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The Different Types of Attachment Styles

By Stephanie Huang, published May 24, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. The style of attachment is formed at the very beginning of life, and once established, it is a style that stays with you and plays out today in how you relate in intimate relationships and in how you parent your children.

The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress as well as a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector

What is Attachment?

  • Attachment is defined as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969), and may be considered interchangeable with concepts such as “affectional bond” and “emotional bond.”
  • A human being’s first attachment is often established during infancy with the primary caregiver; however, it must be noted that attachment is not unique to infant-caregiver relationships, but may also be present in other forms of social relationships.
  • Attachments of various kinds are formed through the repeated act of “attachment behaviors” or “attachment transactions,” a continuing process of seeking and maintaining a certain level of proximity to another specified individual (Bowlby, 1969).
  • Because caregivers vary in their levels of sensitivity and responsiveness, not all infants attach to caregivers in the same way.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation Assessment

Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues discovered three major patterns that infants attach to their primary caregivers (“mother figures”) from their Strange Situation study (Ainsworth et al., 1978).

The study recruited four different samples of infants at around 1 year of age, and engaged them into the Strange Situation procedure, roughly described below:

An infant was put into an unfamiliar environment with his or her mother and was free to explore the environment; a stranger entered the room and gradually approached the infant; the mother then left the room, returning after the infant spent some time alone with the stranger.

A episode of the strange situation procedure

Ainsworth and colleagues observed how comfortable each infant was being physically farther away from the mother in an unfamiliar environment, how each infant interacted with the stranger, and how each infant greeted the mother upon her return.

Based on the observations, they sorted the infants into three major groups: secure, anxious and avoidant.

Secure Attachment Characteristics

Bowlby (1988) described secure attachment as the capacity to connect well and securely in relationships with others while also having the capacity for autonomous action as situationally appropriate.

Secure attachment is characterized by trust, an adaptive response to being abandoned, and the belief that one is worthy of love.

An infant with a secure attachment is characterized as actively seeking and maintaining proximity with the mother, especially during the reunion episode. The infant may or may not be friendly with the stranger, but always showed more interest in interacting with the mother.

Additionally, during the same situation the infant tended to be slightly distressed during separation from the mother, but the infant rarely cried.

Ainsworth and colleagues interpreted infants who were securely attached to their mothers, showed less anxiousness and more positive attitudes toward the relationship, and were likely because they believe in their mothers’ responsiveness towards their needs.

Secure adults tend to hold positive self-image and positive image of others, meaning that they had both a sense of worthiness and an expectation that other people were generally accepting and responsive.

Adults who demonstrated a secure attachment style during the attachment interview valued relationships and affirmed the impact of relationships on their personalities.

They display a readiness of recalling and discussing attachment that suggested much reflection regarding previous relationships.

Finally, they show objectivity in assessing their attachment figures and past experiences without any idealization.

Notably, many secure adults may in fact experience negative attachment-related events, yet they are able to objectively assess people and events and assign positive value to relationships in general.

Anxious Attachment Characteristics

Anxious attachment (also called ambivalent) relationships are characterized by a concern that others will not reciprocate one's desire for intimacy. This is caused when an infant learns that their caregiver or parent is unreliable and does not consistently provide responsive care towards their needs.

An anxiously attached infant is characterized as being somewhat ambivalent (and resistant) to the mother. The infant often demonstrated signs of resisting interactions with the mother, especially during the strange situation reunion episode.

However, once contact with the mother was gained, the infant also showed strong intentions to maintain such contact. Overall, ambivalent infants often seemed to display maladaptive behaviors throughout the Strange Situation.

Ainsworth and colleagues found ambivalent infants to be anxious and unconfident about their mothers’ responsiveness, and their mothers were observed to lack “the fine sense of timing” in responding to the infants’ needs.

As adults, those with an ambivalent attachment style are overly concerned with the uncertainty of a relationship.

Individuals with an ambivalent attachment (also called preoccupied when refering to adult attachment) hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others, meaning that they have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluated others positively.

As such, they strive for self-acceptance by attempting to gain approval and validation from their relationships with significant others. They also require higher levels of contact and intimacy from relationships with others.

Additionally, they are preoccupied with dependency on their own parents and still actively struggled to please them.

Avoidant Attachment Characteristics

Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid interaction with the caregiver, and show no distress during separation. This may be because the parent has ignored attempts to be intimate, and the child may internalize the belief that they cannot depend on this or any other relationship.

An infant with an avoidant attachment was characterized as displaying little to no tendency of seeking proximity with the mother.

The infant often showed no distress during separation with the mother, interacted with the stranger similarly to how he or she would interact with the mother, and showed slight signs of avoidance (turning away, avoiding eye contact, etc.) when reunited with the mother.

Ainsworth and colleagues interpreted infants’ avoidance behaviors as a defensive mechanism against the mothers’ own rejecting behaviors, such as being uncomfortable with physical contact or being more easily angered by the infants.

A dismissive-avoidant attachment style is demonstrated by adults who hold a positive self-image and a negative image of others. They prefer to avoid close relationships and intimacy with others in order to remain a sense of independence and invulnerability.

