Why do we behave the way we do in romantic relationships? It’s a complicated question, but figuring out our attachment style ― the way we relate to others in intimate relationships ― may help shed some light.
In the 1980s, psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver began looking at how attachment theory ― a model that was first applied to infant-caregiver relationships ― could also apply to adult romantic relationships. They determined that the three categories used to describe a child’s bond with a parent ― secure, anxious and avoidant ― pertains to romantic relationships as well.
To figure out your romantic attachment style, which is based on how comfortable you are with intimacy and how anxious you are about the relationship overall, take this short test developed by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, authors of the 2010 book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love. (There’s also a more in-depth test developed by psychologist R. Chris Fraley if you’re interested in exploring the topic further.)
Below, relationship experts give us an overview of the three attachment styles as they apply to romantic relationships. Hopefully, these insights will help you better understand your own relationship patterns and attitudes so you can find greater satisfaction in your love life.
Secure Attachment Style
The majority of the population ― around 55 percent ― has a secure attachment style. These folks make quality partners and tend to be more satisfied in their romantic relationships. They’re generally warm and loving and enjoy closeness and intimacy without worrying too much about the status of the relationship. They are able to open up to their partners about what’s on their mind; when their significant other is struggling, they offer support and understanding.
“They don’t play games and they directly communicate,” marriage and family therapist Marni Feuerman told HuffPost. “They generally have a good overall view of love and intimacy, which allows them to risk getting close to someone, even if they end up getting hurt in the end.”
Attached co-author Levine calls securely attached partners “the silent majority” because they may not be as vocal about their relationships as those with other attachment styles.
“People with a secure attachment style get into a relationship, and they’re happy,” he said. “There’s not much drama, so you don’t hear about it. We tend to hear about the drama. So we think that’s more of a representation of what’s going on.”
Anxious Attachment Style
Like the securely attached, those with an anxious attachment style also enjoy being close and intimate with a partner. The difference? They are hyper-sensitive to the smallest changes in their partner’s mood or behavior and have a tendency to take these fluctuations personally. So when their partner asks to reschedule date night, a person with an anxious attachment style might wonder if it’s secretly because of something they did to upset or annoy their S.O.
“They are generally called ‘insecure’ by their partners,” Feuerman said. “They are often seen as needy and high-maintenance emotionally, as they require a lot of reassurance that they are loved and that the relationship is okay.”
Avoidant Attachment Style
Partners with an avoidant attachment style value their independence over their romantic bonds and are reluctant to depend too much on their partner. They usually feel uncomfortable with too much closeness in a relationship ― emotional or physical ― and may try to create distance in any number of ways: by not responding to calls and texts, prioritizing work or hobbies over their partner or fixating on their partner’s flaws instead of his or her good qualities.
“They tend to check out other people more,” Levine said. “A lot of their attention is split outwards out of the relationship. And there’s more hostility in the relationship.”
Some in the field break down avoidant into two subcategories: dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. Those with a dismissive-avoidant style are able to detach from a partner and suppress difficult emotions with relative ease. A person with a fearful-avoidant style, on the other hand, has conflicting desires: They want emotional closeness but trust issues and/or a fear or rejection often get in the way of intimacy.
“People with a dismissive-avoidant style may think feelings aren’t important and relying on others is a sign of weakness. They often dismiss the emotional needs of their partner,” Feuerman said. “People with a fearful-avoidant style have mixed feelings about inter-dependency and intimacy. They both desire it and fear it at the same time. Sometimes they may act needy, while other times avoidant. They will often send a lot of mixed signals to their partners.”
So, can you change your attachment style?
If you don’t have a secure attachment style in your romantic relationships but aspire to have one, rest assured that things are not entirely set in stone.
According to Levine, what’s not likely to change from one partnership to the next is how sensitive we are to potential relationship threats ― or, in other words, our “radar system,” as he calls it. However, if the system isn’t triggered in the first place, our reactions to such threats will be less frequent and less intense, and thus our behavior and attitudes may slowly shift, too. The best way to get there, Levine says, is to enter into a relationship with someone who’s already secure.
“It’s like having a relationship coach built into the relationship,” he said. “They’re so good at it, they walk you through a lot of potential pitfalls and teach you to become more secure.”
In other words, if you have an anxious style but your secure partner offers lots of love and reassurance, you’re less likely to be preoccupied with where you stand in the relationship. If you have an avoidant style but you’re with a secure partner who allows you space and independence, you probably won’t feel the need to push them away.
And know that no one relationship in your life ― be it with your mom, your dad, your college boyfriend or your most recent girlfriend ― is the sole influence on your present attachment style.
“A lot of other people [besides our caregiver] influence us too. We’re so malleable. We’re highly social creatures,” Levine said. “The working model has a bias and tendency to see what it’s used to seeing. But if you meet something that’s contrary to your beliefs, and if you meet it long enough, you will change.”