What Is the Attachment Theory (and How Is It Affecting Your Relationships)?

Did you ever wonder why your best friend is ready to move in with her new boyfriend after three dates, but it takes you three years before you’re finally able to say the “L” word? It all comes down to attachment, a theory first developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby way back in the dark ages (um, we mean the 1950s). Originally developed as a framework to understand the relationships between infants and their parents, the attachment theory has more recently been expanded to provide insights into relationships and friendships between adults. Here’s the lowdown.

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So, What Exactly Is The Attachment Theory?

Good question. It’s a psychological model that examines how and why individuals respond in relationships—for example, when a person is emotionally hurt, perceives a threat or is separated from a loved one. Proponents of this theory believe that there are four attachment styles (more about those below). “Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end,” notes Lisa Firestone in Psychology Today. “Recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.”

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Secure Attachment Style

You know your two married friends with the ridiculously healthy relationship, who have their own friends and separate interests but also plan regular date nights? Chances are, they both have a secure attachment style, and have probably been raised by families who provided stable, secure attachments, too. Couples with secure attachments aren’t immune to fighting and disagreements, but they talk about their problems with the trust that they’re both looking out for each other’s best interests. They go to bat for one another, but they’re not attached at the hip—they know that healthy relationships mean quality time together and quality time apart. If you have a secure attachment style, but you’re dating someone who doesn’t, you might be perplexed if they want to spend every waking hour with you (or the flip side, mysteriously disappear for days at a time). But the good news? After spending more time hanging out with you, your S.O. might discover that it’s way less stressful (and healthier) to approach relationships with a secure attachment style and follow your lead. (Talking to a therapist might help, too.)

overly attached girlfriend meme
Know Your Meme

Anxious-preoccupied Attachment Style

You know the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme? Bingo. People with this attachment style tend to feel incomplete unless they’re in a relationship and are usually eager to settle down. They might also act impulsively (a last-minute Vegas wedding, perhaps?) and rely on their partner for approval on every detail, from a new haircut to what to eat for breakfast. A person with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style might start out searching for love and trust, but could end up sabotaging the relationship by letting their demands (or jealousy) get in the way, coming off “needy” or “clingy.” The key to a happy relationship if you have this attachment style? Spend some time being single and focus on what fulfills you before you pursue another relationship.

dissmissive boyfriend with girlfriend

Dismissive-avoidant Attachment Style

You know that guy you dated in college who didn’t want to call you his girlfriend because he didn’t want to have to “define the relationship?” Yeah. That guy. He’s classic dismissive-avoidant. People with this style are wary about forming committed relationships and might feel safer when they see themselves as being completely self-sufficient—and if they are in a relationship, they might feel uncomfortable sharing their feelings or being intimate. If you’re dating someone with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style, be patient. It might take them longer than most people to open up, and you might have to prove to them time and time again that you’re not going anywhere. (That said, if you’ve given the relationship a good shot and he’s still not willing to commit, it might be time to call it quits so he can focus on his own stuff for a while.)

happy couple hugging in the woods

Fearful-avoidant Attachment Style

Two weeks ago, she sent you a three-page love letter. This week, she won’t return your calls. Nope, she doesn’t have multiple personalities—these types of hot-and-cold interactions might signify a fearful-avoidant attachment style. Basically, it’s a combo of both anxious-preoccupied and dismissive-avoidant attachment. A person with this style wants a relationship in theory, but when push comes to shove, something doesn’t feel right, and anxiety takes over. It’s confusing for both the person with this style and the people who love her, so try to remember that these behaviors stem from anxiety and fear of rejection. As you prove yourself to be a stable, loving presence in her life (and she’s in the right place mentally to let you in), transitioning to a secure attachment style is totally possible.

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Lindsay Champion

Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.
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