ATTACHMENT SERIES: The 4 Attachment Styles and What They Mean

by | May 4, 2022 | gsr, Series | 27 comments

4 Attachment Styles

This month we’re going to talk about attachment styles and why they matter!

Attachment styles are the way that we relate to other people, and they’re based on what we learned when relating to our earliest caregivers. 

The field really took off in the 1950s studying children after the war. It used to be believed that all kids needed to be happy and healthy was food, clothing, and safety. So they evacuated many children from major cities all across Britain and sent them to the countryside to live with strangers, and it didn’t always go very well. Researchers wanted to know why.

When children feel as if their caregivers respond to their needs, care about them, and are consistently present, they develop secure attachment–a style shared by about 60% of North American adults, they estimate. 

But when caregivers aren’t consistent; when kids have needs but then those needs are not taken care of; when caregivers react with anger to a child’s emotions or legitimate cries for help; when caregivers ignore a child’s emotions; then that child can develop what is called insecure attachment, where they feel as if they aren’t safe and other people can’t be trusted. 

Researchers have identified three insecure attachment styles, leaving us with 4 attachment styles in total:

 

The 4 Styles of Attachment

Secure Attachment: Able to form loving relationships and attach to others. 

Anxious Attachment: Regularly nervous that a partner or loved one will leave, and unable to relax in relationships

Avoidant Attachment: Reluctant to form close relationships or share emotions, trying to maintain some distance

Disorganized Attachment (or fearful-avoidant): A combination of anxious and avoidant, where the person is scared of relationships, but craves them at all costs.

Let’s look at how the four attachment styles operate.

Secure attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

Caregivers are very attuned to the child’s needs. When the child cries, the caregiver is there to figure out why and comfort the child. The child can count on the caregiver to look after them. The caregiver is attuned to the child’s emotions, and shows that they care.

A securely attached child will explore a playroom easily when the mother or caregiver is present. If the child is upset, the child will run for the mother and hug her tightly. If she leaves, the child will be distressed, but usually can be comforted. When the mom returns, the child runs to her and hugs her and is very happy.

When children are securely attached, their energy can be put into understanding and exploring the rest of the world and learning, because they don’t have to worry about their needs being met.

Securely attached children tend to be happy, and tend to be attuned to emotions in others, having good social skills and helping others in distress.

Securely Attached Caregiver

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

Securely attached people tend to form healthy relationships. They tend to have high self-esteem, can talk about their feelings and identify their feelings, and have hope for the future.

Anxious Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

Caregivers of anxiously attached children are inconsistent. Sometimes they’ll ignore a child’s cries or become angry at them for crying, and other times they will overly compensate.

Toddlers who are insecurely attached will cling to their mom, and won’t play as much independently. When she leaves, they’ll play, and when she returns, they may not go over to her, or they may push or hit or kick if she picks them up. (While all children will go through separation anxiety, and where all children may cling for a time in a new situation, most securely attached children do figure this out after a time, while insecurely attached children cling for much longer).

These children have a harder time exploring the world because they pay attention to the mother’s cues above everything else. Their main focus is figuring out if mom (or another caregiver) will be kind to them today and if they will be safe.

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

Some with anxious attachment will be scared to start relationships, and some will be desperate to start relationships.

Both, however, can be very clingy in relationships once they start, always trying to reassure themselves that the relationship is safe. They may constantly seek validation from others, and friendships often fizzle out because they become too needy. To compensate, many anxiously attached individuals go out of their way for others, burning themselves out in the process.

When relationships end, anxiously attached people are often devastated. They can have a tendency to cling to young children who need them desperately as well and who won’t leave them.  They often have low self-esteem and are worried about how others perceive them.

Avoidant Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

When caregivers are consistently angry with a child, or send the message that the child is a bother, the child can develop avoidant attachment. When caregivers interpret a child’s crying as trying to punish the parent, or as a sinful behavior that has to be stopped, then children learn that parents don’t care about them. When we believe parenting philosophies about how we have to “break our child’s will” (as the Pearls teach, and as Shepherding a Child’s Heart often teaches), then we interpret the child’s emotions and needs as bad. If this isn’t combined with a much greater degree of love and affection and care, children can develop avoidant attachment.

Toddlers with avoidant attachment don’t seem to prefer their mother over other adults. They don’t run to her when in distress. Studies have shown that the babies experience the same level of distress when the mother leaves as securely attached babies, but they learn not to express it. They “turn off” their normal emotions.

