Feeling stuck in the same old painful relationship patterns but don’t know why? Attachment theory could hold the answers — and help you to finally move forward.
‘When it comes to relationships, I feel like Goldilocks with the porridge — it’s either too hot or too cold, it’s never just right. By which I mean I either feel suffocated or abandoned by the people that I date, I’m either chasing them or running away, I’m never still.’
‘For the first three months of dating him, everything was cool. Then I started to feel overwhelmed, like things were moving too fast. I began to question if he was even right for me and little things about him started to annoy me. This always happens when I get involved with someone — sometimes it just feels much simpler to be single.’
‘Every guy I fall for seems to be a similar type — they’re really intense and romantic at first, then they go cold and distant. And of course, this makes me act clingy and I end up driving them away further. Why does this keep happening to me? Am I just really unlucky in love?’
Recognise yourself in any of these scenarios? For instance, maybe you find that your romantic relationships are always rocky? Or that you lose interest in people really easily? Or that you’re always the one being dumped? Or maybe you feel that you show up differently in different relationships, depending on the person you’re with? For instance, some partners might have made you feel trapped, while others could have felt a little available.
If so, what exactly is going on? Have you just not met the right person yet — or is there something much deeper at play?
Interestingly, although each of the above issues sound very different, each can be explained in the same way, through something called ‘attachment style’. Put simply, your attachment style describes how you bond with other people and what you look for in relationships.
In fact, psychological theories of attachment have a lot to teach us about ourselves and the underlying patterns in our relationships — and not just romantic ones but friendships and family dynamics too. But what is attachment theory and why is it so important?
Put very simply, attachment theory looks at how our early bonding experiences with parents and caregivers affects our childhood development and in turn, our relationships in later life.
Attachment theory was pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby, who found that for healthy development, young children need to develop a safe relationship with at least one main caregiver. This is because we are evolutionarily hardwired for attachment and if it is absent or inconsistent, then this can cause lasting issues.
His ideas were further developed by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller in their 2010 book Attached, which outlines how different childhood experiences can affect adult relationships, particularly romantic ones. As they explain, ‘Adults show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment of children with their parents.’
In fact, it’s generally agreed that there are four different attachment styles — secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganised. The latter three are known as ‘insecure’ styles and people with these tendencies can sometimes struggle to form healthy, lasting partnerships. This is because they often unconsciously use romantic relationships to try to ‘solve’ old childhood trauma and can find themselves with partners who have a similar ‘blueprint’ to their early caregivers.
We’re now going to look at each attachment style in turn but before we do, you might want to keep the following in mind:
Now let’s look at each one in turn.
If you have this attachment style then you find it fairly simple to form close and lasting bonds with the right people. Of course, all relationships take work, but as you’re not often triggered by partners it’s easier for you to maintain stability. When it comes to marriage and long term commitments you can develop a healthy interdependency with your partner, rather than being too distant or too needy. You are also comfortable with expressing your feelings to each other.
This is because when you were small, you had most of your needs met on a regular basis, including physical, mental and emotional ones. Your home life was probably pretty stable and you had a consistent relationship with your caregivers. You also felt safe enough to share your emotions as you were comforted and validated when you did.
And because of the deep and lasting feeling of security that this brought you, you were able to learn important skills like emotional regulation and self-soothing. This means that when you enter a new romantic relationship you are able to do so from a foundation of self-love and stability, not loneliness or lack.
However, one thing to remember is that other people might have had very different early experiences from you. They may come into relationships with a different perspective and could sometimes act in ways that you find confusing.
If you are avoidantly attached then you tend to crave more distance in relationships. And while you might genuinely want closeness and connection, you also fear it too. In fact, it may feel that you’ve still not met that one ‘perfect person’ and that you are always searching for them. Or if you are in a long term relationship then you could pour a lot of your time into things like work, friends, hobbies, social media, addictive behaviours or even affairs, rather than your partner.
In relationships you’re often looking out for signs that you are going to lose your freedom or be overwhelmed by the other person’s needs. This is because you really value your independence, autonomy and alone time, so that when people seem to be infringing upon it you can end up resenting them. When you get into a new relationship you might idealise the person at first and even be very romantic, but after a certain period of time you’ll have a growing sense of unease. You might start to feel critical towards them (even if you don’t express it directly), or you might question your feelings, worrying that they aren’t deep enough.
And if your partner starts to expect more closeness, intimacy or commitment, you could feel panicked and suffocated. But because you can’t make sense of why this is happening, you may just decide that they aren’t right for you and that the problem lies with them. You might begin to push them away and look for excuses to end things, telling yourself that you just haven’t met the right match yet. Or you may become nostalgic for a past partner, idealising that relationship and wondering if they were actually ‘the one’ after all.
