Struggling with relationships as an adult? Your attachment style may be why
Written byChristina Reese, PhD, LCPC
Last updated: 09/14/2023
Sue had a job and a life that she loved. She got along with her boss and coworkers. She had a satisfying relationship with her parents and siblings, and she completely adored her young nieces and nephew.
Relationships were important to Sue, and although she prioritized them, she was frustrated that she struggled to form deeper, long-lasting relationships with friends and romantic partners.
She’d go out for coffee with friends she met in yoga class, and she’d even venture out with people she met on dating apps—but no matter what she did, these relationships always seemed to fizzle out after a few months.
With little to show for her social life and love life, Sue found herself wondering what she could be doing wrong. She was friendly, she connected with others easily, and she enjoyed her relationships. So what was the problem?
Attachment styles, explained
Relationships are important because they meet our need for love. How we interact and connect with other people can be described by patterns of attachment (also called attachment styles). These patterns begin in childhood, as we all learn about relationship expectations and skills by watching our parents and caregivers.
Our patterns of attachment continue into adulthood and don’t change unless we’re aware of them, mindful of how they impact our relationships, and intentional about moving toward healthy attachment. In the story above, Sue may not have been aware of her attachment style, which could explain why she was having relationship struggles.
There are four categories of attachment styles that describe relationships. Let’s take a look at each one separately.
Secure attachment is the healthiest form of relationship. This type of relationship meets our needs physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
When you have a secure attachment style, trust is present in your relationships. You feel safe enough to let your guard down and be vulnerable.
Take Frank’s relationship with his parents, for instance. He knows that he can turn to them for advice about anything he’s struggling with, and he often calls them up on the phone to talk whenever he’s had a hard day. He also knows that they’ll listen, empathize, and offer their support, suggesting that he has secure attachment in the relationship with his parents.
Although Frank has been married to his wife, Kelly, for 10 years, and they have a good relationship, he feels better about talking to his parents about certain things. He’s never been dishonest with Kelly, but he often finds it difficult to turn to her for support, suggesting that she could have a more insecure attachment style to him.
If you feel like you can share your thoughts and feelings openly with someone and are quite confident that they will be respected, valued, and validated, then it’s likely that you have a secure attachment style.
Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment style characterized by low confidence in a relationship. Essentially, there’s a lack of trust in the relationship, and a sense of control is needed to help manage anxious feelings.
To help describe this style, let’s take a look at Frank’s wife, Kelly. Kelly was raised by parents who implemented lots of rules and rigid structure in her routine when she was a child. Her parents had good intentions, of course—they only wanted to keep her safe from perceived threats and maintain a close connection with her.
But what they didn’t realize was that they were modeling an anxious attachment style for her. As a result, anxious attachment was normalized for Kelly and has become her internal working model for how she interacts in her relationships.
If you find that you always crave feedback and reassurance in your relationships, then you may have an anxious attachment style.
Ambivalent attachment is another insecure attachment style characterized by independence and detachment. In this pattern of connection, a person doesn’t want to depend or rely on others for support or problem solving.
Let’s go back to Sue’s story to help explain this one. She wondered why she struggled so much with forming meaningful ones with friends and romantic partners.
On the surface, Sue values relationships, and they’re important to her. However, Sue doesn’t fully engage in relationships by meeting the needs of others and allowing them to meet hers. She wants to be independent in relationships, as this is what was modeled for her in her relationship with her parents. She wants to take care of herself and can’t admit the vulnerability of having needs and asking or accepting for others to meet them. Likewise, she doesn’t reach out to others to meet their needs because she values independence, both hers and theirs, in relationships.
Ambivalent attachment could describe Sue’s situation. Attunement is missing in this relationship style, as we fail to properly express our needs, allow others to meet our needs, or offer to meet the needs of others. Without attunement, trust can’t be built and vulnerability doesn’t feel safe, so it’s often avoided.
Think of it this way: If we see relationships along a spectrum, or continuum, dependence is at one end and independence is at the other. The healthy balance is in the middle, at interdependence. We need each other.
When someone values you enough to meet your needs—not because you can’t meet your own needs, but because they care for you—this communicates that you’re valuable and precious to someone. And this becomes the foundation for self-esteem, confidence, and worth. When this is missing, the relationship can feel empty: a sign of ambivalent attachment.
Disorganized attachment is the fourth and final style of connection, which is also an insecure one. It’s the most difficult (but least common) attachment style, caused by abusive or unpredictable parents or caregivers.
Consider Sam’s story. Sam was raised in a home where his parents abused alcohol and were neglectful, often failing to meet his needs physically and emotionally.
When they were intoxicated, they would yell and fight, expressing their anger by throwing things and hitting each other. Sam would often try to intervene, but sadly, he’d often get hurt in the process. Twice, he suffered broken bones.
Now an adult, Sam is extremely uncomfortable getting close to anyone he’s dating. He finds himself starting arguments that lead to physical altercations and doesn’t know how to stop this cycle. Although he wants to be close to someone, he doesn’t know how to reach a point where he feels comfortable and safe with this type of connection.
Unfortunately for Sam, relationships never felt safe for him. When the person that you turn to for love, connection, and closeness is also a dangerous person to you, the result is a fear of the very thing you need.
We all need love. When a child like Sam learns that they’re not safe around their parent, they also learn not to trust or be vulnerable in relationships.
Adults with disorganized attachment style may not feel close or connected in their relationships, even fearing them. And when intimacy does progress beyond their comfort zone, they may consciously or unconsciously sabotage the connection by driving away the other person.
Mixing attachment styles
As adults, we all have our own style of relating and connecting to others. Each person that we’re connecting to also has their own patterns and styles of relating.
When attachment styles mix and match, we have to take both people and their relationship patterns into account when we are trying to form a connection. Understanding how another person is approaching the relationship and knowing their pattern of relating can help us to better negotiate and compromise to find common ground.
How to find help
Getting to know your own attachment style can lead to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships. Although insecure attachment styles are often at the root of relationship problems in adulthood, it’s possible to move toward secure attachment.
The first step involves becoming aware of your patterns in relationships, then recognizing them in the moment when they’re happening. Disrupting the cycle in the moment and choosing a different path is how we begin to change our brains and create new habits and patterns of behavior.
Remember that relationships are living things and must be invested in continuously. To get help with your relationship struggles and work toward developing a more secure attachment style, visit our therapist directory.
About the author
Christina Reese, PhD, LCPC, has been working with children impacted by trauma for over 15 years. A passionate advocate for children and their families, she has worked with children in schools, court-ordered drug treatment, residential treatment centers, and the community. Her book, “Attachment: 60 Trauma-Informed Assessment and Treatment Interventions Across the Lifespan,” offers trauma-informed strategies to facilitate connection, rebuild trust, and restore positive emotions. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as a licensed clinical supervisor. She received her master’s in community counseling from McDaniel College and her PhD in counselor education from George Washington University.
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