The 4 Attachment Styles; The Complete Easy-to-Use Guide to Attachment in Your Relationship

Image from Canva.

The latest trend in popular psychology is exploring attachment theory, and how that influences us as individuals in our various relationships.

Tara Thomas & Kia Handley talk about the different attachment styles, how attachment styles influence relationships, and what can we take from that into our futures.

[Full transcript below]

You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

So a bloke that I was seeing the other week asked me early on in our conversations what my attachment styles were... and I tried not to sound like a complete Noob so quickly I googled it, and worked it out that I'd never heard of the psychology of attachment styles.

So what's a girl to do except go on a deep deep dive! After Nick Hose in our newsroom suggested I read the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S F Heller,  it's my buzz topic at the moment with everyone including you.

So let's talk about it; what are attachment styles, how does it impact everything from your parenting to how you relate to people in relationships from romantic to friendships to colleagues?

Tara Thomas is your regular Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor, good morning.

Tara Thomas:

good morning, Kia

Kia Handley:

I am I late to the attachment styles party?

Tara Thomas:

I don't think you're late! I think you're perfectly on time.

Kia Handley:

Excellent [laughs]

Tara Thomas:

It's pretty...  on trend at the moment. You know there's always these kind of trends that come through in terms of psychological frameworks that people are oriented.... they become the next thing and attachment is very much front and centre right now which is wonderful.

What Does 'Attachment Styles' Mean?

Kia Handley:

So what are attachment styles... what do we mean by that?

Tara Thomas:

If you think of a baby... you know we often say we are wired for connection for the purpose of survival, and human babies are wired for connection for evolutionary purposes... for evolutionary function because human babies are so phenomenally helpless. If you think of other babies...

Kia Handley:

I think about a young giraffe who's standing in seconds or else they're eaten!

Tara Thomas:

Yeah! And babies for a very very long time... for years... are are quite helpless and so they are unable to take care of their physical or emotional needs or to regulate their own nervous systems. And so in order to overcome that we have an innate neurobiological system, so that means we are born with a system called our attachment system that orients us toward our primary carer to have those needs met, so we survive.

So you can think of attachment styles as being like your relationship blueprint.  And then your primary carer is helping you to create that blueprint. That imprinting, that creation of the blueprint.... it happens through non-verbal interactions with face-to-face interactions skin-to -skin and nervous system to nervous system. Most of the time when a baby is born this happens with the mother, but it can be with another primary carer.

Are Attachment Styles the Same Throughout Our Lives?

Kia Handley:

We have seen the definition of attachment styles expand in recent times, to talk about us as relationships and how we connect with people, is  it is that quite natural that we take what we see happen naturally in babies and then take a look at how that then happens in adults?

Tara Thomas:

What happens particularly with the attachment system, is that it becomes part of the way that your nervous system is responding to your environment and to the people in your environment.

For this blueprint, if you think of your relational blueprints, that then governs the way that you see people, the way that you interact with people, your expectations of people.... and initially the research was around attachment styles in the context of parenting and now the research is very much looking at what does that mean now as we are moving into our adulthood, or even your moving from baby to infant to teenager to adult... what does that mean in terms of the way that we are relating to people?

But then like a blueprint of anything, our relational blueprint can also be upgraded or downgraded over time. So it's not a fixed... blueprint...

Kia Handley:

it's not a death sentence...

Tara Thomas:

It's not a death sentence, that's right. It's very very possible to change your attachment styles.

And if you think it's the way that your nervous system reacts to different people already in your life; some people make you feel safe, some people make you feel comfortable, and then there are other people who tend to make you feel less comfortable. And so you can see the already your attachment system is responding differently to different people in different contexts. That's a really good example of how dynamic it can be -  it doesn't always respond in the same way and you can influence how you're responding to people differently.

What Are the 4 Attachment Styles?

Image shows quadrant model with x-axis labelled low anxiety to high anxiety, y-axis labelled low avoidance to high avoidance, and each quadrant labelled as per text  in transcription.

Kia Handley:

Let's quickly run through the four attachment styles because there's secure, there's anxious, there's avoidant and then there's like a mix of the two, dismissive.

So let's start with secure because that's where the majority of us fall.  In a nutshell what do we know about secure attachment styles

Tara Thomas:

In a nutshell the interactions that you have with your carer, are going to lead to one of two outcomes: you will either be securely attached, or insecurely attached.

