Avoidant, anxious, secure — none of those terms can fully define a relationship.
In a popular TikTok, viewed nearly 6 million times, a young woman rolls over in bed and peers at her phone. Above her head, “What dating someone with an anxious attachment style can look like” hovers in white letters. “That’s weird, I haven’t received a good morning text from him yet,” she says. Over the course of the 37-second clip, the character’s imagination runs wild: She assumes her love interest is with another woman, drives to his house to confront him, and sees no evidence of cheating. Upon returning from her covert mission, she receives a text from her boyfriend: “Good morning babe! How did you sleep?” Such is the apparent life of a person with an anxious attachment style.
In the ongoing quest for self-identification and categorization, attachment style is seeing renewed interest. First developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment theory originally focused on the infant-caregiver relationship. “He theorized that children come into the world biologically hardwired to form attachment bonds with others,” says licensed clinical psychologist Angela Caron, “and these attachment bonds are a primal survival mechanism.”
In early studies by psychologist Mary Ainsworth, babies were separated from their parents and, upon reuniting with their caregivers, researchers observed their behaviors. Some babies ignored their mothers, dubbed avoidant attachment; others were not so comforted by their caregiver’s return, they’re called the anxiously attached; and a third group was immediately relieved by the sight of Mom, known as secure attachment. Avoidant, anxious, and secure thereby became the main classifications of attachment.
Over time, attachment theory came to describe adult relationships, too. Social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver observed that grown-ups reacted similarly to their romantic partners as babies did to their caregivers. “Some adults have secure bonds with one another,” says R. Chris Fraley, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “whereas others are more insecure and clingy or perhaps more distant and emotionally autonomous.” Additionally, both romantic and platonic relationships can be viewed through the lens of various attachment styles.
In 2010 came the publication of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love, a book that helped bring attachment theory into the new millennium mainstream. The last few years have seen the book’s popularity skyrocket. Thanks to social media, TikTok in particular, where videos tagged #attachmentstyle have been viewed more than 721 million times, attachment theory has entered the pop psychology lexicon.
Over the last half-century, attachment theory has been studied extensively, confirming the main buckets of attachment and expanding on Bowlby’s theory, Caron says. However, a body of research exists criticizing the apparent rigidity of the classifications.
Knowing how you relate to romantic partners can be both helpful and a hindrance. Focusing on attachment style as an immovable obstacle can lead to a loop of repeated mistakes. Instead, a more nuanced approach could offer insight into your trigger points and how to move beyond them.
“I think it has a beautiful capacity for growing self-understanding and self-empathy,” Caron says. “At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we check ourselves enough to go, ‘I’m not going to use self-knowing as self-justification to not grow and to not change.’”
Attachment types are not fixed throughout life and relationships
Generally, there are three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Securely attached people are trusting, can effectively communicate, and are confident being alone while also comfortable forming intimate connections. Those with anxious attachment orientations fear being rejected and may exhibit clingy or jealous behavior and feel unworthy of love. Avoidants revel in their independence and may rebuff opportunities to form deep relationships, pushing people away if they fear others getting too close.
Attachment styles primarily stem from how you were treated by caretakers while distressed as a child. As an adult, these behaviors most commonly rear their heads during times of stress, says Grace Vieth, a PhD student at the Social Interaction Lab at the University of Minnesota. Although you may exhibit some hallmarks of, say, avoidant behavior, the classification exists on a spectrum; your behaviors may not be the most extreme example of avoidant attachment style, but you have some of the qualities. Vieth says researchers measure attachment styles as a degree to which someone responds to highly avoidant or anxious questions, and not in terms of concrete categories. “It’s just a working model that varies in the extent to which you are avoidant or anxiously attached,” Vieth says. “It’s not categorical in a way that we oftentimes want to say things are in pop psych settings.”
Although these styles form in early childhood, they can change over time, Vieth says. “Someone who’s insecurely attached as an infant, they might experience a really warm, responsive caregiver later,” she says, “maybe a school teacher, maybe it’s your best friend, and that can shift your attachment style.” Other pivotal relationships, like a first romantic partner, can alter the way you relate to others and even how they respond to you. You may notice your partner gets nervous if you don’t text them back within a few minutes, and you “might be able to figure out some techniques to make them less stressed in the moment,” Vieth says. (Constantly buffering your partner’s stress, though, may come at a cost to your own mental health, Vieth points out.)
