The power of attachment styles in relationships

Why do we behave in certain ways in a relationship? Why do we seem to get caught in certain patterns, or why do we find ourselves attracted to certain types? 


The answer to these questions can be found in the way that we attach in relationships. Our attachment style can be a very powerful thing that drives us in ways that we are not always aware of. It can inform our deeply rooted beliefs about ourselves, about what we expect a relationship to be like, and what sort of behaviour is comfortable and familiar – in ourselves, and in our partners. 

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory is simply the study of how our earliest childhood connections and bonds create entrenched patterns and beliefs in us, that many of us find ourselves replaying later in life without even being aware. Attachment was first studied in the 1950s, then extensively in the 1970s and now continues to be researched by not only psychologists but also neuroscientists who have added to our understanding of attachment with extensive studies on the impact of attachment on brain development.

Intentionally or unintentionally, parents aren’t able to meet all of a child’s survival needs all of the time. Think of all of the different things a parent must guess:

  • Does the baby need feeding?
  • Is it too warm?
  • Too cold?
  • Need to be held?
  • Is it in distress?
  • Is it ill?

It simply isn’t realistically possible. Much of what parents are doing is trying to attune, and intuit what their baby or toddler needs. There is so much scope for this to go wrong. 

When that parental attunement fails a little bit too often, and the baby or toddler does not quite get enough of its needs met or regularly enough, that causes psychological distress (which researchers can now track through the monitoring of a child’s distress hormones, and via brain scans monitoring the development of the amygdala and hippocampus – the brain’s anxiety alarm system). This results in the formation of what we call an ‘attachment style’. 

Attachment types

There are four main attachment styles that describe how we feel in relation to other people. These apply to all the relationships that we form, not just romantic ones. But understanding our attachment style can be hugely helpful in our romantic relationships. 

The four main attachment styles are:

Anxious attachment

Those who are anxiously attached find that in relationships they often feel dissatisfied, they at times cling to their partner, and feel anxious about whether they are loved back in return, or loved enough. They have a yearning to feel close, connected, and wanted, and if this need isn’t met, it causes distress. Anxious individuals may feel that they would like their partner to be even closer and more connected. 

Avoidant attachment

Those who are avoidant may find themselves overwhelmed at times in a relationship. They may even struggle to form close and intimate bonds, and prefer to be solitary, or immersed in activities that distract. Sometimes others may want an avoidant individual to be more connected and intimate than they may feel comfortable being. 

Secure attachment

Securely attached individuals are largely comfortable with themselves, and in their relationships. They feel at ease being close to others, can easily depend on others, and don’t mind being depended on in return. They neither worry about being abandoned nor about being smothered. Research suggests that most people in the UK are securely attached. 

Disorganised attachment

Disorganised attachment is very rare, and occurs when someone has had a history of abuse in their childhood. Being in a relationship may be very difficult for someone who is disorganiSed in their attachment, and they may need a lot of help and support. 

The spectrum of attachment

Attachment styles form in very early childhood and can change as we grow. If we have a certain attachment style in childhood, it does not always mean we will continue that through into adult life. In this sense, attachment should not be thought of as something like a star sign – prescriptive, set in stone, and fatalistic. 

Rather, we are all on a spectrum of attachment, most of us largely go about our day-to-day life securely attached. We may have a leaning towards an attachment style, and sit somewhere on the spectrum of securely attached through to either avoidant or insecure.  

Attachment mainly becomes an issue for us when we are stressed – as this is when our tendency toward a certain attachment style may start to be played out.  

How does this affects the way we behave in a relationship?

Depending on where along the spectrum of attachment we are, indicates how our day-to-day interactions usually occur, and what kinds of patterns and cycles exist in our relationships

Our attachment styles can have deep implications for how we communicate, what we need from a partner, and how we feel about ourselves. In learning to understand our own attachment, and that of our partners, we can change the dynamics and undercurrents that exist in a relationship for the better.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N4 & E17
Written by Danielle Corbett, (MBACP (Accred), Adv. Dip)
London N4 & E17

I am a qualified and professionally trained psychotherapist in North London, with a background in NHS Mental Health Services. I also work with a wide and very diverse range of people from all backgrounds in my private practice based near Finsbury park.

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