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Could this help your relationship?

Four ways we attach to others

If you have ever had psychotherapy, there is a good chance you will have talked about your childhood attachments. Our attachments are generally formed earlier on in life (but not just infancy) and tend to affect the way we have relationships later on. Also, if you ever studied psychology at school, you may have come across the work of English psychologist John Bowlby who is famous for attachment theory and the notion that infants attach to whatever is available to them… for instance ducklings, I recall one aspect of Bowlby’s experiments was ‘attaching’ newborn ducklings to a rubber glove! Bowlby’s work follows on from Harry Harlow’s work on rhesus monkeys where infant monkeys were left to attach to either a wire cage with a feed bottle conected or a soft cuddly dummy. The monkeys would feed from the cage bottle but clearly sought comfort from the soft dummy. This gives rise to the notion that we need comfort, love and support from day one onwards in our caregiving and not just feeding.

The idea then is we are best off with an ever present, consistent and responsive caregiver from birth and that this helps in forming a secure attachment style. Your attachment essentially, comes in different ‘styles’ which have been noted and confirmed in research spanning the decades since Harlow and Bowlby’s seminal work.

The four types or styles of attachment for adults are:

1. Secure (I don’t worry about being alone or that people won’t like me)

2. Anxious-preoccupied (I want intimacy but find others do not become as intimate as I would like them to be)

3. Dismissive-Avoidant (I am ok without intimate close relationships…)

4. Fearful- avoidant (I am fearful if I get close, they will hurt me/leave me…)

Attachment can be affected by your relationship with primary caregivers from being a newborn and if, for example, a mother is responsive and attentive to an infant’s needs this helps promote a ‘secure’ attachment. Neglecting or rejecting a child’s needs, however, might promote avoidance and inconsistent care can promote an anxious style of attachment.

How would I know if my attachment style was secure?

It is important to not over-interpret or hastily diagnose yourself as a poorly attached person… and of course there may be some recognisable trends in the different styles of attachment without this meaning this is your sole attachment style, but here are some signs underpinning poor/negative attachment:

· Having a rocky/low self esteem

· Struggle, often, to control your emotions

· Want to have intimacy but struggle to depend/trust others

· Alternate between feeling needy and distant

· A history of rocky/volatile relationships

Poor attachment may also be the result of having a frightening, (or indeed a frightened) angry caregiver.

What happens if I am not securely attached?

The effects of being securely attached suggest that you will feel more positive in general about relationships with others than not so securely attached people, this can include relationships with friends, peers, and life-partners.

What can I do about it?

In a childhood where there has been neglect, mistreatment and potentially even divorce there are potential problems with relationships later, at the same time children who have started off securely attached can have that attachment disrupted by negative events such as the loss of a parent. Even young adults sometimes have their attachment style disrupted by extremely traumatic relationships. These connections are however ‘probabilistic’ rather than absolute certainties. People with insecure attachment may also be able to alter this, for example research focussed on infants has shown that intervening and helping those at risk by ‘modelling’ positive care can help.

Partners can help each other by knowing about the attachment style of their significant other and subsequently offering a positive response when intimacy is sought and perhaps also offering understanding at the times when it is not. Attachment style alone, of course, does not determine your wish/lack of a wish for intimacy but often people with fearful-avoidant or anxious-preoccupied attachment styles want greater intimacy and dismissive–avoidant types typically want less.


Bowlby, J. (1960). Separation anxiety.

Harlow, H. F., Harlow, M. K., Dodsworth, R. O., & Arling, G. L. (1966). Maternal behavior of rhesus monkeys deprived of mothering and peer associations in infancy. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 110(1), 58-66.

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