These children explore the world in a more self-reliant way. They tend to become more hostile and aggressive with others.

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

One of the main characteristics of avoidant attachment adults is how “closed off” they seem. They may be very good at getting tasks done, or may be able to command a room and give off orders, but they’re unable or unwilling to share feelings or talk about feelings. It’s very difficult to get close to them.

People with avoidant attachment have few relationships that are below surface level, if any. If they marry (and most do), they will often handle conflict by stonewalling or refusing to engage, or just walking away. They may yell a lot to stop uncomfortable conversations, or they may completely shut down. They may ironically yearn to be close to someone, but have absolutely no idea how to start doing that. When others ask them how they’re feeling, they may genuinely have no idea.

When in a relationship, they may again perform all the right “tasks”–earning an income; doing their share of the housework; etc. But they invest little in the emotional side, and are often consumed with individual projects, and don’t concern themselves too much with what others think of them.

Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

In abusive families where the child is actively mistreated, a disorganized attachment can be formed, which is the most destructive. When parents use a lot of corporal punishment without any affection, or when cruelty becomes the main parenting style, the child is left with a terrible paradox: the person they crave love for the most is also the person they’re terribly afraid of.

What differentiates this style from avoidant styles is that, while avoidant styles are taught that their parents don’t care; disorganized attached kids are taught that their parents are actually scary and pose a threat.

This often occurs in homes with a lot of substance abuse, with untreated mental illness, with parents with unresolved trauma or their own, or with abusive parenting practices like the Pearls to the extreme.

Babies like this can either be flooded with emotions, or become almost flat, showing very little emotion at all. Ironically, in the latter case, these children could be described as “good” children, because they don’t bother the adult and they show no emotion. In some heavily fundamentalist Christian parenting books, this is praised as being perfect, but in reality, the child has been so abused they have lost themselves.

It’s not uncommon for disorganized attachment children to take on more of a parental role very early in life because the parent can’t be relied upon.

Disorganized Attached Child

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

In many ways, those with disorganized attachment can look similar to those with avoidant attachment. They appear walled-off; they often avoid relationships; they can’t talk about their feelings. They don’t have close or deep friendships.

The main difference, though, is that disorganized attached individuals WANT those relationships. They just have no idea how to get there. So they may act in a very inconsistent way, at times pursuing a relationship, but then, once they have it, doing a 180 and breaking it off or becoming aloof in a marriage.

They’re not running away from intimacy; they’re just expecting intimacy to hurt. So when they’re close to achieving it, they’ll often sabotage it.

These individuals have a higher rate of developing mental illness or substance abuse themselves.

The good news: Attachment Styles Can Change!

What if you’re afraid that you’ve raised a child without secure attachment? Research says that changing your parenting techniques can help immensely. And we don’t need to be perfect parents to raise kids with secure attachment. You really only have to get it right about 50-60% of the time.

Once parents realize they may have been inconsistent or using discipline techniques that cause fear or shame, if they talk about it and switch, kids can grow and become secure.

Also, sometimes trauma can affect kids, even trauma that isn’t caused by caregivers. Sometimes when kids have more insecure attachment styles it isn’t because of what the parents did, but what others did. And sometimes the primary caregivers for the kids can do everything right, but it’s very difficult to overcome the loss of a birth parent or other caregivers early in life. 

What about changing as adults?

Even if you’ve grown up without secure attachment, even understanding attachment can help you change and adapt and grow now. Things don’t have to stay fixed. Sometimes just understanding WHY we act the way we do can help us react to people differently.

Seeing a licensed therapist to talk through anything that is holding you back or to get some trauma therapy can help.

But I’m hoping this month, as we go through attachment theory, we can all grow and understand ourselves better, and even parent better.

We’ll be looking at how to raise kids that are securely attached. We’ll look at how to help our kids identify emotions, and how to start talking with ourselves about our emotional inner world as well. We’ll look at how attachment styles affect our marriages, and how some marriage issues may not be marriage issues at all, but rather rooted in attachment.

I hope you’ll enjoy this series. I think it’s going to be a good one!

4 Attachment Styles and how they matter for marriage

What do you think? Do attachment styles make sense to you? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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27 Comments

  1. Kay

    “ When parents use a lot of corporal punishment without any affection, or when cruelty becomes the main parenting style, the child is left with a terrible paradox: the person they crave love for the most is also the person they’re terribly afraid of.”

