The Different Types of Attachment Styles

By Stephanie Huang, updated Aug 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Attachment theory, developed by Bowlby to explain emotional bonding between infants and caregiver, has implications for understanding romantic relationships.

John Bowlby (1969) believed that attachment was an all or nothing process. However, research has shown that there are individual differences in attachment styles.

There are four attachment styles: anxious (referred to as preoccupied in adults), avoidant (referred to as dismissive in adults), disorganized (referred to as fearful-avoidant in adults), and secure.

Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. 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 theory as secure, preoccupied, dismissive, fearful behavior models outline diagram. Labeled educational psychological types with influence from childhood parenting vector

In humans the attachment behavioural system 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).

There appears to be continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based upon the internal working model where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.

Internal Working Models

  • The social and emotional responses of the primary caregiver (usually a parent) provide the infant with information about the world and other people, and also how they view themselves as individuals.
  • For example, the extent to which an individual perceives himself/herself as being worthy of love and care, and information regarding the availability and reliability of others.
  • John Bowlby (1969) referred to this knowledge as an internal working model, which begins as a mental and emotional representation of the infant’s first attachment relationship and forms the basis of an individual’s attachment style.
  • Romantic relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships, such as parents, friends, and romantic partners (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991)
  • However, other researchers have proposed that rather than a single internal working model which is generalised across relationships, each type of relationship comprises a different working model. This means that a person could be securely attached with their parents, but insecurely attached with romantic relationships.

internal working model of attachment

Ainsworth's Strange Situation Assessment

Ainsworth proposed the ‘sensitivity hypothesis’ which states that the more responsive the mother is to the infant during their early months, the more secure their attachment will be.

To test this she designed the ‘Strange Situation’ to observe attachment security in children within the context of caregiver relationships.

The the child and mother experience a range of scenarios in an unfamiliar room. The procedure involves series of eight episodes lasting approximately 3 minutes each, whereby a mother, child and stranger are introduced, separated and reunited.

Mary Ainsworth classified infants into one of three attachment styles; insecure avoidant (‘A’), secure (‘B’), or insecure ambivalent (‘C’).  A fourth attachment style known as disorganized was later identified (Main & Solomon, 1990).

Each type of attachment style comprises a set of attachment behavioural strategies used to achieve proximity with the caregiver, and with it a feeling of security. 

From an evolutionary perspective the attachment classification (A, B or C) of an infant is an adaptive response to the characteristics of the caregiving environment. 

Ainsworth's maternal sensitivity hypothesis argues that a child’s attachment style is dependent on the behavior their mother shows towards them.

  • ‘Sensitive’ mothers are responsive to the child's needs and respond to their moods and feelings correctly. Sensitive mothers are more likely to have securely attached children.
  • In contrast, mothers who are less sensitive towards their child, for example, those who respond to the child’s needs incorrectly or who are impatient or ignore the child, are likely to have insecurely attached children.

Attachment Through Life

According to John 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.

According to the continuity hypothesis experiences with childhood attachment figures are retained over time and used to guide perceptions of the social world and future interaction with others.

However, there is evidence that attachment styles are fluid, and demonstrate fluctuations across the lifespan (Waters, Weinfield, & Hamilton, 2000).

Therefore, rather than a single internal model which is generalised across relationships, each type of relationship may comprises a different working model, meaning that a person could be securely attached with their parents, but insecurely attached with romantic relationships.

Researchers have proposed that working models are interconnected within a complex hierarchical structure (Collins & Read, 1994).  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. 

Adult Attachment Styles

Adult attachment styles describe people's comfort and confidence in close relationships, their fear of rejection and yearning for intimacy, and their preference for self-sufficiency or interpersonal distance.

Attachment styles comprise cognitions relating to both the self (‘Am I worthy of love’) and others (‘Can I depend on others during times of stress’).