When we talking about secure attachment styles, I think it's easiest to visualise if you think about two dimensions of anxiety and avoidance.

So if you imagine that you have... I don't know if you remember your high school maths... you have the the X-axis which is the horizontal axix, imagine that that's anxiety. At one end you have low anxiety, and then at the other end you have high anxiety.

On the y-axis, the vertical axis, we're talking about avoidance. So at the bottom of that we have low avoidance, and at the top we have high avoidance.

So when you're looking at a child who is securely attached, that means that they had a really consistent parenting that parents were protective and available and responsive and attuned to them. Secure attachment styles means that you have low anxiety in your relationships -  you don't worry about them a lot. You know, you don't go home and worry about ... "what did they say? what does that mean? And are we okay, are we friends?  Do they hate?"

Your anxiety is low, and also your avoidance is low. So that means that you are oriented towards wanting intimacy with people: that's secure attachment in a nutshell.

illustrates secure attachment styles

What are Secure Attachment Styles?

When you're looking at a child who is securely attached, that means that they had a really consistent parenting that parents were protective and available and responsive and attuned to them. Secure attachment styles mean that you have low anxiety in your relationships -  you don't worry about them a lot. You know, you don't go home and worry about ... "what did they say? what does that mean? And are we okay, are we friends?  Do they hate?"

Your anxiety is low, and also your avoidance is low. So that means that you are oriented towards wanting intimacy with people: that's secure attachment in a nutshell.

What are Anxious or Preoccupied Attachment Styles?

Kia Handley:

alright secure too anxious

Tara Thomas:

So, when we look at anxious attachment styles we really talking about about children. Now when you bring those anxious attachment styles into adulthood, we call that preoccupied.

So it's that high level of anxiety, which means that you spend a lot of mental energy thinking about your relationships. Worrying; are we okay? Where is this relationship going? What does that text mean?

Kia Handley:

The word 'needy' is thrown out a lot, for our sweet anxious attachment styles...

Tara Thomas:

The word needy is thrown out a lot... And yeah, you know the word needy is thrown out a lot in the context of anxious attachment styles... when that anxious attachment styles... when that person isn't very resourceful and they kind of not aware of what they're doing.

A more resourceful anxious attachment style... just tends to be preoccupied. You know they're oriented toward relationship and relationship is really important. So they'll often prioritise relationship over self.

I really want to get away from pathologising these styles and making them like;  oh this means that you're...

Kia Handley:

Yeah that's part of the point of talking about it,  is that it doesn't actually mean anything it's just it's a way to turn your logical brain on to maybe some of the things that you're doing illogically, which will get to in a second.

Alright, avoidant?

Tara Thomas:

So let me just quickly cap that one before I move on,  preoccupied attachment styles is low in avoidance which means they are also oriented toward intimacy in the same way that secure attachment styles are.

illustrates anxious attachment styles

What are Avoidant or Dismissive Attachment Styles?

Tara Thomas:

As a child we're calling this avoidant attachment styles, as an adult we're calling it dismissive.

This style has low anxiety, so this is not someone who is particularly concerned about their relationships... Not in the way necessarily that secure attachment styles are not concerned. Secure attachment styles are not concerned because they know we're good. Avoidant or a dismissive attachment styles are not too concerned because they don't really care all that much, they tend to prioritise self over relationship.

This attachment style has low anxiety and high avoidance which means that it is a style of attachment isn't particularly concerned or isn't particularly desirous of intimacy. They find intimacy to be somewhat overwhelming.

So this parenting style that this attachment style was parented by, someone who is... tended to be unavailable, unresponsive, rejecting and not attuned to what the child needs.

But it also can happen in a family that prioritises independence and freedom and achievement and self reliance... so it doesn't... I want to be clear again, a lot of the time attachment styles are spoken about in the context of trauma and that is definitely appropriate, AND just because you know fall on the scale in a preoccupied or dismissive attachment styles that doesn't automatically mean that you had a traumatic childhood.

It doesn't automatically mean that you're.... you don't need to go and re-interpret everything your parents ever said and did. It's just a child's interpretation of their world, where their parents were maybe busy, or their parents didn't maybe respond in the way that they expected.

What are Disorganised or Fearful Attachment Styles?

Kia Handley:

Alright so we've hit secure, anxious, avoidant, and the last one which not many people fall into...is disorganised which is kind of a combination of avoidant and anxious in the one basket... what a blessing!