    I am not sure any amount of affection can overcome the negative impacts of corporal punishment on a child’s nervous system. In fact, having a parent “lovingly” spank you is often MORE confusing to a child’s nervous system than being hit out of anger. Angry parents lead to avoidant attachment, but parents who spank calmly and then hug their child lead to disorganized attachment precisely because the parent presents cues of safety while actively harming the child. Children learn they cannot trust themselves to know the difference between love and harm—or flat out come to believe that love should hurt.

    Despite what people say about their loving childhoods, their attachment style tells the truth. As they say, the body keeps the score.

    And don’t get me started on insecure attachments to God… 😉 That’s for another day.

    Reply
    • Andrea

      Oh my goodness, I’ve been obsessing over this very thing. My parents were like that, they spanked us the “right” way (no anger) and a student recently told me how her dad would pray with her after he spanked her. Then I listened to a podcast about BDSM and almost vomited when I considered the similarities.

      BDSM is highly choreographed if done “right,” everybody knows what’s going to happen ahead of time, and it is followed by “aftercare” of the sub by the dom (example: kiss all the spots that are red from the whipping). The parents who spank their kids “right” tell them ahead of time what’s going to happen, they do it in a controlled manner, and then hug them/pray with them after. They consider this a non-abusive way of spanking, just like the highly choreographed BDSM with aftercare is what distinguishes that from abuse. Be right back after I get some emergency therapy over discovering this connection!

      I do want to add this though: BDSM is huge on consent including the fact that it can be withdrawn at any point by the sub using a “safe word,” which is an agreed-upon word that brings all activity immediately to a halt without the dom getting mad about it. This is more than children of spanking parents (or, for that matter, many wives of evangelical husbands raised in purity culture) get.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Totally agree, Kay. I think children understand spanking in anger far better than a parent being calm, methodical, and happy about hurting them.

      Reply
      • Mary Juber

        I was never able to understand how one could calmly spank. I only spanked one of my children once, and it was totally out of anger. She was way too old at 12 for such “correction,” but it was a knee-jerk reaction on my part. My husband once spanked her at age 2-ish, again, totally out of anger for not going to bed/sleep. I don’t believe I have ever really forgiven him in my heart for that. As far as I know, he never spanked either daughter again. I don’t believe I am capable of calmly administering physical punishment. I don’t feel such punishment is at all helpful. Children should feel only safety from their parents, never that they are going to be physically abused. I do not remember ever being spanked, but I was the 4th of 5 and the only girl. I believe the older boys were threatened with “getting the belt.” but my Dad was such a soft-hearted man that I am not sure it ever happened (although it probably happened to him growing up on a farm, having been born in 1918). I will have to ask my brothers one day. My daughters are now adults, but they do not have children yet. I hope they do better than I did regarding proper discipline.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          It sounds like you did pretty well, though! The research says we don’t have to be perfect, just authentic and mostly good, and it sounds like you got to be there!

          Reply
    • Rose

      Oh look it’s a perfect description of my childhood and, you guessed it, EXACTLY the after-effects that I experienced when I first started trying to enter into romantic relationships. I had learned that I could not trust my instincts or my body to tell me when something was wrong. I accepted the words of others at face value with the caveat that it wouldn’t feel like what it was supposed to. But I had honestly been convinced that it was a “me” problem that everything felt wrong. They were being genuine and I was just unreliable and my feelings, perception, even my experience of reality, were untrustworthy!

      Especially if this comes from your father, and you have a father you KNOW loves you, it can so deeply screw up what you expect from yourself and others for years to come.

      Reply
  2. Codec

    Breaking a child’s spirit. That is one of the saddest phrases I have ever read.

    Reply
  3. Jen

    I’m so looking forward to this series! My husband was very abused and developed disorganized attachment style as well as emotional anorexia, anxiety, depression, and various compulsive behaviors (including porn use and infidelity as well as hypochondriasis). As we work to save our marriage after the reveal of infidelity, we have discovered that the disorganized attachment is a major root to all of the other problems. I’m excited to read your thoughts on activity healing marriages via healthy attachment.

    On the flip side of my husband’s experience, I had a very safe mother but an abusive older sibling. I think he hated me from the moment my parents brought me home. He was not quite two, but my parents tell the story of how angry he was when I came on the scene. He abused me emotionally, physically, and eventually sexually.

