Why you need to know about Attachment in Relationships

Lizandra Leigertwood

Author and owner of New Frame Therapy

Knowing about attachment and your attachment style can help you to recognise why the same patterns continue in your relationships.
You might be aware that your relationships all seem to end in the same way without knowing the real cause why.
Recognising your attachment needs can help you to understand and address why you might always fall for the same kind of toxic relationship, or even why you seem to choose a partner who is emotionally unavailable.

Everything all comes down to relationships. Our earliest relationships lay the foundation to the way we relate to ourselves and relate to others.
Our relationship with our parents and extended family is our first experience of social contact and human interaction, which is why childhood experiences are so pivotal to childhood development.
This very first relational encounter sets the president for all the other relationships you experience, including your relationships well into adulthood.

We all have our own attachment style in relationships and having a basic understanding of attachment is a really helpful tool to negotiate the intricacies of intimate relationships.
Knowing your attachment style helps you to identify your own role within relationships, in terms of what your own needs are and how to recognise your relational emotional wounds.

This means developing your self awareness, and understanding what some of your triggers in relationships might be.
This knowledge helps you to improve your emotional intelligence, establish what it is that you need from your relationships and how you can get those needs responsively met.
Developing your self awareness and emotional intelligence helps to make your relationships more fulfilling and enriching to your life, rather than confusing and emotionally exhausting.

Relationships can be difficult to navigate and sometimes it can be difficult to fully understand why you react in the way that you do.
For example, not communicating effectively with your partner what it is that you need, avoiding “catching feelings” or emotionally distancing yourself when you begin to feel overwhelmed, to how you react to your partner during times of conflict.

Learning your attachment style and the attachment style of a potential partner or the person you are married to can open up a deeper understanding for both you and your spouse to foster a stronger relationship.

Even if you are single out of choice or you are looking for a meaningful relationship, knowing more about your attachment style and recognising the attachment style of a potential partner can help you to get the type of relationship that you want. It can also warn you of possible red flags from a potential love interest.

The importance of attachment in infancy was first recognised in the 1960s by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and further developed by colleague Mary Ainsworth, who recognised the needs of the infant and how they responded to their caregiver.
They found that emotional and physical contact had a direct influence on the emotions of the infant and their behavioural responses.
It also furthered the biological perspective that we are relational in our existence, and we need an emotional bond in order to survive and healthily function in the world.
It was an important insight into human behaviour and set the foundations of further discovery into how we relate as adults within our relationships.

There are 4 main attachment styles that are the most well known and can tell you a lot about the type of relationship you are likely to have had during childhood, and the possible implications this can have on your relationships.


Couples Holding hands

Anxious Attachment

When you have an anxious attachment you can feel very uncertain about your relationships. You probably have difficulties with self esteem and self worth, which can cause you to often worry that your partner is going to leave you, or replace you with somebody better.
As you are often anxious about the security of your relationship, you will also experience difficulty with trusting your partner.
Your uncertainty means that you are constantly looking for reassurance and seeking validation in your relationship, which is likely to filter into many of your other experiences.
An unpredictable environment can be an indicator of an anxious attachment style and not having your needs adequately met in childhood.
Your caregivers may have been distracted or not always available, they might not have recognised when you needed emotional support or physical comfort, or if they did it was infrequent and therefore not a very reliable source of comfort.
In childhood you may have experienced a form of relational trauma, such as being separated from a parent due to divorce, or the death of a family member.
Without the correct emotional support from a nurturing adult, this loss may have felt that relationships are temporary and lack stability.
In more extreme cases you might have experienced a traumatic childhood where you were raised in a household that felt emotionally unstable or unsafe.
For example, being witness to emotional or physical abuse, alcohol dependency or parents with severe mental health issues.

