We each have a way of being and a way of responding in our adult relationship, including how we communicate with our partner. How we are in a relationship is determined by our attachment style, i.e., the pattern of interactions and behaviors we display in a relationship. According to John Bowlby, psychologist and founder of the attachment theory, our attachment style develops in the infancy stage, i.e., within the first 18 months of life. It develops through what we learn about ourselves and our primary caregiver in the way with which they respond to us and our needs. Their behavior towards us teaches us about our worth and strongly influences the perceptions we make of other people: Is it safe to be with another person? Can I trust people? Am I worthy of love? Are my needs met? Am I rejected or abandoned? Can I be close to someone? Can I express myself openly? If no one responds to me, should I stop letting them know if something hurts me or if I’m hungry? And through this process of learning about ourselves in relation to our primary caregiver in infancy, we develop a style of interacting and behaving in our relationships as we grow older and form adult relationships.
Through the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist who expanded upon Bowlby’s attachment theory, the following four attachment styles were discovered: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant, also known as disorganized. These are the same attachment styles which we carry forward into our adult relationships as well. Depending on your attachment style, here are the characteristics that will generally define you in an adult relationship:
Secure: I have high self-worth. I am open and honest. I love and allow myself to be loved. I have empathy. I am comfortable with closeness but enjoy my independence too. I am able to trust.
Anxious: I am pre-occupied by thoughts of rejection or abandonment. I have low self-worth. I require frequent reassurance. I am afraid to be open and worry about the consequences. I want to be close but don’t know how to react when someone becomes close to me. I am hyper-vigilant to the moods and feelings of others.
Avoidant: I am not comfortable with closeness. I struggle to identify my feelings or recognize what my needs are. I avoid conflict by staying quiet or shutting down. I am not open. I struggle to trust and prefer to rely on myself. I respond to everything intellectually and I don’t know how to be emotional.
Anxious-avoidant: I have experienced some form of trauma in my life. I have high anxiety and high avoidance in my relationship. I don’t have good coping skills and respond with chaos and intensity. I am unpredictable and volatile. I am aggressive towards others but also fear rejection. I have very low self-worth and struggle with feelings of shame. I am suffering inside with pain and don’t know how to deal with it. I engage in activities to disassociate from the pain. I struggle with substance use and/or depression.
Secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant are the four attachment styles that characterize the pattern of our interactions and behaviors not only in our childhood relationships but also in our adult relationships. If you are struggling to identify your attachment style, know that the two most common attachment styles in a couple’s relationship are anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. Sometimes, people display behaviors of both of these attachment styles, leaving them feeling confused about which style is theirs. The best way to discover your attachment style is to identify your core fears and/or beliefs. If you can readily relate to fears of rejection, abandonment, or feeling unseen, you likely have an anxious attachment style even if you display avoidant behaviors. If you can readily relate to fears of failing no matter how hard you try, or being perceived as a failure, you likely have an avoidant attachment style even if you display anxious behaviors. When identifying your attachment style, remember it is less to do with how you behave and more to do with what you fear and what you believe.