Yasmine Ross
Written & Posted by Yasmine RossRelationship Coach, Writer

Understanding Relationship Dynamics Through Attachment Theory

04 May, 2024
Featured for Understanding Relationship Dynamics Through Attachment Theory

How to Deal with Your Attachment Style

Picture this serene scene: a sunlit living room, where a young child gleefully pursues their cherished toy. In this simple yet profound moment, the essence of attachment theory unfolds. Like the child checking for their caregiver's presence, attachment theory examines the intricate dynamics of human relationships. It explores how we seek security and comfort, shaping our emotions, behaviors, and connections. From understanding secure attachment to navigating anxious or avoidant attachment styles, and even grappling with disorganized attachment, this theory offers insights into the depths of human connection. Through its lens, we can explore strategies for overcoming attachment issues, fostering healthy relationships, and nurturing secure bonds that withstand the tests of time.

The History of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was pioneered by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Their work suggests that early bonds between infants and their caregivers profoundly impacts their behavior in relationships later on.

Deep into his research, Bowlby began to challenge the psychoanalytic view that a child's attachment to their mother was only a secondary drive, one that stemmed from the need to be fed. Instead, Bowlby proposed that attachment was a primary motivational system, rooted in evolutionary biology, that served an adaptive function in ensuring the child's survival. Therefore, Bowlby argued that attachment behaviors, such as crying and clinging, were necessary responses that helped infants maintain proximity to their caregivers, who provided protection and support. He believed that over the course of human evolution, infants who were able to form strong attachments to their caregivers were more likely to survive and reproduce, therefore creating the concept of attachment as a biological drive, rather than a secondary drive. He highlightedthat this attachment model purposes a few fundamental questions:

"Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive?" If the answer is "yes," the child would feel secure and confident, and thus ismore likely to explore their environment and engage in social interactions. However, if the answer is "no," the child would feel distress and engage in attachment behaviors to regain proximity to their caregiver.

While Bowlby laid the theoretical groundwork for attachment theory, it was Mary Ainsworth's innovative research that helped expand and empirically validate his theory. In the 1950s, Ainsworth collaborated with Bowlby and conducted the first empirical study of infant-mother attachment patterns in Uganda. This study, along with her later work in Baltimore, led to the identification of four primary attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Avoidant, anxious, and disorganized are considered insecure attachment styles.

If a child can consistently rely on their parents to fulfill their needs growing up, they’re likely to develop a secure attachment style. They’ll see relationships as a safe space where they can express their emotions freely. On the other hand, insecure attachment styles develop if a child has had a strained bond with their caregivers. This happens when the child learns they may not be able to rely on others to fulfill basic needs and comfort.

The collaborative work of Bowlby and Ainsworth, along with the subsequent research inspired by their ideas, has had a profound impact on our understanding of human development and the importance of early caregiving relationships.

The Stages of Attachment

Building on Bowlby's work, researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson conducted a landmark longitudinal study in the 1960s to further understand the development of these attachment relationships.

Schaffer and Emerson followed 60 infants in Glasgow, Scotland, visiting their homes every 4 weeks for the first 12 months of life and then again at 18 months. Through interviews with the parents, they identified a series of predictable stages that infants go through in forming attachments.

Stage of Attachment Age Description
Asocial Stage 0-6 weeks Infants' behaviors, such as crying or smiling, are simply for attention and are not directed toward a specific person. Infants do not discriminate between people but may prefer people over other species.
Indiscriminate Attachment Stage 6 weeks – 6 months Babies are usually happy to receive attention from anyone and do not yet resist strangers or unfamiliar people. However, they respond more strongly to people familiar with the baby.
Specific Attachment Stage 7-9 months Infants begin to experience and show separation anxiety from their primary caregivers. A fear of strangers develops at this age.
Multiple Attachments Stage 10 months+ Infants become interested in and attached to other people, such as grandparents, siblings, or familiar adults.

By outlining these predictable stages, Schaffer and Emerson's research has provided valuable insights into the normative process of attachment formation in infancy. This knowledge can inform interventions to support healthy attachment development and address disruptions that may lead to attachment difficulties later in life.

Understanding Attachment Styles - How do they Develop?

Understanding one's attachment style can provide valuable insights into the patterns and dynamics that shape our relationships. By recognizing these tendencies, individuals can work towards developing more secure and fulfilling connections with their partners. Here are the four primary attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Secure Attachment

Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with intimacy and are able to trust their partners. They are confident in themselves and their relationships, and can balance dependence and independence.

Secure attachment is often the result of having caregivers who were consistently responsive and attuned to the child's needs. Ultimately, the child felt safe, understood, and comforted, as their caregivers were emotionally available and aware of their own emotions and behaviors.

Indicators of a Secure Attachment Style:

Emotional Regulation: Demonstrates the ability to manage and regulate emotions effectively.

Trusting Nature: Easily trusts others and believes in the reliability of relationships.

Communication Proficiency: Possesses strong communication skills, facilitating healthy dialogue and understanding.

Emotional Support Seeking: Comfortable seeking and receiving emotional support from others when needed.

