Have you ever noticed you are dating the same kind of person over and over again?

This might not be your imagination or coincidence. It could be Attachment Theory at work, which says we each have a specific attachment style.

Attachment Style: Our tendencies and patterns of how we connect to the people in our lives.

We connect to the people around us. We attach to parents, partners, kids, and friends. Research has found we typically have an attachment style–we connect with people in the same pattern over and over again.

Our attachment style can be a scary predictor of our relationship success. Our patterns of attachment typically are set in childhood and tend to follow us around wherever we go.

#1: Your Parents

I hate to say it, but your parents have a pretty big hand in how you relate to, pick, and connect with your romantic partners. This all started with a fascinating experiment done in the 1960s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby and Ainsworth put children and parents through what’s called the “Strange Situation” test.

The Strange Situation:

Imagine that as a child you were put into a big room. Your mom comes in. Your mom does not participate in your exploration of the room. A stranger comes in the room, talks to your mom, and then approaches you. Your mom quietly exits the room.

How do you react?

Finally your mom returns.

During this exercise, researchers are observing these behaviors:

  • How the child explores the room and plays with new toys throughout the experience.
  • What the child does when their parent disappears.
  • How the child reacts when alone with a stranger.
  • What the child does when the parent returns.

Based on how the child reacts, they were placed into four categories representing their ‘attachment’ to their parent. These are the 4 attachment styles. Researchers believe you keep these attachment styles throughout your life and repeat them with partners, kids, and friends.

#2: Which Attachment Style Are You?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an adult, and I probably can’t accurately do the Strange Situation test with you. However, you can take a test to see what attachment style you are: 

#3: The 4 Attachment Styles

Dr. Phillip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan took the parent-child research and applied it to romantic relationships. Here is an explanation of each style and what percentage of the population displays it.

Secure Attachment (62%): Securely attached people tend to be less anxious and more satisfied with their relationships. The children who were securely attached were happy to explore and bring toys back to the parent. In other words, their parent was a kind of base they could explore around and come back to. Securely attached people have an easy time forming connections and have less doubt about the equality of the relationship. They also have an easier time reaching out for comfort.

Anxious Attachment (15%): People who anxiously attach tend to worry more about their relationships. They are said to experience an ’emotional hunger’ and are desperate for a fantasy type of love. Unlike securely attached people, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond of ideal love–even when this might not be possible or reciprocated. They tend to look for a partner who can rescue them or ‘complete’ them. Unfortunately, their desperation sometimes can push away the exact person they want closeness with. When they are afraid of losing their partner, they can become clingy, possessive, paranoid, or need constant attention.

Avoidant Attachment (23%): Avoidant attachers tend to be emotionally distant from their partners. Avoidant attachers take pride in their independence and can see attachment as weakness. They like to process emotions on their own and don’t like to share vulnerabilities with anyone else. Unfortunately, they tend to pull away when they need help most. They are not as attentive as their partners because they worry they will become too co-dependent, and this will take away their independence. They also can shut down emotionally during arguments or close themselves off from feelings.

Fearful Attachment (1-5%): This also is called ‘disoriented’ or ‘disorganized’ attachment. These children seemed to volley between desperately needing their parent and pushing them away. People with this kind of attachment live in an ambivalent mindset where they swing from being afraid of connection to overanalyzing the equality or depth of their relationships. They tend to get overwhelmed easily and have unpredictable moods. At one moment they can smother their partner, and at the next they can disappear for a day or two without explanation.

#4: Earned Secure

You are not doomed to your attachment style. Awareness is the first (and most important) step. What are your patterns? Do you tend to pull away or smother? Being honest with yourself and your partner is crucial. Second, it’s important to treat your relationship as a foundation and develop it as a secure base. Researchers say people who change their attachment style are forming an “earned secure attachment.” This means:

  • Avoiding rocking relationships. Frequent break-ups, fights, or roller coaster emotions will destroy your chances at moving to a secure style.
  • Believing in growth. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship or perfect partner. The more we understand that we can grow into deeper and deeper love, the more energy we put into a relationship (instead of doubting it or dismissing it).
  • Seeking secure partners. If you are looking for your ideal partner, it is important to think about how they attach. Anxious and Avoidant attachers can seek out secure attachers to become more secure themselves.

#5: The Secure Base

Your relationship can be a home base, a touchstone, a foundation for you. In the right relationship, you seek out a satisfying and loving mutual connection. I found this study on attachment styles particularly interesting:

It’s not that secure people don’t need support, it’s that they ask for it.

One study by Victor Florian found that secure people perceive higher levels of emotional and instrumental support from their partners. In other words, secure people actually seek out the support they need. They seek out:

  • Emotional Support: Desiring comfort and care
  • Instrumental Support: Seeking resources, help and problem-solving ideas

The question is, do you seek support when you need it?

This can be an easy way to start ‘seeking’ your emotionally secure base.

Remember, there is no judgment around attachment styles. Your style was set in motion in your early years and, as an adult, you learn to cope and build upon it. If you are secure, help the people around you to count on you. If you are anxious, avoidant or fearful, seek out your bases and tell them what you need.

Want more of our relationship tips?

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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