As a trauma-informed therapist, I talk about secure attachment because it’s the ideal model for the basis of any healthy relationship. Your earliest attachments with parents or caregivers shape your abilities and expectations for relationships throughout life. Your first relationships impact how your sense of self develops, and how you see relationships working.
From infancy you begin finding out if you can depend on important people to keep you safe — or not. It’s where your nervous system either grows with the idea you’re lovable as-is, or drives you to cope with emotional pain if you don’t feel accepted. If your bond is secure, your nervous system learns what it feels like to be in a relationship that gets primary importance.
Secure attachment also teaches your nervous system how to regulate – by understanding what healthy consistent behavior and relationships are. You also learn that you are never alone and can weather any storm of emotions.
Your first relationships may teach you how to create a safe zone with someone to make sense of yourself and your emotions. On the other hand, you may learn you cannot trust a relationship to be a safe place to ask for what you need. In your relationships, you discover how much you can depend on someone close to soothe you or scare you, see you or shame you.
We have learned a lot from studies of babies and children that people grow up feeling different degrees of safety, acceptance and security in their first attachments. Over the years, researchers have given different names to describe different types of attachment, and the outcomes for people who experience them.
We now use categories for different degrees of emotional security in relationships. We call them attachment styles. Learning about them can help you understand yourself and your experiences in relationships better.
Here we will focus on four different attachment styles, how they form, and how they can change. I hope this will help you begin to identify and understand your own thoughts and feelings in relationships.
Four Attachment Styles and Where They Come From
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style between caregiver and child. Studies (like this from Princeton University) show that only 60% of adults have a secure attachment style. The other 40% of people fall into the other three attachment styles: avoidant, anxious/insecure or disorganized.
A person’s attachment style first forms in childhood, and then serves as a model for navigating life and relationships in adulthood. We all have one primary attachment style. Each person tends to rely more on one than the others. Here is a brief list of the four attachment styles, followed by details about their impact from a trauma-informed perspective:
- Secure – autonomous
- Avoidant – dismissive
- Anxious/Insecure – preoccupied
- Disorganized – unresolved
Attachment styles help explain how people respond differently when dealing with:
- Emotional intimacy
- Communication and understanding of needs and emotions (your own and your partner’s)
- Expectations in a relationship
- Do you generally feel close to others?
- Are you comfortable with closeness, and also with independence?
- Do you feel you communicate effectively and resolve conflicts as they arise?
- Do you feel like you have fairly stable relationships?
- Do you trust your partner?
- Do you feel safe in being vulnerable with your partner?
No one has a perfect childhood. If you grew up with a secure emotional bond, your parents or caregivers were good-enough at being consistent. With secure attachment, your caregiver’s behavior allowed you to feel safe and protected. You felt confident that they accepted you and were emotionally present with you. You found that when they left, they would return as expected.
You learned that if you became upset, you felt seen. Your caregivers made your relationship a safe place to process your distress until things returned to normal. In general, you felt secure. As an adult, you are likely to become close with others more easily, and develop relationships that feel good. You are comfortable with closeness but also with independence. Your emotions feel tolerable.
“The fiercest leading I’ve ever seen has been done between mother and child. Parenting is no bench. It just might be the big game.” — Abby Wambach
Avoidant (Dismissive) Attachment
- Do you feel closer to others when you’re away from them?
- Do you feel the urge to pull away when your partner is seeking intimacy?
- Do you distance yourself from stressful situations or conflict?
- Do you feel emotionally removed from others?
Some babies and children had to depend on a caregiver who was emotionally unavailable or unaware of their needs. Perhaps crying was discouraged and you felt you had to “grow up” quickly.
As an adult, you may place primary importance on your independence. You may feel uncomfortable depending on someone, or being depended on by others. When presented with opportunities for closeness, you may pull away. You may not seek out relationships because you feel like counting on others is unsafe.
Anxious/Insecure (Preoccupied) Attachment
- When you and a loved one disagree or argue, do you feel overwhelmed or extremely anxious?
- If the other person needs a break, do you pursue them until they give in?