Independence: Exhibits comfort in solitude and self-sufficiency.

Close Relationship Comfort: Feels at ease in intimate and close relationships.

Partnership Self-Reflection: Capable of self-reflection within partnerships, fostering mutual growth and understanding.

Approachability: Easily connects with others and fosters rapport.

Conflict Management: Demonstrates adeptness in resolving conflicts constructively.

Self-Esteem: Maintains a healthy level of self-esteem and self-worth.

Emotional Availability: Accessible and open in sharing emotions and experiences with others.

Research has shown that securely attached individuals are more likely to have satisfying and stable relationships, as they are able to openly communicate their needs and feelings. As a result, people with secure attachment styles tend to navigate relationships well. They’re generally positive, trusting, and loving to their partners.

Anxious Attachment (aka preoccupied, or anxious-ambivalent in children)

Those with an anxious attachment style often crave high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their partners. They may worry excessively about their partner's availability and fear rejection.

Individuals with an anxious attachment style may have experienced inconsistent caregiving in childhood, leading to a heightened sensitivity to relationship dynamics and a deep-seated fear of abandonment. Their caregivers may have alternated between being overly coddling then suddenly detached or indifferent. They might have been easily overwhelmed,attentive and then pushed you away, or made you responsible for their emotions. Therefore these children grow up thinking they’re supposed to take care of other people’s emotions and become codependent.

Indicators of a Anxious Attachment Style:

Clinginess: Tendencies to seek excessive closeness and reassurance from others.

Sensitivity to Criticism: Prone to feeling deeply affected by both real and perceived criticism.

Approval Seeking: Strong need for validation and approval from others.

Jealousy: Tendencies towards possessiveness and jealousy in relationships.

Fear of Solitude: Difficulty being alone and discomfort with solitude.

Low Self-Esteem: Struggles with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness.

Love Unworthiness: Belief of being undeserving or unworthy of love and affection

Fear of Rejection: Intense fear of rejection, leading to avoidance of situations where rejection is possible.

Fear of Abandonment: Significant anxiety and apprehension about being abandoned or left alone.

Trust Issues: Difficulty trusting others due to past experiences or insecurities.

People with anxious attachment styles usually feel unworthy of love and need constant reassurance from their partners. This can manifest in clingy or demanding behavior in their adult relationships. Ultimately, there’s a deep-rooted fear of being abandoned, rejected, or alone.

Avoidant Attachment (aka dismissive, or anxious-avoidant in children)

Individuals with avoidant attachment style tend to avoid intimacy and closeness in relationships. They may prioritize independence and self-reliance over emotional connection, often appearing uninterested in close relationships.

This attachment style is often rooted in childhood experiences where caregivers expected you to be independent, rejected your emotional needs, or left you to fend for yourself. As adults, these individuals may have developed a strong sense of self-sufficiency as a coping mechanism, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining meaningful relationships.

Indicators of a Avoidant Attachment Style:

Consistent Avoidance of Intimacy: Frequently sidesteps emotional or physical closeness in relationships.

Strong Independence: Exhibits a pronounced sense of self-reliance and autonomy.

Discomfort with Emotional Expression: Struggles to express feelings and emotions openly.

Dismissive Attitude: Tends to dismiss or disregard the needs and emotions of others.

Trust Issues: Finds it challenging to trust others, leading to skepticism and guardedness.

Feeling Threatened by Closeness: Perceives attempts at closeness as threatening or suffocating.

Preference for Solitude: Often chooses solitude over social interactions, spending significant time alone

Belief in Self-Sufficiency: Holds the belief that one doesn't need others in their life to fulfill their needs.

Commitment Hesitation: Struggles with commitment in relationships, possibly due to fear of vulnerability or abandonment.

Anxious-avoidant attached adults lack the need for emotional intimacy, so romantic relationships are not able to reach a deeper level, and may tend to navigate relationships at an arm’s length.

Disorganized Attachment (aka fearful or anxious-avoidant)

The disorganized attachment style is often seen as the worst of both, as it combines aspects of both anxious and avoidant styles. Individuals with this style may desire closeness but also fear getting hurt or rejected. Therefore, disorganized attachment is often associated with a tumultuous or traumatic childhood, where the child may have experienced fear, neglect, or abuse from their caregivers.

As adults, these individuals may exhibit unpredictable or intense behavior in their relationships, struggling to balance their desire for intimacy with their fear of vulnerability.

Indicators of a Disorganized Attachment Style:

Fear of Rejection: Strong apprehension and distress surrounding the possibility of rejection.

Emotion Regulation Challenges: Difficulty in managing and controlling emotions effectively.

Contradictory Behaviors: Exhibits behaviors that are inconsistent or conflicting.

Elevated Anxiety Levels: Experience of heightened levels of anxiety and emotional turmoil.

Trust Issues: Struggles with placing trust in others and maintaining trustful relationships.

Mixed Attachment Signs: Displays characteristics of both avoidant and anxious attachment styles, leading to ambiguity in relationship behaviors.

In romantic relationships, individuals with a disorganized attachment style often exhibit erratic and perplexing behavior. They may oscillate between periods of detachment and independence, and moments of clinginess and emotional intensity.

