The way we built connections with the people in our lives is an integral part of our general well-being.
If you were one of the many (many, many) people who tuned into Laurie Santos’ Yale course, The Science of Well-Being, you’ll know that a sense of connection is a key part of maintaining a positive headspace.
But how we bond with people is hardly black and white. And one of the most important elements at play when it comes to building relationships is the concept of attachment theory.
If you’re new to this term, the simplest way to describe it is a psychological theory developed by John Bowlby that categorised the way humans form emotional bonds.
There are four defined attachment styles and they each impact relationships incredibly differently. You may be familiar with them by now, but just in case you’re not, they are: Secure, Dismissive avoidant (Avoidant), Anxious-preoccupied (Anxious) and Fearful avoidant (Disorganised).
I chatted with Psychologist Patrick Dixon about these attachment styles, how to tell which is dominant for you and whether it’s possible to change your tendencies, here.
How do attachment styles develop?
There are many factors that can influence the way you connect with others, but the original theory looks at the way early-life experiences of attachment impact social tendencies.
“Simply put, attachment is the psychological connection between people,” Dixon told me over email.
“Attachment styles are established from a young age through temperament, consistency and security from caregivers, and significant early life events.”
How to tell which one applies to you
There are general definitions available for each of the four attachment styles. Dixon shared the below with me.
Secure: Securely attached people tend to have a strong sense of self, are in touch with their emotions, show affection in a healthy way, and have a healthy amount of trust and honesty with loved ones. Secure people are more likely to be low in anxiety and low in avoidance.
Dismissive avoidant (Avoidant): Dismissive avoidant attachment tends to be self-sufficient, independent, emotionally distant, and fearful of vulnerability. Avoidant attached people are more likely to be low in anxiety and high in avoidance.
Anxious-preoccupied (Anxious): Anxious preoccupied attachment shows a stronger desire for emotional connection, and emotional difficulties such as jealousy and distrust stemming from insecurities. Anxious attached people are more likely to be high in anxiety and low in avoidance.
Fearful avoidant (Disorganised): People with disorganised attachment can be vulnerable to a fluctuation between a strong desire for love and rejection of intimacy. Disorganised attached people are more likely to be high in anxiety and high in avoidance.
Now, while you may find you associate with one of these, Dixon made sure to stress that “attachment styles do not necessarily define our relationships and the way we interact with others”.
He shared that while we may have experienced the feelings associated with one specific attachment style before, there are ways to effectively navigate those emotions.
“Having awareness of thoughts and feelings, working through significant difficult life events, identifying personal values, and committing to values-based behaviours can foster healthy relationships and connections,” he said.
If you’d like to learn more about this, Dixon suggests listening to the below episode of The Savvy Psychologist podcast for further insight.
Can you change your attachment style?
Yes, you can. If you’ve read the above descriptions and are finding you relate to an attachment style other than secure (like a lot of us), there are ways to work on that.
First, keep in mind Dixon’s suggestions of working on your awareness and reflecting on your instinctive responses. But more than that, there are ways to actually shift your attachment style, too.
To do that, Dixon explained that you’ll need to begin “exploring possible origins and contributing factors such as significant life events, [and] significant relationships throughout your childhood and adolescent life”.
Working through these factors with a psychologist (often this is done through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) can help alter the “core beliefs” that sit at the centre of your behaviours in relationships.
“…somebody with a core belief that all people are untrustworthy and dangerous may have more of an avoidant attachment style and stay clear of intimate relationships to keep them (sic) safe.
“Through therapy, this core belief can shift to a more balanced perspective such as people can be dangerous, however, they can also be caring and compassionate. This balanced perspective can assist with opening, being vulnerable, creating new connections while deepening pre-existing connections.”
Everyone’s journey is going to be different, and there’s no right or wrong way about it. But learning a little more about how we tend to connect with others is always going to be a beneficial move if we’re seeking deeper relationships.