Avoidant Attachment

An avoidant attachment style similarly occurs when your needs are consistently unmet.
The environment may be similar in that the environment where you grew up was unpredictable, or you often felt emotionally or physically neglected.
Although the situation which causes the avoidant attachment style can have many similarities, the behavioural response is different.
An avoidant attachment style is very sensitive to rejection.
As a result of the inconsistency in parenting, you may have used a self sufficient coping strategy. When there is no reliable adult to lean on, you would have learnt from a very early age that the only person you can rely on is yourself. 
Therefore, feeling emotionally close to anyone can feel very overwhelming and it can trigger your fight/flight response to get as far away from confrontation or connection.
The avoidance behaviour can then take on many forms, it can be difficult to have challenging conversations, you might belittle or minimise the emotional needs of others, have a preference for isolation and you can have a fear of intimate relationships as the need for your independence hinders the ability to form close relational bonds.



Secure Attachment

A secure attachment style means that your needs were adequately met in childhood.
When you were sad, or unhappy, you were consoled sufficiently and comforted so that you were able to learn how to regulate your emotions from an early age.
Your early caregivers would have been responsive, available and highly attuned in helping you to feel secure and safe, mirroring a healthy relational dynamic.
When you have a secure attachment style, relationships and navigating the challenges feels easier as you have been taught how to express what you need and have those needs understood.
It doesn’t make you perfect, as of course, nobody is, your parents also could have made some mistakes along the way, but their care was consistent enough to not have a detrimental effect to your sense of self.
When you have a secure attachment style you are still able to make mistakes in the relationship, you can also be anxious or avoidant at times, however your resilience in navigating relationships means that you are able to cope with and negotiate challenge.
Therefore, in relationships you can deal with maintaining healthy boundaries, learn quickly from your mistakes and offer security to your spouse without generally feeling overwhelmed, anxious or avoidant.

Disorganised Attachment

Those with a disorganised attachment may have experienced significant distress in childhood, such as emotional neglect or the threat of physical violence or actual physical harm.
At times, a parent could have represented times of safety and security, and at other times be unpredictable or volatile.
This lack of stability can lead to difficulty in regulating emotions, or feeling unable to cope in stressful situations, as there has been a lack of appropriate behaviour from which to model how to cope with difficult emotions.
Due to unresolved relational trauma, a disorganised attachment can cause bouts of anger, antisocial behaviour and other behavioural problems.
In adulthood it might mean acting disproportionately to conflict, low confidence, poor self esteem and a difficulty in problem solving or making decisions.

It can be difficult to self regulate or self soothe when feeling upset of anxious, and coping strategies can result in maladaptive behaviours, such as excessive drinking or substance abuse. This attachment style can make it difficult to be in a relationship due to difficulty in trusting in relationships or feeling frightened of connection within a relationship. It can also offer further challenges to being in a relationship with somebody who has a disorganised attachment. 


sitting on the floor

As a strange pull it is often the anxious or avoidant attachment styles that end up in relationships together, where due to the differing forms of anxiety the nature of always wanting to feel reassured gets met with the need to avoid, which is the dynamic that just doesn’t work!
This is because it activates your threat system, reinforcing your attachment style in way that negatively impacts being connected in your relationship.
If you find you are in relationship with somebody who is in an opposing attachment style, there are ways that you can work within therapy and outside of therapy, which can address recognising what your needs are and how you can get them sufficiently met.

Attachment styles are not set in stone, the relational dynamic can change depending on who you are in a relationship with and your own self awareness. There is always the capacity to change.
When your relationship is important to you and you are aware that your partner has a different attachment style, you can use this information to help recognise your own feelings and also recognise what it is that your partner might need and why.

It can be as simple as just giving them a bit of space, or showing them that you still care even when you are in conflict or upset.
There are other attachment styles and this blog only just scratches the surface but it can really help you in your relationships to know your attachment style to begin the process of understanding some of the key factors in your childhood.

To find out your attachment style you can take the quiz 

Further Recommendations
If you would like to know more about your own attachment style and how you can use it in your own relationships I highly recommend Attached by Dr Amir Levine & Rachel Heller.
It’s accessible and easy to follow – there are further relationship tips and an attachment questionnaire that offers further insight on the results. When you purchase a copy through the link (click the book image below) I will receive a small commission fee.

If you have read this book, leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m Lizandra Leigertwood and I’m a counsellor and psychotherapist based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, I also work online.
I help both individuals and couples to improve their relationships with themselves and others, by letting go of unhelpful negative patterns and to live a happier and more authentic life.
You can find out more about me here.


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