- Do you feel the need for lots of reassurance in a relationship?
- If your partner is away, do you question their love for you?
Your childhood may have included a parent who at times, responded well to your needs, yet at other times, was not present for you. Maybe one or both parents became stuck in their own anxiety, and may have responded in hurtful or critical ways. You may have grown up feeling insecure, uncertain of what treatment to expect.
As an adult, you may find you need a lot of reassurance and responsiveness in a relationship. You may become overly dependent on your relationships to feel okay. When the person you care about is gone, you may feel heightened anxiety.
Disorganized (Unresolved) Attachment
- Do you crave emotional intimacy, but also feel it’s safer to be on your own where you won’t get hurt?
- Was your primary caregiver abusive?
- Did your primary caregiver show love one minute and abuse the next?
Disorganized attachment can be a combination of avoidant and anxious attachment styles. Perhaps your caregiver was frightening, abusive, or behaved toward you in inappropriate ways. You may have felt fearful of them. They were not present for you. Yet as a child, your instincts led you to believe that you should be loyal because they were your parents. You may long for closeness, but also fear it. These experiences can lead to inconsistent or confusing actions and relationships.
Disorganized attachment is the primary style for survivors of complex developmental trauma.
Attachment Styles and Trauma
Any style of attachment — other than secure attachment — can lead to trauma.
The ability to regulate one’s emotions isn’t built in. It’s taught in one’s earliest relationships, ingrained throughout childhood, and practiced throughout life.
What is emotional regulation? It’s the ability to ride the waves of life’s ups and downs, to deal with change, and create a safe space to share emotions in healthy relationships.
Skills for emotional regulation come significantly easier to those who have grown up with secure attachment. Emotional regulation is more difficult to learn for those who grew up with inconsistent, unavailable or abusive caregiving. That’s because insecure or inconsistent styles of attachment involves the experience of feeling overwhelmed and unsafe, which creates hyperarousal (being on high alert) or hypoarousal (becoming numb) as means of protection.
Overwhelming distress is traumatic. Without a place to resolve in a secure relationship, unresolved distress can lead to the use of substances in attempts to manage emotions.
Not Secure? Not Your Fault
The attachment style we learned or developed in childhood and throughout our experiences growing up was the best way to cope or manage with the circumstances at hand. If you align with an “insecure” attachment style, it’s not because you did something wrong. It’s the attachment style your caregiver gave you.
As humans, we have built-in survival instincts. Your attachment style formed as your best means of self-protection. It is how you “balanced out” the insecure caregiving provided to you.
No matter what, I can confidently tell you: Based on your circumstances, you did the best you could.
Healing Through Emotionally Corrective Relationships
Through therapy and the experience of emotionally secure relationships, there is healing! The road to secure attachment can start today by finding a trauma-informed therapist.
A therapeutic relationship is sometimes called an emotionally corrective relationship because it is the therapist’s job to be ethical, consistent, and to build in security while being fully present for their client. The goal of therapy in offering secure attachment is for the client to experience a secure relationship, and then take those skills outside into relationships with partners, children and friends.
No Matter Where You Start, Secure Attachment Is Possible for You
If you are worried that your attachment style is less than ideal, please know that any attachment style can change to be more secure. Attachment styles aren’t set in stone! No matter which attachment style you currently have, secure attachment is possible for you. You can learn, practice and develop new ways to connect through self-awareness, therapy and healthy relationships.
Learning about attachment can begin a journey of self-compassion, healing, and moving towards a more secure attachment style—which ultimately leads to healthier, more rewarding relationships.
If you’ve chosen to read this, and you’re interested in understanding your attachment style so that you can have healthier relationships—you’re headed in the right direction for healing and growth. Caring about the health and security of your relationships is, in and of itself, something to feel good about.
- Psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Classification (SSC) assessment technique investigated how attachments might vary between children
- From Psychology Today: How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship
From Brickel and Associates
- Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships
- How to Trust in a Healing Relationship as a Trauma Survivor
- Healthy Relationships Matter More than We Think
- How Mr. Rogers helped to create secure attachment