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Attachment Theory: Explaining Relationship “Styles”

Have you ever known someone who seems insecure?  They could be highly jealous, petty, paranoid, or emotionally distant. They could resist being touched or comforted when they’re upset, or they could go from being happy to furious at the drop of a hat, leaving their partners scratching their heads.

Fortunately, there’s an explanation for these behaviors, and it lies in “attachment theory.”1,2 First introduced about half a century ago, attachment theory is now used to explain individual differences (also called “styles”) in how people think, feel, and behave in relationships. The word “attachment” refers to emotionally significant interpersonal bonds people form throughout their lives, first with parents, then friends, lovers, partners, and children.

Longitudinal research has shown that childhood experiences (starting within the first 12 months of life) profoundly influence relationships in adulthood.3,4 Parents that are consistently responsive, available, and emotionally intelligent can instill or “teach” good relationship behaviors to their children. These children subsequently grow up to be more socially adept and well-adjusted. They trust that their romantic partners can be counted on, and view their relationships as beneficial and wonderful. They are comfortable with closeness and intimacy with others, and do not hesitate to seek social support when needed. Such people are labeled “secure,” and are predicted to have happy relationships in their adult years because they have learned what behaviors are appropriate.

Other children do not fare as well. Parents who are inconsistently available (or consistently unavailable) “teach” their children that others cannot be fully trusted or counted on for social support, and that closeness and intimacy in relationships is dangerous. Fear is a core aspect of this relational insecurity. Insecure people are afraid that they will be betrayed, abandoned, rejected, or worse if they become attached to someone.2

One type of insecurity makes people become obsessive, clingy, and experience dramatic fluctuations in their emotional states (mood swings). These people are generally referred to as “preoccupied” or “anxious ambivalent.” Anxious ambivalent folks are more likely to pay very close attention to their partners’ behaviors because they are perpetually worried that their partners don’t love them as much as they do. They sometimes express wanting to “merge” together completely with their partner and erase any personal boundaries or identities, bringing new meaning to the phrase “attached at the hip”--like how celebrity couples have nicknames that are a combination of their names (e.g., “Bennifer,” or “Brangelina”). This excessive and often unhealthy closeness tends to scare their partners away, which further confirms their suspicion that they will be rejected. Thus, they feel their obsessive behavior is justified (a vicious cycle).

Another type of insecure personality is referred to as “avoidant” or “dismissive.” People who display avoidance are also afraid of what will happen if they get too close to someone, but their strategy is to actively resist intimacy in the first place. Avoidant people are generally not supportive and responsive when their partners are distressed, and feel uncomfortable turning to others when they need support themselves. They assume that others will behave badly, so they push their lovers away in an effort to create emotional distance. This attempt to deflect or avert deep feelings often backfires. Avoidant people cannot escape thinking about their close relationships no matter how hard they try not to. Scientists refer to this as the “ironic rebound effect,”5 similar to what would happen if someone said, “Don’t think of a white horse.”

Someone’s “attachment style” can influence how they feel in their relationships (satisfaction, love, etc.), as well as a wide variety of behaviors including communication, conflict, break-ups, and sex.2,6 For example, anxious ambivalent individuals deal with rejection and break-ups by jumping from one serious relationship to the next very quickly (rebounding). Avoidant individuals are more likely to seek superficial physical/sexual encounters with others (e.g., one-night stands) outside the context of a committed relationship. 

If you are worried that you are insecure, keep this in mind: most people are secure, and even those who have some insecurity may only be mildly or moderately insecure (stay tuned for our upcoming post on measuring attachment). If you feel you have difficulties in relationships, change is certainly possible, and often happens when individuals with some insecurity experience warm and supportive relationships with secure people, who can show them the proper trust and support that they never received before.

Chris Fraley, an eminent social psychologist, has a good summary on the basics of attachment theory/research here.

Learn more about measuring attachment in our post here.

Read more about attachment and Harry Potter here.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

2Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

3Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.

4Treboux, D., Crowell, J. A., & Waters, E. (2004). When 'New' Meets 'Old': Configurations of Adult Attachment Representations and Their Implications for Marital Functioning. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 295-314.

5Mikulincer, M., Dolev, T., & Shaver, P. R. (2004). Attachment-Related Strategies During Thought Suppression: Ironic Rebounds and Vulnerable Self-Representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 940-956.

6Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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Reader Comments (1)

Your sight responded the following response to someone I know very well. It's always HER fault he never takes any responsibility this way all the consequenseces are 100% blamed on others. Old Story. He rushes into a relationship having sex within two weeks and every time it's the best sex. I dated him for 6 years believe me, nice guy, great heart, giving, loyal but in the bedroom NO. He since we broke up comes to me for comfort, I love him like a brother, he has no friends, we have also had sex nothing changed. He came to my house after a year of the annoying un-trusting one, with a gambling problem, that he too choose to participate in spent his entire paycheck at Christmas last year. I told him you can come eat, relax but I will not give you money. He talked about her non-stop and used the F word when referring to sex or romance. The last time we were together, I told him STOP I felt like someone was abusing me or raping me. I told him your hurting me he was 30 lbs heavier as welll. I cooked good meals for him, encourged him to hit the Gym. He met the this women in a well known meat-market May 16th. He calls me up on Wed. May 20th to ask me to attend a concert on Friday May 22 (we had been out before, dancing, art shows, movies, dinner) So I was extremely excited and said wow that's great, and it was a great show except for his behavior, mean, distant. I even said to him why are you trying to start a fight, he said he was tired. The next five days I'm calling him, texting him you alright, did anything happen to your father no answer until he finally at 57 years old sends me a text and says get a life, move on I met someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. Naturally I was angry and wanted to know what did I ever do. Before his father passed I got him to and from the Airport Easter weekend, helped him pack, he stayed at my house (as he had before esp. when he and his son fist fight) He kept saying MOVE ON I have. He had a date with this women with her for the entire memorial day weekend and slept with her in less then two weeks. Now, ok she said yes that would not be me, having a man laying up in my bed then going to Church on Sunday I was raised with Morals so many that my family don't let go, we pray, try to help no one deserves to be depressed or call you up crying so hard you can't understand them, so you drive to their home. So, he met this other victim (basically deserve each other if the term FBUDDY's is your deal) on May 16, was still coming to my house until he or she called him, most likely him and had their first weekend together Memorial day May 23rd to May 24th. I was very hurt, I was good to him, kind, listened played Dr. Phil with no expectations. His father did pass away July 6th, he did not get the call because he left his cell phone car in his car and was with her the night of the 5th a a Concert, she called said she missed him after she completely blew him off July 3rd and the big pool party on the 4th. I get a text, he said thought you would like to know my Dad passed away at 2 something in the morning on July 6th he got the thousand voice mails and texts from his family driving to work. Now we come to July 17 his BDAY she was too tired, baked him a cake and gave him a lady gaga singing tooth brush (her birthday was July 6th or 5th her entire FB is all about her, he showed me, with strange posts. Her Birthday lasted almost two weeks OK fine he is good to go, anything to please. So after, his as he said crappy Birthday on July 17th he said ok. They went on the 18th with a married couple on their boat all day, got home and were to tired for anything. July 19th she goes c'mon let's go hiking ( he did what ever she wanted like the rest to compensate) They Hike her gf is there, ok hi is cool, they go back shower and go to Church. She was born Jewish but converted to the Christian Church big change, she liked it but would speak so to speak out of school at Church about certain movies and comparing her Sex with him to her gf's man while the two of the guy's were standing right there. So they get home from Church, she makes herself something to eat, and goes oh by way help yourself, he being shy did not feel comfortable going through her frige. She ate, went into her garage and started on a project (she is big into saving, makes very, very good money but bought a 4 Bedroom home, two car garage, two full baths 1 1/s bath big yard with patio and does alll the work herself, even gets her furniture second hand as well as her cloths and believe me she looks it I can see a good sale at a store but second-hand everything from Savers which I never heard of, I am in the Jr. department. She had a major weight problem, had surge. a tummy tuck and her breasts enlarged to a D at 55 instead of getting her skin grafed from bc it hangs and she is an RN. So he leaves on the leaves her house on July 19th it was obvious to him she was making her self busy. She gives a fiend of hers his number Thursday, July 23, then called him on her way home from work to say her brain was fried (she is all her friends therapist) So, he says well stay home Friday July 24th rest up because we have a huge dance on Saturday night and dinner 7/25, that morning she calls him and says ya we are just in the friend stage, I went another couple on Friday, trhe night he gave her space to rest then says well I don't think you should come to the dance tonight, I'm just not feeling it, He has been running out every night with this singles group she introduced him to but you can see the persons name if they are attending since July 25th. Calls me everyday to analyze her and what do I think. I said SLOW DOWN put it in Gods hands, remember Pslam 23 When emotions hit (which is not the truth) drop your fear it's a faith killer. And you, not sure what he told you, give him this response, when every single women in his life has left him, I have been the only one to say look it's ok I will pray for you, he has helped me, I appreciated the help: This is what he is now running on:
Q: I just got dumped by my girlfriend a couple weeks ago. It was a short relationship (3 months) which started out slow but gradually ramped up in intensity as we started spending more time together. Things seemed to be going great right up until she dumped me. We were making plans together for the future - trips we were going to take, dates we were going to go on. She seemed very much as "into" the relationship as I was - sending loving texts and buying me gifts. Then all of a sudden, as if overnight, she got cold and distant, and then she dumped me the next day.
I was totally blindsided and heartbroken by her actions. How can someone seem so into you in one instant and decide they don't want it in the next? And how come this hurts just as much as a breakup of a long term relationship, even though we were only together for a few months?

A: I am so sorry to hear about the dramatic change in your relationship. Break-ups, as you know, are not easy, especially when the relationship seemed to be going so well. You are asking essentially two questions here: 1) why she would have a change of heart so abruptly, and 2) why such a short relationship could hurt like a much longer term relationship. Here are some of my thoughts...

Given what you describe about your ex’s behavior, it is possible that she terminated the relationship because of having an avoidant attachment style, meaning that she is fearful about entering and becoming too close to others.1 People with avoidant attachment styles are more likely than people with other styles to end relationships when they start getting too intimate2 and to use indirect strategies to do so, such as avoiding direct communication about the real problems that are leading to the break-up.3 In other words, she may have been holding back negative feelings. As relationships become more interdependent, which happens at about the same time she broke things off with you, avoidant types tend to back off and end it.

An alternative, but less likely explanation might be that she has an anxious attachment style, meaning she may have had clingy behaviors and mood swings due to feeling uncertain about your feelings towards her. People with this style are oftentimes torn about their feelings and do not know how to handle them. As a result, she would have appeared ambivalent; hot one minute and then cold the next.4

As for why it is painful, you might benefit from reading some of my earlier posts (links appear below). In a nutshell, the initial feelings of attraction that you experience in the early stages of a relationship have a strong biological basis. So, when the relationship ends, it is like going through physical withdrawal from a drug. Due to increased interdependence, you may also have been starting to feel like a couple in the short time you were together, which means that you may have started seeing your identity as “we” rather than “me.” When the relationship ends, it is hard to go back to “me,” regardless of the amount of time you were really together.

I know it is not easy to make sense of things when they end so quickly, especially given the lack of a rational explanation for why it ended as it did. It sounds like you began with good intentions to start the relationship slowly, but you may want to take it even slower with your next relationship. You may also want to try out being sort of a “mystery man.” Many women prefer dating partners who are not very obvious about their feelings at the start of the relationship because it violates their norms about what it means to be “manly,”5 and they like them even more when they are mysterious than when they are positive early on.6 In the long-term, warmth and responsiveness are good, but keeping it low-key at the start cannot hurt.

If it makes you feel any better, she may feel guilty or bad about rejecting you, as rejecters oftentimes feel as bad about ending things as the person who was dumped.7

Plus this: Avoidant attachment style is what I was trying to describe her actions. Nothing I can do about it. Another article I read says I am doing the right thing. Staying busy and not laying around the house.

Now what do I tell him, get a life after you patted his back? I sent him this e-mail today he did not even say ONE word he was to excited the had or your sight had figured out HER problem:

Everyone longs to give themselves completely to someone; to have a deep , full
relationship with another; to be loved
thoroughly and exclusively.. But God says, No, Not until your are satisfied ,
fulfilled and content with being loved by me alone; with giving yourself totally
and unreservedly to me; to have an intensely personal and unique relationship
with me alone. I love you, my child. Until you discover that only in me is your
satisfaction to be found, you will not be capable of the perfect human
relationship that I have planned for you. You will never be united with another
until you are united with me; exclusive of anyone or anything else; exclusive of
any other desires or longings. I want you to stop planning and stop wishing.
Allow me to bring that person to you. Your just keep watching me, expecting the
greatest things. Keep listening and learning the things I tell you. You just
wait; that's all
Don't be anxious , don't worry, don't look around at the things others have
or what I've given them Don't look at the things you think you want. You just
keep looking up to me, for you will miss what I want to show you. When you are
ready, I'll surprise you with a love more wonderful then you would ever have
dreamed of. You see, until your are ready and until the one I have for you is
ready-- I am working even this minute to have you both ready
and until the one I have for you is ready--I am working even this minute to have
your both ready at the same time-- until you are both satisfied, exclusively
with me and the life I have prepared for you, you will not be able to experience
the love that exemplifies your relationship with me. This is perfect love.

And dear one, I want you to have this wonderful love. I want you to see in the
flesh a picture of your relationship with me, and enjoy materially and
concretely, the everlasting union of beauty, perfection and love that I offer
you with myself.

Please know that I love you utterly. BELIEVE IT AND BE SATISFIED.

It is hard to stumble ...on your knees.

Now it can be taken as Spiritually or God can be a CHAIR it's up to what you believe in, yourself, God, work. I happen and he claims to be a devoted Christian although would never go to Church with me or anyone else since he got divorced 20 years ago. I am no saint, we are all born sinners what do you want me to tell this man who is running around searching for his soul mate and calls saying he had a rotten time, he thought of her the entire night/'day ??????

FRUSTRATED at his actions, your response and I don't want to hurt on him, he is like a brother to me. So now you analyze this ~ Thank you very much for your time and some of what you did tell him was exactly what I said, appreciate the intelligence .

July 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLee
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