If any of this sounds familiar, then it’s likely that many of your early childhood needs weren’t met by your caregivers, meaning it doesn’t feel natural for you to open yourself up to others. For instance, one or both of your parents might have abandoned you, or have been dealing with addiction, depression or poverty. Or they may have had an avoidant attachment style themselves and struggled to show affection. Whatever the reason, you often felt ignored and neglected in childhood.
Because of this you learned to be self-reliant at an early age and meet your own emotional needs where possible. And because you weren’t shown how to meet these needs via loving connections, you had to learn to comfort yourself in other ways, for instance with films, hobbies or gaming. It just doesn’t feel natural for you to ask for love from others and you’re also often disconnected from your feelings. So when another person comes into your life it can be very hard for them to pierce the bubble that you’ve created, simply because that bubble was very important to your emotional survival as a child. In fact, it can feel almost as if they are trespassing upon it.
Another root cause of an avoidant style is that you may have had a parent who was overly reliant on you in childhood, perhaps because they needed care during an illness or leaned too heavily on you emotionally after a divorce. If this is the case, then you might fear being overwhelmed by a partner in the same way as you were by that parent. In fact, being needed by someone can be a huge trigger for you, not because you are uncaring but because it brings up old childhood stuff.
If you’re anxiously attached then you crave more closeness in relationships, plus have a deep fear of abandonment and rejection. When you’re single you can struggle with feelings of emptiness, loneliness and even worthlessness, because you really long to lose yourself in a relationship. You might also feel as if you are only half of a person when single.
For this reason, when you do begin a new relationship you can sometimes ignore red flags or warning signs and throw yourself into it headfirst. As a result, you might find yourself struggling with boundaries and being in people pleasing, rescuer or codependent roles. You will also be highly attuned to your partner’s moods and any changes in behaviour, always looking for signs that you are about to be rejected. You find it hard to relax in relationships as you are always ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’.
You may need a lot of reassurance and contact from your partners and dislike being away from them for too long. You know that you don’t want to sabotage love by being ‘clingy’, but sometimes it feels like you can’t help yourself — so if someone is acting distant, you might send them several texts in a row, or check their social media, or just think about them constantly. In fact, you might become so anxious that you can’t eat, sleep or concentrate on work. You only find relief when you get reassurance from the person, but this relief rarely lasts and the cycle of panic will eventually start up again. And if you don’t get the reassurance you need then you might explode at them, then afterwards feel ashamed and despairing. At times it could feel as if you’re sabotaging the relationships that are most important to you, even though that’s the last thing you actually want.
If all this sounds familiar, then it’s likely that in your childhood, one or both of your parents acted in an inconsistent way towards you. For instance, they might have been affectionate some of the time and distant or rejecting at other times. It may also have felt to you that there was no rhyme or reason to this and that you had to find the ‘key’ to unlocking their love — for instance, by being ‘perfect’ or a ‘little helper’. You may also have been made to feel that some of your emotions weren’t acceptable (for instance, anger) or that your perceptions or memories weren’t correct.
Because life at home felt unpredictable you learned to be hypervigilant, watching out for signs that the mood of a parent was shifting. In fact, this may have taught you to be much more attuned to other people’s feelings than you own. So while you might find it quite easy to read others, sometimes it can be hard for you to feel or understand your own emotions.
Your childhood left you with the belief people are inconsistent and abandoning, and that love is scarce. For this reason you might be attracted to partners who recreate this experience for you in adulthood as it feels so familiar. You may also be content with accepting crumbs of affection from others, rather than expecting and asking for more.
Maybe you’ve read all of the above and felt that you are a mixture or anxious and avoidant? Or that you’re anxious in some relationships and avoidant in others? If this is the case, then you might actually have what’s known as a ‘disorganised’ attachment style.
If you have this attachment style it means for one reason or another, things were chaotic or confusing in your early childhood and care givers were probably a source of comfort and threat. For instance, you may have had a caregiver who was emotionally volatile, or parents who fought a lot, or you might have spent time in foster care or moving between different relatives. You may also have been physically, mentally or emotionally abused yet this could also have been mixed in with loving behaviour from parents, causing a lot of confusion.
For this reason, stability feels unfamiliar to you as you didn’t have much of it when you were young — at least not in a consistent way. And because we tend to unconsciously gravitate towards what is familiar to us (whether good or bad), this can cause issues for you in adult relationships. In fact, you can feel drawn to unstable situations and partners, plus people you date might describe you as ‘blowing hot and cold’. That said, you might also have quite a strong drive towards self-improvement, feeling that you have to keep perfecting yourself so that you can ‘finally be worthy of love’. You also tend to feel things deeply and have strong reactions to conflict, sometimes viewing people in a very black and white way.
Probably more than with any other attachment style, you can show up quite differently in relationships depending on who you are with. For instance, when you’re with a securely attached partner you might get bored quite easily. It could feel as if things are too staid and predictable, as if there isn’t enough drama or ‘spark’. You may also confuse this lack of drama for a lack of passion or love, because you tend to confuse temporary intensity with true intimacy. You could also feel that you don’t ‘deserve’ how loving they are being and that they will see through you eventually.