    We don’t talk a lot about sibling abuse, how siblings affect our development, or how disturbed children affect the marriage and family system. I’d say I vacillate between secure and anxious attachment, and I wonder how much my brother affected that. Obviously, my brother wasn’t my caregiver, but he was a continually negative influence. Do you think his presence could affect my overall attachment style?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely abuse like that can influence your attachment style! And I’m so sorry that happened to you. I know there’s another frequent commenter here who is also the victim of sibling abuse. That wounds deeply as well. I’m so sorry.

      Reply
    • Lena

      Jen, I’ve often thought the same thing about my two older siblings. My parents weren’t perfect, but I think most of the abuse and trauma I’ve gone through came from the treatment of my older siblings. It is something that I have still not figured out how to process of heal from. No one seems to talk about sibling abuse as much, at least that I’ve found. Just wanted you to know you aren’t alone on this journey!

      Reply
  4. Phil

    Sheila, I have taken to your topic – yesterday I took an Attachment Theory Quiz. Seems to be a lot of information out there about this. I have semi sort of been around this topic in counseling offices since I was about 8. It was never spelled out this way but over the years the summation was my Dad died when I was 7 and so therefore I was angry and so my anger came out in my life…in my relationships and particularly in my relationship with my Mom. So me and my brother both have this complex that we have these wonderful relationships outside of our Mother that we built as a result of our trauma. For my Brother it was my Aunt and Uncle. For me, it was close family friends. As we grew older we would “run” to them. The love we showed for them was shown through supporting them in their activities and their projects and their life goings on while my Mom got the short end of the stick so to speak. I recall her saying one time…I need X and you run off to X’s house and help them, mean while I have to wait. For me I have healed from this in many ways and what I was reading yesterday is that even if we can make secure attachments today we may still have secondary attachments that can be triggered and cause disfunction in our relationships. I hope I am not blowing your series here…if so folks…sorry but here is the SPOILER ALERT….So I put up walls as a child – the YOU CAN’T HURT ME WALLS. They are still with me today in some ways. I was thinking about even this morning….I got up…the dog heard me and I let her out. When she came back in she followed me back into the bedroom and jumped on the bed and laid in my spot(all normal procedure so far). I finished getting ready came out and as I was putting my socks on I was loving on my dog. She is such a sweet heart. I finish, get up and go to say goodbye to my wife who is dead asleep. As I go to kiss her goodbye she tries to hug me and all I can do is pull away – get me out of here – I need to go is what comes up. Sad actually…but it is what it is. That’s the old tape. That’s the disfunction. That’s still inside me. I hate it. It just happens…I can access that love for the dog but not my wife. I have been aware of that for a very long time. Push the closest away from you and form “safe” relationships with others because….if they reject you thats ok – they are afar. For me, being aware has been helpful..but has not provided the complete healing…I am still on that journey apparently. The big thing I picked up on today in the Post is the word energy. What I am hoping you will be covering and this is definitely big SPOILER ALERT AGAIN – is the fact that we transfer our attachment issues in our relationships over to our attachment with GOD. This is so big and important. So YES I have the same problem with my relationship with God and Jesus that I do with my wife and those closest to me. What is my solution? I pour energy into it. I do work. I have been working on this concept of transferring my bad energy in my mental, emotional and physical being towards God. In the past I used porn and sex addiction as the hole filler for the missing pieces. Now I insert God. I am looking forward to reading more about what you got on this one Sheila…breath in breath out….thats what just happened after writing this…. 🙂

    Reply
    • Phil

      Oh – and HAPPY STAR WARS DAY Everybody! May the 4th be with you! LOL 🤪

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s really insightful, Phil! I hope other people read this comment and can see how this affects real people and how we can learn so much by examining our own stories.

      Reply
  5. Michelle

    I’m so glad you’re covering this! I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The Place We Find Ourselves” and they cover this topic in depth. I’ve learned so much and it’s made so many things start to click… And therefore made it easier to speak with my mentor and husband about it.

    Reply
  6. Sarah

    Can attachment styles be on a spectrum? Or show up in different ways in different types of relationships? Because in some ways I think I have more of an avoidant attachment style (particularly showing up in dating), but it’s not as extreme as described in this post. I do have healthy close friendships and sibling relationships as well, but I always want to pull back and run away when there’s a conflict or something needs to be talked out. Also, does the parent’s attachment style affect their parenting and what their children develop? I think both of my parents have avoidant attachment styles as well, to differing degrees.