Adult attachment styles derived from past relationship histories are conceptualised in the form of internal working models. Here individuals can hold either a positive or negative belief of self and also a positive or negative belief of others, thus resulting in one of four possible styles of adult attachment.

The model of others can also be conceptualised as the avoidant dimension of attachment, which corresponds to the level of discomfort a person feels regarding psychological intimacy and dependency.

Alternatively, the model of self can be conceptualised as the anxiety dimension of attachment, relating to beliefs about self-worth and whether or not one will be accepted or rejected by others (Collins & Allard, 2001).

Bartholomew and Horowitz proposed four adult attachment styles in terms of working models of self and others; including secure, dissmissive, preoccupied, and fearful.

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

Secure Attachment

Securely attached 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.

Secure attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation. This type of attachment occurs because the mother meets the emotional needs of the infant.

Children with a secure attachment use their mother as a safe base to explore their environment. They are moderately distressed when their mother leaves the room (separation anxiety), and seek contact with their mother when she returns.

They also show moderate stranger anxiety, they show some distress when they are approached by a stranger.

Such individuals typically display openness regarding expressing emotions and thoughts with others and are comfortable with depending on others for help, while also being comfortable with others depending on them (Cassidy, 1994).

Adults who demonstrate a secure attachment style value relationships and affirm the impact of relationships on their personalities. They display a readiness of recalling and discussing attachment that suggested much reflection regarding previous relationships.

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.

Secure lovers characterized their most important romantic relationships as happy and trusting. They are able to support their partners despite the partners’ faults.

Their relationships also tend to last longer. Secure lovers believe that although romantic feelings may wax and wane, romantic love would never fade.

Through statistical analysis, secure lovers were found to had had warmer relationships with parents during childhood.

Preoccupied Attachment

Individuals with an preoccupied attachment (called anxious when referring to children) 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.

Anxious attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation, and is also known as insecure resistant or anxious ambivalent.

The children with this type of attachment are clingy to their mother in a new situation and are not willing to explore – suggesting that they do not have trust in her.

They are extremely distressed when seperated from their mother. When the mother returns they are pleased to see her and go to her for comfort, but then cannot be comforted and may show signs of anger towards her.

This type of attachment style occurs because the mother sometime meets the needs of the infant and sometimes ignores their emotional needs, i.e. the mother's behavior is inconsistent.

Such individuals crave intimacy but also remain anxious regarding whether other romantic partners will meet their emotional needs. Autonomy and independence can make them feel anxious.

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

In addition, they can become distressed should they interpret recognition and value from others as being insincere or failing to meet an appropriate level of responsiveness.

Their attachment system is prone to hyperactivation during times of stress, emotions can become amplified, and overdependence on others is increased (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).

Preoccupied lovers characterize their most important romantic relationships by obsession, desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction and jealousy.

Preoccupied lovers believe that it was easy for them to fall in love, yet they also claimed that unfading love was difficult to find.

Compared with secure lovers, preoccupied lovers report colder relationships with parents during their childhood.

Dismissive Attachment

A dismissive attachment style is demonstrated by adults who hold a positive self-image and a negative image of others. Their internal working model is based on an avoidant attachment established during infancy.

Avoidant attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation. The children with this type of attachment do not use the mother as a safe base, they are not distressed on separation with their caregiver and are not joyful when the mother returns. They show little stranger anxiety.

This type of attachment occurs because the mother ignores the emotional needs of the infant.

They prefer to avoid close relationships and intimacy with others in order to remain a sense of independence and invulnerability. This means they have difficulty with intimacy and value autonomy and self-reliance (Cassidy, 1994).

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

Dismissive lovers are characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy. They are often unsure of their feelings towards their romantic partner, believing that romantic love could rarely last, and that it was hard for them to fall in love (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).

Proximity seeking is appraised as unlikely to alleviate distress resulting in deliberate deactivation of the attachment system, inhibition of the quest for support, and commitment to handling distress alone, especially distress arising from the failure of the attachment figure to be available and responsive (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).