Or if your partner has an avoidant attachment style, then you could find yourself in the role of the anxious person. However, you’re also terrified of letting yourself be too needy, as this feels too vulnerable to you. So rather than clinging to the avoidant person (as an anxiously attached person might do), you’re much more likely to create an argument or preemptively end things, so that you can abandon them before they abandon you.
Finally, if your partner has more of an anxious attachment style, then this can cause the avoidant side of you to come to the surface. You might feel suffocated, push them away, create arguments or simply end the relationship to escape.
Overall, even although you probably do want genuine love, closeness and connection, what feels more comfortable to you is drama, distance and arguments. This can cause you to feel as if you are ‘broken’ in some way and that your relationships are neverending roller coasters that never plateau into lasting happiness.
Now that we’ve looked at all four attachment styles, it might be helpful to also look at a common relationship pattern that lots of people struggle with — the anxious-avoidant dynamic.
This is basically a push-pull kind of relationship between an anxious and avoidant person. In fact, these two types are often very attracted to one another, as the anxious person is drawn to the avoidant’s self-sufficiency, while the avoidant likes the other person’s emotional intensity.
Sometimes these relationships can start well and feel very intense. However, before too long the avoidant person will begin to feel suffocated and pull away, causing the anxious person to panic and draw closer to them. And of course, this only has the effect of pushing the avoidant away further, setting up a run and chase dynamic until the relationship reaches breaking point.
However, after things end the avoidant might eventually miss their partner and try to get back together. Funnily enough at this point they often swap roles, with the avoidant person behaving more anxiously and the anxious person (who is feeling very wounded at this point) being much more aloof. Then when they get back together there will be an initial honeymoon phase before the push-pull cycle begins again, often indefinitely.
It’s worth noting that neither person is to blame for this, nor are they doing it on purpose. In fact, there’s actually a physiological aspect to it as insecurely attached people tend to trigger each other’s nervous systems, sending them into fight-flight mode and causing them to act out old childhood wounds. As explained by Levine and Heller, ‘Once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit...we are no longer separate entities.’
But what’s interesting is that although the avoidant person fears intimacy, they also have a deeper fear of being abandoned. Pushing partners away is a way to maintain the upper hand and prevent this from happening. At the same time, although anxious partners are terrified of being abandoned, they actually have an underlying fear of intimacy. So by chasing emotionally distant people, they never truly have to experience it.
In a sense, anxious and avoidant partners are like mirror images of each other, stuck in a never-ending dance of running and chasing with neither ever feeling truly satisfied. And sadly, as long as they stay unconscious of what’s going on, it will be almost impossible to fix things.
Remember, no single attachment style is ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘toxic’ — it’s all a question of how your attachment style plays out in your life and how self-aware of it you are.
However, if you feel that your relationship patterns might be causing you pain, or keeping you away from the deeper connections that you crave, or damaging a close bond, then support is out there for you.
As mentioned, attachment styles are on a spectrum. This means that with the right kind of therapy you could move from being, say, a strongly avoidant person who struggles with relationships, to a moderate avoidant who is able to negotiate their need for space with a loving partner. And eventually, you could even move into being securely attached.
The fact is that attachment styles aren’t set in stone, they can change with the benefit of a good therapist and by being in a stable relationship where both people are willing to work on any issues. In fact, according to Levine and Heller, one in four people change their attachment style over a four year period. And in the words of Bowlby, ‘The human psyche, like human bones, is strongly inclined towards self-healing.’
Various kinds of therapy can help you to get to the bottom of any attachment wounds in childhood and examine how these are affecting your relationships in the present. Psychodynamic psychotherapy can help you to bring unconscious patterns into awareness and understand how past relationships are affecting current ones. EMDR and body-focused psychotherapies can help you to revisit childhood traumas in a safe and guided way, so that you can process and release them. This means that they will no longer have the power to trigger you and you will be a lot less reactive in relationships.
If you want to break free of unhealthy romantic patterns (such as always being attracted to unavailable people), then schema therapy can help you get to the childhood roots of them. Also, CFT (compassion-focused therapy) can help you to make sense of the role that self-criticism and shame play in your relationships (both of which can really affect people with insecure attachment styles). And if you are dealing with relationship challenges, then couples therapy can help to unearth the attachment issues that might be hiding beneath the surface conflicts.
Remember that it’s okay to have an insecure attachment style — it doesn’t mean that you won’t get to enjoy closeness or commitment. In fact, developing a safe and trusting relationship with a therapist is a great starting point for this, as it can help you to see that not all intimacy is dangerous. Eventually, you can learn to embrace your attachment style in a mindful way and experience the loving, lasting connections that you deserve.
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