Tara Thomas:

This is an attachment style called 'disorganised' as a child, and called fearful-avoidant as an adult.

What that means is that the parenting style, could've been frightening or threatening, or it could've just been really... disorienting, you know, unexpected.

I think actually there is a larger percentage of people who do fall into this category, I've read a whole bunch of different statistics... there's not a lot of agreement around this. What I read in a book recently is that actually 20 to 40% of adults do fall into this attachment styles, but what's happening is because they respond BOTH as preoccupied /anxious AND as avoidant/ dismissive depending on the context they might just be testing as one or the other.

That there in a particular relationship making them respond in this way and, and that's that's how it comes across.

These attachment styles are high in avoidance, as well as high in anxiety.

A couple on the couch leaning foreheads against each other and smiling.

What Do You DO Now You Know About Attachment Styles?

Kia Handley:

so you can do....  you can go if you want to work it out there's a heap of free tests that you can do on the on the Internet.... so go and work it out.

But once we know, once we know Tara, how do we handle our knowledge,  in our attachment style going out into the world and then dealing with people. Whether that's dating, in a relationship situation, or whether that's just with friends, colleagues, people that we have to run into down the street?

Tara Thomas:

What attachment styles are going to dictate for you, this is a list that I took from the book by Stan Tatkin (We Do),

  • the amount, the seeking of proximity that you have with your partner
  • your tolerance for periods of physical & emotional contact, like how long can you be with someone
  • it's the way you manage conflict and disagreement
  • how you view reciprocity and mutuality,
  • and how you experience love & eroticism

Your attachment style is going to influence the way that you approach, and also react to your partner in different contexts. So I think the takeaway is to know that sometimes your interpretation of a situation is being guided by your attachment style, and perhaps not grounded in truth...

You know, we say this about everything we speak about in relationships, Kia, you are always responding from your own perspective and emotional context and what's helpful is that once you know your attachment style you can see: Oh!  Here are some patterns of behaviours in of the way that I interact... with either your partner, or someone you're dating, or even family members or friends...

There are some patterns here, and if I'm having issues in my relationships if they're not going well, maybe some of these patterns that are related to my attachment style, are things that I can now be more aware of, and actually start to do differently. And as a result, what that will mean is that you will move toward what we call earned secure attachment.

So that means maybe you know, your attachment style will probably always be at its core how you were parented, but as an adult you can have an earned secure attachment style, and that means you're beginning to interact in much more resourceful ways, and you're not doing those old patterns of just reacting like your partner is your parents.

A couple snug together under a blanket. She has green hair and he has tattoos on his hand and neck.

How Does This Help Express Needs?

Kia Handley:

How does it help us as well express what our needs are too? Because I do feel like it's; well if I'm an anxious attachment style you know there are there are things that I need to help me feel secure. So to be able to verbalise that and say look, what I need is XYZ... that's a great thing to be able to communicate early on in a relationship or dating process.

Tara Thomas:

Absolutely! Such a good question.... let me think of an example.

So it's good to be able to communicate that really early as well because the more that we are meeting someone's needs early, the less it's likely to escalate into high drama, which  it can do.  So it can even be as simple as saying.... you can have the attachment style conversation which I think is super cool that you've had with people

Kia Handley:

I don't have a choice [both laugh]

Tara Thomas:

"Before we go on the first date would you mind completing this short survey...

Kia Handley:

I'm so sorry to all the man of Newcastle who are dating me...because I am a nerd... the end [both laugh]

Tara Thomas:

It's important stuff to know!

It can be a simple as saying; "hey sometimes when you don't reply to my text for three days I feel a little bit anxious about where we're at it would really help me to feel more comfortable with you if you could even just let me know ....  you know, you could say you've got a lot on in the next couple of days I'm gonna call you on Thursday.... so you're so putting in something in the future where you know they're not unavailable because I hate you because something is going wrong for you not gonna get back.

So just communicating that, I think the formula probably is; when you do that, I start to feel this, and it would be really helpful for me if we could do it in a slightly different way.

Kia Handley:

Oh there's so much more I wanted to go into because it is such an interesting observation and I think I want to leave by saying as you said earlier it is not a death sentence it just helps switch on your logical brain to understand a little bit while you're doing some things....

Tara great to just touch the surface of this with you this morning thank you.

Tara Thomas:

My pleasure... I have you know 200 pages of notes for you and if we want to do a part two any day I'm ready [both laugh]

Kia Handley:

Tara Thomas there, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor.