Updated: Apr 30
In this article, I aim to share with you the four types of attachment styles and the history of the attachment theory. An overview will be given of the presentation through emotions and behaviours and how this can affect our relationship with ourselves and others.
History of types of attachment styles
John Bowlby (1969) was one of the first psychologists to explore attachment and the psychological connection that human beings have with one another. Attachment refers to how we relate to other people.
Bowlby went on to state that our early childhood experiences have an impact on our behaviour and development in later years. Therefore, one’s attachment style is established in childhood through the infant-caregiver relationship. Bowlby goes on to argue that attachment has an evolutionary component supporting our need for survival.
‘The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature,’
(Bowlby - A Secure Base).
Bowlby defined the characteristics of attachment as:
Proximity maintenance (who do you want to be with)
Safe heaven (who provides you comfort)
Secure base (who is always there for you)
Separation distress (who do you miss the most when parted)
During the 1970s a notable pioneer of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, created the ‘strange situation’ experiment to expand on Bowlby’s work. From the strange situation, Mary defines three attachment styles that are still used today. These styles include secure, insecure avoidant, and insecure ambivalent. The fourth attachment style known as disorganised was coined later by Main and Solomon (1990).
What follows is an outline of the four primary types of attachment styles. In addition to the overview, a list of presentations expressed by individuals with these attachment styles.
Essential reading: Attached: Are You Anxious, Avoidant or Secure?
Types of attachment Styles #1 Secure attachment
In a secure attachment style, an individual would feel safe, secure, loved and cared for with someone always there for support. This would allow these individuals to feel that their world is safe to explore and navigate. The outlook on the world is positive with the view that their needs will be met.
A secure attachment style could lead to
The ability to ask for help
A stable sense of self
Self-compassion and compassion for others
Ability to manage changes
To have long-lasting trusting relationships
Higher self-esteem and self-confidence
Seek out social support and access support when needed
Can become vulnerable and discuss feelings
Can emotionally regulate
Types of attachment styles #2 Avoidant attachment
An avoidant attachment style is present due to the caregiver being absent, not just physically but also emotionally and so the child learns to manage on their own. An individual is an avoidant attachment style would feel that they are better off looking after themselves as they feel no one cares about them.
The avoidant attachment style can result in self-isolation and the eschewing of social society. They may feel it is better to suppress feelings than to express how they feel with feelings that they don’t deserve to be loved.
An avoidant attachment style could lead to
The drive to achieve based on external validation and recognition
Inability to ask for help seen as a weakness or not worthy
Can self-regulate but struggle with feelings and emotions
Seeks approval from others
Finds it difficult to love another person
Difficulties with close relationships
Inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions with those close such as partners
Does not provide too much emotion in relationships
Experiences little emotional distress when relationships end
Struggles to support those close when in need
Essential reading: Platonic: Understand Your Attachment Style
Types of attachment styles #3 Ambivalent type
An ambivalent attachment type shares some similarities with avoidant with the caregiver not being present physically and emotionally to attend to the needs of the child. Ambivalence can be identified in the parent or caregiver that prioritises their own needs and wants over that of a dependent.
This individual can never be sure that their needs will be met and feels no one is there to help. They perceive the world as sometimes not safe as they have been hurt. This individual would need reassurance from others and someone to tell them they are loved.
An ambivalent attachment style could lead to
High emotional needs
Always feeling let down
Need to feel included amongst others but it never feels enough
Relationships can be cold and distant
Devastated when relationships end
Can worry that others don’t reciprocate feelings
In the above attachment types, all three – secure, avoidant and ambivalent – are categorised as organised. Both avoidant and ambivalent are not the ideal secure attachment but they are classed as strategies for coping. Disorganised attachment is not classed as organised and doesn’t include resources to cope.
Types of attachment styles #4 Disorganised attachment
A disorganised attachment style is considered to be present when a child has gone through trauma including abuse and neglect, where there have been few resources to cope. This may include a disorganised pattern of behaviour from the caregivers such as the caregivers presenting as both caring and aggressive leading the child to navigate the conflicting messages.
This results in the child having to protect themselves and continue a relationship with the caregivers leading to fragmentation. The child begins to feel as though there is no way to cope and that their world is unsafe.
As Mary Main included, later on, to define this style of attachment as ‘Fear without solution.’
A disorganised attachment style could lead to
Fear of emotional intimacy even though want to connect and be loved
Expect rejection, hurt or disappointment from partners for being themselves
Ends relationships hastily which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing that others can’t be trusted
Thought distortion includes a negative view of the self and others which increase the risk of mental health issues
Negative self-image and critical self-talk
Increased risk of self-harm to manage difficult emotions
Addictive and compulsive behaviours
How to work towards a secure attachment style
As attachment styles other than secure exhibit feelings of an unsafe world, it is important to be in an environment that offers you this space to explore and grow. In therapy, you will be in a safe, non-judgmental and trusting environment allowing you to experience a secure relationship. This is an environment where you can explore your feelings and emotions to help build new skills and navigate your world in a better way.
In this article, the types of attachment styles – secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised have been outlined and explored. For each attachment style, the presenting symptoms have been included. The article concludes with a pathway towards obtaining a secure attachment style and the importance of seeking therapy to help navigate this transition.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness & depression. Attachment and loss (vol. 3); (International psycho-analytical library no.109). London: Hogarth Press.
Bowlby, J. (1988). Developmental psychiatry comes of age. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 145(1), 1–10.