Are You Anxious or Avoidant? What to Know About Attachment Styles
October 28, 2023 by CALI DELISLE, originally published in POPSUGAR
Do you find yourself hyperfixating on whether your partner is upset with you? Do you feel as though you're constantly nagging at your significant other in search of affection? Or maybe you're the opposite: withdrawing and disengaging at the first sign of trouble? These instincts are rooted in your attachment style, and they can impact your ability to form intimate and healthy relationships with others. Learning about your attachment style is crucial in better understanding the instinctual ways you act in relationships. POPSUGAR spoke with experts to gather insight on identifying your attachment style and how you can use that knowledge to better navigate your interactions with the people you care about most.
What Are Attachment Styles?
The measure of our response to intimacy and level of reliance on a significant other is referred to as our attachment style. We often see these styles portrayed as distinct categories — most notably, anxious and avoidant — but they're more accurately thought of as a spectrum. Here's what you should know about the attachment styles that have been identified by experts in the field.
"In contemporary psychology, we assess people's attachment styles on two dimensions," says Yoobin Park, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who specializes in how interpersonal factors impact close relationships. "One is the degree of attachment anxiety, which is how much the person believes that they are worthy of getting loved and how much they're worried about getting rejected." Anxious attachment can manifest itself as dependency on a significant other and an overanalysis of their behavior. It can stem from inconsistent love and trust from past important relationships such as those with a parent or loved one.
"The other dimension is attachment avoidance and the degree to which the person feels uncomfortable with intimacy," Dr. Park tells POPSUGAR. "People high in attachment avoidance tend to prefer their autonomy or self-reliance over getting close to their partner or feeling connected to people in general." People with avoidant attachment styles often have the instinctive reaction to withdraw themselves if they sense an issue in their relationship or if the relationship is getting too serious.
While anxious and avoidant attachments are the two most commonly talked-about attachment styles, you may hear about two others, the first of which helps to illustrate that the dimensions of attachment are not mutually exclusive. Disorganized attachment, often called fearful-avoidant attachment, combines both anxious and avoidant personalities. People with this attachment type struggle to let themselves trust their partners, unsure of whether to depend on them or fear closeness. They may desire relationships, but it has been ingrained in them to reject intimacy.
Though most people experience some degree of anxious or avoidant attachment, Dr. Park says it's also possible to not have these issues. "When people are low in both dimensions — low in attachment anxiety and low in attachment avoidance — that's when we say that people are relatively securely attached or secure," Dr. Park says, noting that this is presumably the most adaptive style.
How Do Attachment Styles Develop?
So, where exactly do attachment styles come from? "The theory suggests that these patterns start in childhood and we get these patterns from our interactions with our parents," says Kristina Schrage, MA, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto with a special interest in self-disclosure. "The idea is that that's our basis for understanding how close others are going to relate to us. And then when we become adults and we enter into our romantic relationships, that's going to be our starting point for understanding how to relate to this person."
Research is still unclear about the extent to which our upbringing persists into our adult relationships and what other factors may be at play. "There are also studies coming out showing that there might be genetic differences underlying these attachment-style differences, in which case, maybe it's not just childhood experiences," Dr. Park says. "And from our studies, including my recent studies, we know that attachment styles are also shaped by later adulthood experiences."
How Does Your Attachment Style Affect Your Relationships?
It can be damaging to both ourselves and our partners if we operate in the extreme of either anxious or avoidant attachment. "People learn these patterns early on, and when they enter into new relationships, these patterns are ingrained in their mind," Schrage tells POPSUGAR. Conflict arises when we allow ourselves to be led exclusively by our attachment styles instead of taking a step back, assessing a situation, and communicating with our partner.
Attachment styles can also play a role in how you work to resolve those conflicts. "Avoidant people would withdraw from the discussion, or they would avoid being in the place where they have to confront the issue," Dr. Park says. In the case of those who lean more toward anxious attachment, they may be less prone to wanting to discuss issues in their relationship due to a fear of being abandoned by their significant other. They are also likely to read into any sign of withdrawal expressed by their partner. This can come across as overbearing.
"For anxiously attached people, one of the challenges is that, because they want so much intimacy and closeness, what can happen is that the other person needs to take a step back when they're dealing with their own personal issues or just their day-to-day life," Schrage explains. "There can be misunderstandings that the anxious person might interpret as [rejection], whereas it's really just that the person is trying to get their own life and their basic tasks done."
How Can You Navigate Attachment Styles in Relationships?
Because attachment styles exist on a spectrum, there is no one method for managing these behaviors. What is largely agreed upon, though, is that there are ways to buffer attachment-rooted insecurities.
Schrage stresses the importance of identifying your partner's attachment style, so you better understand why they might be responding a certain way. "The general idea is that you have to tailor to which specific insecurity it is," Schrage says, adding that understanding your partner's underlying concerns can help to mitigate some of the challenges the two of you might experience.
"Avoidant people really respond to these strong, unwavering positive cues," Schrage says. Being consistently reliable as a partner can help lower the emotional guards built up by your significant other. This is also applicable in relationships with anxiously attached people. "For anxiously attached people, it seems that what they need are things that are going to dampen down some of their fears of threatening aspects of the relationship," Schrage adds. They need to feel your love and commitment in ways that are concrete and tangible.
Additionally, being mindful of your own attachment style can help you determine if your worries are rooted in the past or related to your current partner.
How to Find Your Attachment Style
If you don't know what your attachment style is, try taking an attachment-style quiz and reading about how your insecurities regarding intimacy might manifest in your relationships. Be mindful that learning your attachment style is the starting point, not the end result of who you are destined to be in relationships. If there are qualities about your attachment style that you don't like, know that you can change them, and the first step in doing so is truly understanding and recognizing these behaviors when you exhibit them.