Dismissive-avoidant adults deny experiencing distress associated with relationships and downplay the importance of attachment in general, viewing other people as untrustworthy.

Disorganized Attachment Characteristics

Main and Solomon (1986) discovered that a sizable proportion of infants actually did not fit into secure, anxious or avoidant, based on their behaviors in the Strange Situation experiment. They categorized these infants as disorganized attachment type.

Disorganized attachment is classified by children who display sequences of behaviors that lack readily observable goals or intentions, including obviously contradictory behaviors or stilling/freezing of movements.

Main and Solomon found that the parents of disorganized infants often had unresolved attachment-related traumas, which caused the parents to display either frightened or frightening behaviors, in turn resulting in the disorganised infants to be confused or forcing them to rely on someone that they were afraid of at the same time.

Attachment Through Life

Attachment styles are expectations people develop about relationships with others, and the first attachment is based on the relationship individuals had with their primary caregiver when they were infants.

According to Bowlby’s theory (1988) when we form our primary attachment we also make a mental representation of what a relationship is (internal working model) which we then use for all other relationships in the future i.e. friendships, working and romantic relationships.

The different attachment styles may be viewed essentially as different internal working models of “relationships” that evolved out of event experiences (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

internal working model of attachment

This would suggest that early interactions with caregivers could not only shape how an infant understood and behaved in relationships (as exemplified by infant attachment styles), but that such impact could be carried forward into adult attachment.

According to Bowlby (1969) later relationships are likely to be a continuation of early attachment styles (secure and insecure) because the behavior of the infant’s primary attachment figure promotes an internal working model of relationships which leads the infant to expect the same in later relationships. In other words there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships. This is known as the continuity hypothesis.

In humans attachment does not conclude in infancy, or even childhood, but instead is active throughout the lifespan, with individuals gaining comfort from both physical and mental representations of significant others (Bowlby, 1969). 

It is through an individual’s internal working model that childhood patterns of attachment are carried forward across the life cycle into adolescent and adulthood. 

The notion of security is still an important one; however, the growing emergence of autonomy is also significant as the attachment system in adults is less likely to be activated due to them being able to tolerate higher levels of distress compared to children. 

During adulthood new attachment bonds are formed which may become a significant source of support during periods of distress, or during periods of goal achievement and exploration

Researchers have proposed that working models are interconnected within a complex hierarchical structure (Bowlby, 1980; Bretherton, 1985, 1990; Collins & Read, 1994; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

complex hierarchical structure of attachment relationships

For example, the highest level model comprises beliefs and expectations across all types of relationship, and lower level models hold general rules about specific relations, such as romantic or parental, underpinned by models specific to events within a relationship with a single person.

The existence of multiple mental models is supported by evidence which demonstrates considerable within-person variability in the expectations and beliefs that people hold about the self and others (Baldwin & Fehr, 1995).

Furthermore, although specific models of attachment relationships are positively associated with more overarching general working models, the correlations are small to moderate (less than .40), indicating that they comprised distinct beliefs regarding the self and significant others (Cozzarelli, Hoekstra, & Bylsma, 2000).

Likely, general mental models indicate a typical appraisal of the self and others across relationships, and relationship-specific beliefs about the self and one’s partner would plausibly represent only a part of these generalised beliefs.

Adult Attachment Interview

Mary Main and her colleagues developed the Adult Attachment Interview that asked for descriptions of early attachment-related events and for the adults’ sense of how these relationships and events had affected adult personalities (George, Kaplan, & Main, 1984).

It is noteworthy that the Adult Attachment Interview assessed “the security of the self in relation to attachment in its generality rather than in relation to any particular present or past relationship” (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

For examples, the general state of mind regarding attachment rather than how one attached to another specific individual.

Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) analyzed adults’ responses to the Adult Attachment Interview and observed three major patterns in the way adults recounted and interpreted childhood attachment experiences and relationships in general.

  • Secure (Autonomous)
  • Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment
  • Preoccupied (Anxious) Attachment

About the Author

Stephanie Huang holds a Master of Education degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her academic interests mainly lie in the fields of developmental psychology, social-emotional learning, and informal education. She is currently a Research Intern with Research Schools International (US) and a Museum Education Intern with STEAMLab (Taiwan).

Fack Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

How to reference this article:

Huang, S (2020, Aug 24). Attachment styles. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Baldwin, M.W., & Fehr, B. (1995). On the instability of attachment style ratings. Personal Relationships, 2, 247-261.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L.M. (1991). Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226–244.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Volume I. Attachment. London: Hogarth Press.

Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (p. 46–76). The Guilford Press.

Brennan, K. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment, affect regulation, and romantic relationship functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 267–283.

Caron, A., Lafontaine, M., Bureau, J., Levesque, C., and Johnson, S.M. (2012). Comparisons of Close Relationships: An Evaluation of Relationship Quality and Patterns of Attachment to Parents, Friends, and Romantic Partners in Young Adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44(4), 245-256.

George, C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1984). The Adult Attachment Interview. Unpublished manuscript, University of California at Berkeley.

Harlow, H. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 573-685.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524.

Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50(1-2), 66-104.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy. Ablex Publishing.

Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.

How to reference this article:

Huang, S (2020, Nov 03). Attachment styles. Simply Psychology.

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