Dismissive individuals have learned to suppress their emotions at the behavioural level, although they still experience emotional arousal internally (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).

This has negative outcomes in terms of cutting themselves of strong feelings, whether their own or others, thus influencing their experiences of romantic relationships.

Fearful Attachment

Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment style (also referred to as disorganized) hold a negative model of self and also a negative model of others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy.

They display attachment behaviours typical of avoidant children becoming socially withdrawn and untrusting of others.

The behaviour of a fearful-avoidant child is very disorganized, hence why it is also known as disorganized attachment. 

If the child and caregiver were to be separated for any amount of time, on reunion, the child will act conflicted. They may initially run towards their caregiver, but then seem to change their mind and either run away or act out. 

In the eyes of a child who has a fearful avoidant attachment, their caregivers are untrustworthy.

Children with a fearful avoidant attachment are at risk of carrying these behaviours into adulthood if they do not receive support to overcome this. They may struggle to feel secure in any relationship if they do not get help for their attachment style. 

“Like dismissing avoidant, they often cope with distancing themselves from relationship partners, but unlike dismissing individuals they continue to experience anxiety and neediness concerning their partner’s love, reliability and trustworthiness” (Schachner, Shaver & Mikulincer, 2003, p. 248).

A fearful avoidant prefers casual relationships, and may stay in the dating stage of the relationship for a prolonged period as this feels more comfortable for them. This is not always because they want to, but because they are afraid of getting closer to someone. 

A study found that those with a fearful avoidant attachment style are likely to have more sexual partners and higher sexual compliance compared to other attachment styles (Favez & Tissot, 2019). 

They may prefer to have more sexual partners as a way to get physically close to someone without having to also be emotionally vulnerable to them – thus meeting their need to closeness.

They could also be more sexually compliant due to have poorer boundaries and learning in childhood that their boundaries do not matter. It is important to bear in mind that this is not the case for all fearful avoidants. 

A partner with this attachment style may prefer to keep their partner at a distance so that things do not get too emotionally intense. They may be reluctant to share too much of themselves as a way to protect themselves from eventual hurt. If the relationship gets too deep or if they are asked to share personal stories, the fearful avoidant may shut down rapidly.

It is common for those with a fearful attachment style to have grown up in a household that is very chaotic and toxic. As such, the fearful avoidant may expect that their romantic relationships as adults should also be chaotic.

If they are in a relationship with someone who is secure and calm, they may be suspicious of why this is. They may believe something must be wrong and may challenge their partner or create a problem to make the relationship more unsettled but familiar to them.

They tend to always expect something bad to happen in their relationship and will likely find any reason to damage the relationship so that they do not get hurt.

They may blame or accuse their partner of things they have not done, threaten to leave the relationship, or test their partner to see if this makes them jealous. All these strategies may cause their partner to consider ending the relationship.

The Influence of Attachment on Adult Relationship

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.

Parenting Style

There is evidence that attachment styles may be transmitted between generations.

Research indicates an intergenerational continuity between adults attachment types and their children, including children adopting the parenting styles of their own parents. People tend to base their parenting style on the internal working model so attachment type tends to be passed on through generations of a family.

Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) found a strong association between the security of the adults’ working model of attachment and that of their infants’, with a particularly strong correlation between mothers and infants (vs. fathers and infants).

Additionally, the same study also found that dismissive adults were often parents to avoidant infants, whereas preoccupied adults were often parents to resistant/ambivalent infants, suggesting that how adults conceptualized attachment relationships had a direct impact on how their infants attached to them.

An alternative explanation for continuity in relationships is the temperament hypothesis which argues that an infant’s temperament affects the way a parent responds and so may be a determining factor in infant attachment type. The infant’s temperament may explain their issues (good or bad) with relationships in later life.

Romantic Relationships

There also appears to be continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based upon the internal working model where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.