While these individuals yearn for love, they also harbor a deep-seated fear of rejection. Consequently, they engage in a paradoxical dance of seeking emotional intimacy while simultaneously pushing their partners away. They grapple with an internal conflict between the desire for security and the fear of vulnerability, leading to unpredictable actions and emotional turmoil.

Strategies for Overcoming Attachment Problems

Fortunately, through understanding the research behind attachment theory we can overcome attachment problems when developing healthier relationships. Here are five ways that can help you overcome attachment issues.

1. Identify Your Attachment Style

The first step is to gain self-awareness about your own attachment style, which can be secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. Understanding your predominant attachment tendencies can help you recognize unhealthy patterns and work towards more adaptive ways of relating.

One way to figure out your attachment style is to look at the relationships in your life and how you act and feel in them. Ask yourself:

“Do I often feel anxious or cornered around that person?”

“Do I tend to flee from arguments or have a deep desire to fix them immediately?”

“Do I constantly find myself overthinking and persistently concerned about the relationship?”

Becoming aware of your own tendencies allows you to begin to process certain behaviors and hopefully catch them when they show up. Additionally there are many attachment style quizzes online you can take such as:

2. Learn to Self-soothe and Address Your Needs

Individuals with attachment problems often neglect their own emotional and physical needs in favor of focusing on their relationships. Engaging in self-care activities, such as journaling, exercise, or seeking social support, can help you become more attuned to your internal experiences and better regulate your emotions.

Learning to self- soothe involves cultivating mindfulness, relaxation practices, and emotional regulation skills. Techniques such as deep breathing, journalling, or grounding exercises can help individuals cope with anxiety and insecurity.

Furthermore, addressing your needs directly is crucial for overcoming attachment problems. This involves recognizing and expressing your emotions, setting boundaries, and seeking support when necessary. By meeting your own emotional needs, you become less dependent on external validation and more capable of forming secure attachments.

3. Develop Healthy Attachments within Secure Partners

Building relationships with secure partners can significantly impact your attachment style and interpersonal dynamics. Secure individuals can provide a "corrective attachment experience" that challenges negative beliefs and patterns, by providing a stable and supportive foundation for emotional growth and intimacy. By surrounding yourself with secure partners, you have the opportunity to learn healthy relational patterns, experience trust, and develop a sense of security.

Avoid repeating patterns of unhealthy attachment by consciously choosing partners who demonstrate secure attachment traits, such as empathy, reliability, and responsiveness. Cultivating healthy attachments within secure relationships can gradually reshape your own attachment style and guide you to more healthy and fulfilling relationships.

4. Engage in Therapy

Working with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can be particularly beneficial for addressing attachment problems. Therapists can help individuals explore the roots of their attachment issues, develop coping strategies, and foster more secure attachment styles.

We offer various therapeutic approaches at An Elegant Mind, including attachment-based therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychedelic therapy, which can help address underlying issues, heal past traumas, and improve relational skills.

In attachment-based therapy, for example, therapists focus on exploring early attachment experiences and patterns, fostering emotional regulation, and promoting secure attachment behaviors. Through a therapeutic relationship built on trust and empathy, clients can develop insights into their attachment dynamics and work towards healthier relational patterns.

5. Cultivate Self-Compassion

Self-compassion plays a fundamental role in overcoming attachment problems and fostering emotional resilience. Instead of harsh self-judgment and criticism, self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially during times of distress or vulnerability.

Practice self-compassion by acknowledging your struggles without judgment, validating your emotions, and offering yourself words of kindness and encouragement. By cultivating self-compassion, you develop a secure internal base from which to navigate relationships and cope with attachment-related challenges.

The journey may be challenging, but with time and effort, it is possible to break free from the constraints of insecure attachment and forge meaningful connections.


Attachment theory continues to be a driving force in developmental psychology, informing research and clinical practice in areas such as child development, psychopathology, and interpersonal relationships. While the journey may be challenging, overcoming attachment problems offers the promise of deeper self-understanding, healthier relationships, and enhanced well-being, ultimately enabling individuals to break free from the constraints of insecure attachment and forge meaningful connections in their lives.

Through understanding attachment theory, we're reminded of the profound impact our childhood relationships have on shaping our lives. Just as a sturdy foundation supports a towering structure, our attachment experiences lay the groundwork for how we navigate and interact within our adult relationships.

At An Elegant Mind Counseling, we recognize the significance of attachment theory in understanding ourselves and our relationships. Our counselors are equipped with the expertise and compassion to guide you through the journey of self-discovery and healing. Whether you're seeking to unravel the complexities of your attachment style, mend past wounds, or cultivate healthier relationships, we're here to support you every step of the way. Our therapeutic approaches, including attachment-based therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychedelic therapy, are tailored to meet your unique needs and foster growth.

Take the first step towards a more fulfilling life by reaching out to An Elegant Mind Counseling. Together, we can embark on a journey of self-awareness, healing, and transformation. Your path to greater resilience, authenticity, and connection begins here.

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