About the 4 Attachment Styles

By Ashley Barnes, M.S.


As human beings, we are highly social creatures who depend on connection with others to survive. Attachment theory posits that our earlier connections with caregivers shape and influence how we move through the world and romantic relationships.

The development of one’s attachment style is understood to be influenced by the following factors:

  • Inconsistency/unpredictability or consistency/predictability in your early environment
  • Temperament
  • Relational trauma
  • Your primary caregiver’s capacity to attune to your needs when you were a baby/child

John Bowlby, founder of attachment theory, conducted extensive research on attachment. Psychological researchers continued to expand on his theory, including Mary Ainsworth; Ainsworth created the “Strange Situation” study in the 1970s where toddlers between the ages of 12 to 18 months reacted to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mother. 

Based on the childrens’ responses, Ainsworth concluded that there were three attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment (anxious attachment), and avoidant-insecure attachment (avoidant attachment). In subsequent years and with the help of more research, a fourth attachment style was added: disorganized-insecure attachment (disorganized attachment). A multitude of studies have further supported attachment theory, even finding that early attachment styles can predict behaviors later in life. 

Though our attachment styles are not fixed (yes, attachment styles can change throughout the lifespan), we all tend to lean one way or another at a given point. 

Secure Attachment

In Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” study, children who were securely attached became upset when their mother left the room and happy when they returned; securely attached children viewed their mother as a secure base and a source of comfort. As adults, those of us with a secure attachment style feel comfortable getting emotionally close to others and don’t tend to fear abandonment. 

In a 1999 study, researchers found that women with a secure attachment style had more positive feelings about their adult romantic relationships than other women with insecure attachment styles; additionally, women with a secure attachment style also had more positive ratings in the domain of adult friendships (McCarthy).

Here are other signs you may have a secure attachment style:

  • You have trusting, lasting relationships.
  • You seek out social support.
  • You share your feelings with your partners.
  • You have good self-esteem.

Examples of securely attached behavior:

  • You are comfortable giving your partner space when they ask for space.
  • You actively seek emotional support from your partner and give emotional support to your partner.
  • You effectively communicate your needs.

Anxious Attachment

In Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” study, children who were anxiously attached became upset when their mother left the room and were still upset when they returned. Anxiously attached children display profound distress when separated from an attachment figure and have trouble feeling reassured and comforted upon the attachment figure’s return. 

As adults, those of us with an anxious attachment style may feel “clingy” or “needy,” we may struggle with communicating our needs (which may be communicated argumentatively), and we may even engage in self-sabotaging behavior.  

Here are some other signs you may have an anxious attachment style:

  • You have an intense desire for intimacy and closeness.
  • You worry that your partner does not love you.
  • You become very upset when relationships end.
  • You struggle with low self-esteem.

Examples of anxiously attached behavior:

  • You feel suspicious about your relationship when everything is calm.
  • You contact your partner repeatedly until they respond.
  • You frequently check social media for information.

Avoidant Attachment

In Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” study, children who were avoidantly attached were indifferent when their mother left the room and were still indifferent when their mother returned. While avoidantly attached children may not reject parental attention, they don’t seek out contact or comfort; additionally, Ainsworth observed these children to show no preference between a complete stranger or parent. 

As adults, those of us who are avoidantly attached tend to struggle with emotional intimacy and closeness in relationships (Simpson & Rholes, 2017). Research also indicates that avoidantly attached individuals tend to be more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex.

Here are some other signs you may have an anxious attachment style:

  • You may struggle with intimacy.
  • You invest little emotion in relationships (social or romantic).
  • You struggle to share thoughts or feelings with others.

Examples of avoidantly attached behavior:

  • You leave relationships when it starts to feel too intimate.
  • You avoid feelings of closeness.
  • You pursue a strong sense of independence and self-reliance.

Disorganized Attachment

Research posits that inconsistent behavior on the part of parents might be a contributing factor in this attachment style (Reisz et al., 2018). Attachment figures who act as sources of both reassurance and fear to a child contribute to a disorganized attachment style; in other words, because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, they become confused and react in inconsistent ways. 

Thus, many individuals who grew up in neglectful and/or abusive homes may develop a disorganized attachment style. Research also demonstrates a link between the disorganized attachment style in adults and borderline personality disorder (Mosquera et al., 2014). As adults, those of us who have a disorganized attachment style have high anxiety and high avoidance in relationships. 

Here are some other signs you may have a disorganized attachment style:

  • You tend to have chaotic, unpredictable, and intense relationships. 
  • You have a negative self-image and struggle with low self-esteem.
  • You have a negative view of yourself and others.

Examples of disorganized attachment behavior:

  • You have a need for closeness but push others away.
  • You seek out or contribute to unhealthy relationship dynamics (ex: picking fights or intentionally hurting your partner). 
  • You give mixed signals (ex: switching between being very clingy to very distant). 

Seek Support

There is nothing wrong with you if you have an insecure attachment type, however, understanding your attachment style can help you take steps to soothe your anxiety in relationships and strengthen the most important relationships in your life. 

Psychotherapy can help you develop insight around where your attachment style comes from and how it developed. Additionally, psychotherapy can help you look critically at behaviors and beliefs that are limiting your potential to grow and thrive. 

Oftentimes, those of us who struggle with an insecure attachment style also experience co-occurring mental health challenges like anxiety or depression. Psychiatrists have extensive training in the area of assessment and will be able to best determine if what you are experiencing meets the criteria for a diagnosis like anxiety or depression. Collaboratively, you and your doctor will develop a treatment plan which may involve medication management.

Please contact us at the Mental Health Center for sensitive, attentive mental health care. We look forward to supporting you!



Mccarthy G. (1999). Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: a study of a group of women at risk of experiencing relationship difficulties. Br J Med Psychol.;72 ( Pt 3):305-21. doi:10.1348/000711299160022

Mosquera, D., Gonzalez, A. & Leeds, A.M. (2014). Early experience, structural dissociation, and emotional dysregulation in borderline personality disorder: the role of insecure and disorganized attachment. bord personal disord emot dysregul 1, 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/2051-6673-1-15

Reisz, S., Duschinsky, R., & Siegel, D.J. (2018). Disorganized attachment and defense: exploring John Bowlby’s unpublished reflections. Attach Hum Dev;20(2):107-134. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2017.1380055

Simpson, J.A, Rholes, W.S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Curr Opin Psychol.;13:19-24. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006