The internal working model influences a person’s expectation of later relationships thus affects his attitudes towards them. In other words there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships.

Adult relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships.

This is illustrated in Hazan and Shaver’s love quiz experiment. They conducted a study to collect information of participants’ early attachment styles and their attitudes towards loving relationships. They found that those who were securely attached as infants tended to have happy lasting relationships.

On the other hand, insecurely attached people found adult relationships more difficult, tended to divorce and believed love was rare. This supports the idea that childhood experiences have significant impact on people’s attitude toward later relationships.

The continuity hypothesies is accused of being reductionist because it assumes that people who are insecurely attached as infants would have poor quality adult relationships. This is not always the case. Researchers found plenty of people having happy relationships despite having insecure attachments. Therefore the theory might be an oversimplification.

Brennan and Shaver (1995) discovered that there was a strong association between one’s own attachment type and the romantic partner’s attachment type, suggesting that attachment style could impact one’s choice of partners.

To be more specific, the study found that a Secure adult was most likely to be paired with another secure adult, while it was least likely for an avoidant adult to be paired with a secure adult; when a secure adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to have an anxious-preoccupied partner instead.

Moreover, whenever an avoidant or anxious adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to end up with an avoidant partner; an anxious adult was very unlikely to be paired with another Anxious adult.

Adult attachment style also impacts how one behaves in romantic relationships (jealousy, trust, proximity-seeking, etc.) and how long these relationships can last, as discussed in earlier paragraphs about Hazan and Shaver's (1987) findings.

These are in turns related to overall relationship satisfaction. Brennan and Shaver (1995) found that inclining towards a Secure attachment type was positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction, whereas being either more avoidant or anxious was negatively associated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

In terms of attachment-related behaviors within relationships, being inclined to seek proximity and trust others were both positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

Being self-reliant, ambivalent, jealous, clingy, easily frustrated towards one’s partner, or insecure in general were all negatively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

The attachment style and related behaviors of one’s partners were also found to impact one’s relationship satisfaction. Not surprisingly, having a Secure partner increased one’s relationship satisfaction.

However, an Avoidant partner was the only type of partner that seemed to contribute negatively towards one’s relationship satisfaction, while an Anxious partner had no significant impact in this aspect.

The partner’s inclination to seek proximity and trust others increased one’s satisfaction, while one’s partner’s ambivalence and frustration towards oneself decreased one’s satisfaction.

Critical Evaluation

It must be kept in mind that one may exhibit different attachment styles in different relationships.

A study conducted on young adults revealed that participants possessed distinct attachment patterns for different relationship types (parent-participant, friendship, and romantic relationship) and did not experience one “general attachment orientation,” except for some overlap in anxiety experienced in both friendship and romantic relationships (Caron et al., 2012).

Such empirical evidence serves as a reminder that attachment style may be context-specific and that one should not regard results from any assessments as the sole indicator of one’s attachment style. Additionally, it is also noteworthy that one’s attachment style may alter over time as well.

Across different pieces of research, it was found that around 70% of the people had more stable attachment styles, while the remaining 30% were more subjected to change.

Baldwin and Fehr (1995) found that 30% of adults changed their attachment style ratings within a short period of time (ranging from one week to several months), with those who originally self-identified as anxious-ambivalent being the most prone to change.

In a 20-year longitudinal study, Waters et al. (2000) conducted the Adult Attachment Interview with young adults who had participated in the Strange Situation experiment 20 years ago. They found that 72% of the participants received the same secure vs. insecure classifications as they did during infancy.

The remaining participants did change in terms of attachment patterns, with the majority – though not all – of them having experienced major negative life events.

Such findings suggest that attachment style assessments should be interpreted more prudently; furthermore, there is always the possibility for change – and it even need not be related to negative events, either. 

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.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Huang, S. (2022, May 24). Attachment Styles & Their Role in Adult Relationships. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

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Attachment Theory