    Reply
  7. Lena

    So looking forward to this series, I desperately need it! I was braindirtied by the Pearls black teachings and need all the help I can get to be a better mom to my babies. Thank you so much for this!!

    Reply
  8. Brenna

    My husband and I both grew up in dysfunctional homes. He is 100% Anxious Attachment, whereas I’m probably more Disorganized. His clinginess can feel so maddening sometimes, and I often find myself pulling away “out of principle.” So yeah, not healthy on either side.

    We were Christians when we got married, and tried our best to raise our boys in a healthier environment than we had. But we definitely made mistakes. Now that they’re young adults and no longer living at home, how can we work to mend those areas with our sons?

    (Also, I just ordered Great Sex Rescue, but I didn’t realize you were the author. XD )

    Reply
  9. Shannon

    Hi Sheila,

    I’ve been following your blog for awhile and listen to your podcast; I’ve learned a lot and truly enjoy them. It is so interesting that you are writing about this because I just heard about attachment styles a few weeks ago and started studying more about them (mine in particular) because I find the topic so fascinating and it really has affected my marriage. From what I have read, it sounds like there is a spectrum on the styles (please correct me if I’m wrong), and I fall on the attachment avoidant spectrum. I was actually raised in a very secure home with both parents, but in thinking back I realized that my dad was rather not emotionally present. Actually, my parents divorced after 30 years of marriage, and my mom said that she never felt like she knew him, as there was always a wall up. He had been abused as a child and had anger issues. Anyhow, I haven’t had a problem forming close female friendships, but I’ve always admittedly been a terrible flirt, I avoided getting serious with guys I dated before my husband (I’d never really been in a serious relationship before him), and I’ve always had a problem with true vulnerability in relationships. I’ve just come to realize that I have had trouble with being emotionally and sexually vulnerable with my husband, and we have been married 18 years. It has also manifested as hyper-independence and not really reaching out to touch him non-sexually for what I now know is fear of rejection or feeling stupid (even knowing that his love language is touch!). The whole subconscious thought process is to not be needy of anyone. These have been real issues in our marriage. So now I’m working on trying to flirt with him more and be more vulnerable and share my needs with him, but it is a slow process and is honestly still hard for me. I’ve explained this to him (in my newfound vulnerability :)) and he is understanding. It really is freeing to know that it is real and to just be able to put a name on it as I work through these issues. I’m planing to reach out to a counselor as well, which I am actually looking forward to. I already see the hyper-independence in my 10 year old daughter and I am so glad I’ve identified this in myself so I can be a better mama.
    Thank you for posting this, I hope it helps others to identify areas where they can improve their internal deep, subconscious thought processes and improve their relationships!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s so wonderful, Shannon! I’m just on a learning curve for this myself too. I find it fascinating. I think the book How We Love may really help you as well. We’re having the Yerkovichs on the podcast at the end of the month, and I can hardly wait!

      Reply
      • Shannon

        Thank you Sheila! I have started listening to the book and wow- I think it will be life-changing for both my marriage and my parenting. I’ve been on an interesting journey in understanding intimacy both with my husband and God over the past few months and I really can see God working massively to bring healing to this area of my life.

        Reply
    • Sarah

      Oh wow, I relate to a lot of what you’ve said, albeit I’m single and have never been in a serious relationship and freeze in awkwardness instead of flirting, haha. Thank you for articulating all of this!

      Reply
      • Shannon

        Sarah I am so glad you are realizing this about yourself now, and hopefully you can start delving into the whys and heal. I wish I had this information many years ago! But yes I was exactly the same as you (and still am, as I slowly work through this!). Know that there is hope- I married an amazing man who does get frustrated with my lack of flirting and independence, which make him feel like I don’t need him. But at the same time he has been so patient with me as I now work through what I didn’t even know before were real deep trust issues.

        Reply
  10. Ashley Robinson

    I am so excited about this series and can’t wait for the rest. Any practical advice to raising my kids gracefully is much needed and appreciated. My husband and I have realized what we really want to make sure we teach our kids how to respect others and treat each other well. Parenting has little to do with obedience and more to do with teaching humbleness and thinking of others first.

    Reply
  11. Maria

    Wow! I love how you go into what each style looks like into adulthood. Also, the encouragement to recognize mistakes, discuss with kids and work on improvement was very helpful.
    I am currently reading one of your books (great sex rescue) and loving it!
    Also I too am an ENTJ and an 8w7 . Looking forward to this series I am currently working on my MSW❤️

    Reply

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