When you understand adult attachment theory, everything suddenly clicks into place.
Well, maybe not everything—we still can’t explain Kanye West’s tweets (or Donald Trump’s, for that matter)—but it can help you gain some incredible perspective on your romantic relationships, friendships, and other close relationships.
If you’ve ever wondered, “Why is he acting that way?” or “Why did I just overreact?”, attachment theory can lend some insight. The short answer: Everything’s your parents’ fault. (Sort of.)
Psychology professionals have known about attachment styles for decades. In 1969, psychiatrist John Bowlby published Attachment and Loss, a groundbreaking book that laid out how infants attach with their parents—and how they reacted when they perceived a threat to that relationship.
Over the last few decades, researchers have extended attachment theory to adults; once we develop a style of attachment, the theory claims, we tend to carry that attachment style through our adult lives. Our attachment styles drive the way that we interact with the people we love, the people we work with, and other close, interpersonal relationships.
In 2010, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine, MD, and psychologist Rachel Heller wrote Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. That book took the heady, academic concept of adult attachment styles and spelled it out for the rest of us.
Understanding the Three Attachment Styles (and How to Find Your Attachment Style)
According to Levine and Heller’s interpretation of adult attachment theory, there are three main attachment styles, and they affect how people communicate, view intimacy, deal with conflict, and develop their expectations of their partners.
Need a helpful metaphor? Professor Karlen Lyons-Ruth, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, explains that “the attachment system can be thought of as the psychological version of the immune system.” Relationships bring stress, and our attachment system helps us respond to that stress and avoid “extreme levels of fearful arousal.”
Levine describes three attachment styles that cover about 95 percent of the population:
Secure Attachment Style
comfortable and loving
People with secure attachment styles feel comfortable with intimacy, and they can be described as loving people. About 50 percent of the population falls into this category.
- Example: Susan connects with someone on Tinder, and they go on a few dates. He doesn’t text her for a few days; she gives him a quick call to set up another date but doesn’t worry too much about the lack of communication. She’s generally very loving and has no problems expressing intimacy.
Anxious Attachment Style
defined by relationships with others
These individuals crave intimacy. Even if they’re fairly successful in their careers, they tend to define themselves by their relationships with others; they worry that their partners don’t love them, and they often believe that they’ll eventually end up alone. About 20 percent of people fall into this category.
- Example: Todd connects with someone on Tinder, and they go on a few dates. She doesn’t text him for a few days; he begins to obsess about what went wrong, sending flurries of texts to try to maintain the connection. Even when they’re together, Todd feels like he’s on the verge of losing her, so he goes to extreme lengths to avoid conflict.
Avoidant Attachment Style
evades close relationships
People with avoidant attachment styles try to avoid feeling close to their significant others. About 25 percent of people fall into this category.
- Example: Maria begins dating someone. As the relationship becomes more serious, she stops responding to texts as frequently. She spends more time at work and avoids moments of intimacy. She feels that being in a relationship means sacrificing independence, and while she enjoys her time with her significant other, she doesn’t want to think of the relationship as a priority.
Levine and Heller also note a much less common “disorganized” category; people with this attachment style may behave in unpredictable, irrational ways when they perceive a threat to their relationships. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the three main attachment styles, since the vast majority of people fall into one of those groups.
How do attachment styles form?
According to Levine and Heller, psychologists originally believed that adult attachment styles were purely a result of upbringing. In other words, if your parents were rigid and had trouble showing intimacy, you’d likely grow up to develop an avoidant attachment style. If your parents were inconsistently available, you’d develop an anxious attachment style, and if your parents were available and nurturing, you’d develop a secure attachment style.
Modern adult attachment theory acknowledges other factors that contribute to the development of attachment styles. Let’s say that your parents were loving, nurturing, and absolutely fantastic (thanks, Mom). If you’re surrounded by friends, teachers, and co-workers who are less reliable, though, you might still develop an insecure attachment style.
In other words, it’s not solely about your parents. With that said, if you develop an anxious style of attachment as a child, you’ll probably carry some of that with you into adulthood.
Why do attachment styles even exist? Levine believes that it’s evolutionary. Humans are, after all, highly social animals. We benefit from “attaching” with others, and our attachment system provides the emotional mechanisms we need to do so effectively. If you develop an avoidant attachment system early in life, it’s likely because that style of attachment benefited you at one time.
Why Attachment Styles Matter
By understanding your attachment style—and the attachment style of your partner—you can understand some of the mind-boggling stuff that happens over the course of a relationship. You can also start developing a secure attachment style for yourself (if you’re not one of the lucky people who can already attach securely).
So, let’s say that you’ve determined that you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style or that your partner’s attachment style conflicts with your own in an unhealthy way. There’s good news: Attachment styles can change, and understanding the psychology behind your interactions is an awesome first step toward making the necessary changes.