Therapy can help uncover your true attachment orientation — as opposed to self-pathologizing from online content and quizzes — and how your past experiences inform your reactions “in the face of the threat of disconnection,” Caron says. Working with a mental health professional will also help you become more aware of how you show up in relationships and how to create more secure patterns in the future.
While you may have one attachment orientation with a romantic partner, it’s possible to have another altogether with a friend or other close connections. Attachment styles are context dependent; the bottom line is that, if you feel supported and seen by another person, you’re more likely to feel secure in your attachment.
Attachment styles aren’t predictors of a relationship’s success
The problem with attachment theory’s proliferation on social media is that tweets and TikToks flatten a nuanced experience. When viewers take a simplistic view of their attachment style as gospel, they can too heavily rely on labels to define relationships. The desire to learn about our behaviors and how to improve our relationships is normal, says Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage therapist and founder of Online Private Practice, LLC, but life is often more complex than the simplistic descriptions offered online by non-experts. “As a licensed marriage therapist, I would never recommend anyone use any information they find online, read through any self-help books, or videos they may see on social media as the truth,” he says. “Labeling someone to a single attachment style creates a distorted view of that individual that does not account for the lived experiences, beliefs, or even values.”
In reality, many other factors influence how people act in relationships. The environment in which you and your partner live, your individual personalities, how many novel experiences you do together, your jobs, whether or not you have kids — “these are all things that influence relationships,” Vieth says. Just because you have anxious or avoidant tendencies does not mean your relationship is doomed.
When people subscribe too heavily to their attachment style, they can fall victim to repeated mistakes, incorrectly believing they only attract a particular kind of person or are not worthy of love. Seeing posts on social media listing the top behaviors of anxiously attached people, for example, only reinforces your fears, Caron says, and prevents you from voicing your concerns to your partner. “That means that I can never risk reaching [out] to my partner because [I believe] they’re going to shut me down,” she says.
As attachment style permeated the collective consciousness, Caron says she’s seen more people in her therapy practice use their partner’s attachment orientation to pathologize or criticize certain behaviors. The more people believe they know about attachment style, the more likely they are to assume shortcomings are a result of their attachment style. Concerns like “You don’t help out around the house” or “You’re always on your phone” morph into “You’re anxious” or “You’re avoidant,” Caron says. “One partner gets loud and critical and the other partner shuts down in response,” she says.
Attachment styles can be tools for growth
Because attachment styles can change, we can learn from our past relationships and grow. Attachment styles can be a way of understanding how the past has shaped both you and your partner. Notice how you reacted during stressful situations within your relationships: Do you shut down and avoid conflict? Do you get critical of your partner if they spend time with their friends?
Instead of defaulting to those reactions, Caron says, strive toward vulnerability and be transparent about your needs in a way that fosters collaboration and not criticism. For example, after a long day, if you, an anxiously attached person, feel like your spouse is neglecting you, you might react by claiming your partner doesn’t care about your needs. Caron suggests saying, “At the end of the day, when you’re on your phone, I don’t know why exactly, but I feel a little bit alone or panicked. In those moments, I just need a hug.”
“You’ve expressed the emotion in a clearer way,” Caron says, “and you’ve asked the need to be met.”
Your fear of abandonment stemming from childhood could have been affirmed time and time again through countless ghostings, but this isn’t indicative of the actions of every potential partner. Understanding you have the ability to change your impulses in these moments helps you become more aware of your reactions in the future. When your partner shows up for you in positive ways — answers texts, comforts you when you’re stressed — your attachment style morphs and reshapes.
Attachment orientation is but one way of explaining behaviors, and relationships are far more nuanced than the simplistic labels assigned to the respective parties. Rather than pathologizing, use attachment style as a means of understanding, a means of using your past to explain the present, and not to let that past dictate the future. “Just because you identify with some anxiously attached tendencies perhaps does not mean that your relationship is doomed,” Vieth says. “There’s ways to get better at being a good partner.”
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