment, I realized I never really had a […]

  6. Sara Rose
    June 4, 2013 | 7:49 pm

    I really like your message of hope that people can work through painful parts of their childhood and become more of a securely attached person in their life now, enriching their lives. It reminds me of an article I recently read called “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” Here’s a link for anyone interested: http://www.psychalive.org/2012/02/if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail-by-debra-kessler-psy-d/

  7. anonymous
    November 15, 2014 | 1:54 pm

    Can you display different attachment styles with different people? And can you display different attachment styles to friends as you would romantic partners?

    I’m confusing to me. The avoidant style sounds just like me in platonic relationships. I tend to get uncomfortable if people want to be closer than I do, and will often say no to people who want to meet me again after meeting with them once because I feel like they are getting in my space.

    With romantic relationships, I seem to be somewhere between secure and anxious. I can’t relate to the statements on the anxious style, about wanting to merge etc, I definitely wouldn’t want that. But sometimes I feel I am in danger if I really like someone because if I really like someone it can feel like my emotional can depend on what they do and that makes me feel unsafe. I would rather than my emotional state was controllable by me alone and resent any one else appearing to have any power over me. I understand, of course, that they don’t and that I can control my emotions. But I get frustrated if I am telling myself to be rational and trying to calm myself down and it doesn’t work. To be fair, this effect is usually very mild and doesn’t bother me much. It’s been very extreme once, but I think this is because it gets worse if I am unhappy with everything else in my life. I tend to always think it is important not to depend too heavily (I feel I can depend on them as a person – I trust people) but I mean I probably get a bit scared if I start to feel emotionally close.

    This isn’t true in all romantic relationships, though. It’s only true where I have a strong attraction to them. I guess because I feel like they are affecting me, whereas in other relationships with men who I find less attractive, I don’t feel that they are affecting me in anyway. This is tied up with the fact I very rarely find men attractive so I consider these men to be ‘rare’ – therefore increasing the importance of everything going well. I tend to be destroyed by breakups and sometimes attempt to leave first so they can’t leave me – partly for self respect if I notice distancing, and partly for self-preservation, so that I’m in control of my own emotions and they can’t control me.

    But I don’t feel emotionally attached to my friends. I feel disconnected from just about everyone and I tend to feel very uncomfortable with too much closeness with members of my family (such as hugging or physical contact between family members, I strongly dislike this).

    I’d love to understand what I can do about it because I feel very disconnected and lonely, but I have no idea what attachment style I have if I appear to be both avoidant and anxious but I’m just not ‘screwed up’ enough to be fearful avoidant, if that makes sense…and I don’t tend to run away from romantic relationships when they get close. I tend to want to move nearer when we get close, although I will have occasionally ‘chats with myself’ reminding me not to depend as I need to be ok if we break up.

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