Of course, it’s not always an easy process. To get some guidance, we spoke with Levine to find out how those changes occur and what everyone should understand about attachment styles, why they really matter, and what they look like now, eight years after Attached was published.
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
HealthyWay: Has anything changed in adult attachment theory since your book was first published?
Amir Levine: Sure, there’s plenty of new research. It’s a constantly changing field. However, I was more concerned with taking these academic concepts and describing them in a way that people could put to practical use. I think that’s very important, especially with something as potentially useful as attachment theory.
And I appreciated how your book makes it simple and takes these things down to simple interactions.
People can really benefit from understanding attachment. Once you see that every close relationship is driven [by attachment theory], it gives you a lot of tools to improve your relationships and understand the people close to you.
How can people determine the attachment style of their partner?
For the most part, it’s apparent. With secure attachment styles, you know that they’re loving people, right? And even before they display that [love], they know how to use these concepts to put out small flames before they become forest fires. Anxious and avoidants have trouble with the small things and react more negatively to them.
And when secure people are involved with avoidant or anxious people, they can take on a lot because they don’t feel threatened, and they’re attentive to another person’s needs. When anxious and avoidant people are involved with one another, they amplify each others’ insecurities.
So what attachment theory does is help you understand the perspective [of people with other attachment styles]. “Why is he acting this way? Why is he overreacting, why didn’t he call me back?” Understanding the attachment styles helps you understand how people approach closeness, which can be extraordinarily beneficial.
If someone has an anxious or an avoidant attachment style, how can they move toward a more secure attachment style?
Well, for a single person, I think that one of the easiest ways is to get involved with a secure person. It’s not like they’re some sort of a rare bird—even though some people think they are. Secure people are about 50 percent of the population, according to the research. There’s an abundance of them. If you meet someone secure, they act as sort of a working model for you.
What I mean by that—they’re an example for how attachment can play out securely. You have a certain set of expectations and beliefs, but it’s potentially malleable. But it’s tricky, because this working model also shapes the way you perceive this environment. It makes you pay attention more to what you know, to your own attachment style.
What I’m saying is that it is possible to change it, but you need a lot of evidence to the contrary. You need evidence showing you what a secure attachment looks like.
How long does that process take?
It really depends on the person. It could take months or years. You’re overwriting some things, biologically, so it’s not always a simple process, but it can be done.
You mentioned that secure people make up about 50 percent of the population. Are you aware of any studies that might show whether the number of people with secure attachment styles is going up or down?
I’m not sure, I’ll have to look into it. However, we do know that attachment styles change every four years or so.
I would expect that it’s more likely for people to become secure than insecure. Has that been your experience?
I think that it’s more common for people to move from anxious or avoidant to secure than the other way around. Both are possible, however.
What about apps like Bumble and Tinder—obviously, they don’t give a lot of insight into a person’s personality or their attachment styles. Do you think that this technology is having an effect on attachment or the way that people form these relationships?
That’s not so much attachment, per se—attachment theory takes over in close, personal relationships. These websites aren’t based in any sort of real science, although maybe recently there’s a move toward that.
But, for dating, in my own practice, I tell people to be up front about what they want. Meet in person as soon as you can. Choose a time and place—“Oh, I have Monday through Wednesday free at this time.” That makes it real. You’ve got to move as quickly as possible to meeting someone in the real world.
Some people don’t like that. They think it’s showing too much interest, but it isn’t.
And you’ve got to meet people in the real world to know them.
Yeah. It’s not just that; relationships are really driven by attraction. I think it might have more to do with the way people smell—small things like that, rather than, “oh, he likes this movie,” or “that’s where he went to school.”
But meet in person, and that starts the process of choosing someone for you. It’s important to move off of the web.
Are there any common misconceptions regarding attachment theory?
I think that for most people, the big thing is knowing about attachment theory in the first place. Once you understand how attachment theory works in driving all of our close relationships, it’s pretty hard to go back. Well, at least it was for me—it’s such a powerful, useful thing.
But people should understand that it applies to all close relationships, not just romantic relationships. It applies to friendships and in the workplace, too.
Another thing that people misunderstand is that, in these very close romantic relationships, you’re not truly independent—you’re working with each other, you’re depending on each other emotionally. You’re this one [being]. Act insecurely, and your partner will pick up on that, and it might cause them to act insecurely. People like to think of themselves as independent; well, no, in a close relationship, you’re really not.
You mentioned attachment styles in the workplace and in friendships. How we can improve our interactions in those relationships?
I think the main thing is to turn the volume up on the secure interactions and turn the volume down on the insecure interactions. Often, we do the opposite. Insecurities become the focus, and we reinforce our insecurities with each other.
And on the other side, when we’re feeling secure, we won’t make a big deal out of it. It’s reversed from how we should be, because people do pick up on the reactions of others. So we can make a big difference in the workplace, or with our friends, simply by turning the volume up or down and being conscious of our reactions. That applies for people with all attachment styles.