How to understand your attachment style and improve your relationships

Attachment styles are a new way for people to define how they handle romantic relationships, but could it be negatively impacting the way we date? We asked a clinical psychologist to explain how we can understand our attachment style better and use it to get the best out of our relationships. 

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Discovering what our attachment style is has become increasingly popular in recent years, as we find different ways to navigate our relationships. Attachment styles are a new way people are defining the way they handle romantic relationships based on the connections they experienced growing up. 

There are four different types of attachment styles, which can all give insights into why we might behave a certain way when it comes to dating or finding love. However, while knowing our attachment style can be useful, it’s important to understand it properly so it doesn’t get in the way of forming bonds with other people. 

“Attachment style is literally a relational blueprint,”says Dr Sophie Mort, better known as Dr Soph, a clinical psychologist and the author of A Manual For Being Human. “The bonds that we have early in life with our caregivers and the people around us earliest on form a blueprint of how we understand relationships going forward.” 

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“Attachment styles define what you expect other people to do in response to you; how you expect them to treat you and how you stay emotionally safe and connected in your relationship,” Dr Soph continues. “Your attachment style often really only affects you in quite intimate or anxiety-provoking scenarios and dating tends to be the relationship that is most intimate and causes the most stress, so this is where attachment styles are most relevant.”

You don’t necessarily need to psychoanalyse yourself or your family in order to understand what attachment style you are and why. All you need to do is identify which one you relate to and understand what you can do to make sure it supports, rather than negatively impacts, your relationships. 

Here’s Dr Soph’s guide to figuring out what your attachment style is and managing it so you can get the best out of your relationships.

Attachment style is literally a relational blueprint

What are the different attachment styles?

Secure

“This is the attachment style I think most people wish they had and roughly 50% of the population does have a secure attachment style,” says Dr Soph.

She explains that people develop this attachment style when they have caregivers or people around them early on in life that met their emotional needs. 

“Someone with a secure attachment style generally doesn’t feel anxious in a new relationship. They tend to believe they are deserving of love and affection and that they can trust others to be there for them,” explains Dr Soph.

Avoidant

“Avoidant attachment styles describe someone who learned early on that at least one person in their life consistently missed their needs. They learnt that if they expressed their emotional needs people won’t be there for them,” Dr Soph says.

“An avoidant person will absolutely want to connect with people but should people get emotionally close to them, their brain protects them from a fear that the person won’t be there for them by shutting down and holding that person at arm’s length.” 

Anxious

“Someone with an anxious attachment style has learned early on that people would intermittently be there for them. For example, a caregiver might have been absolutely attuned with their needs at one moment, but then have disappeared the next moment, or required the child to be their emotional support crutch in a way that was overwhelming,” Dr Soph explains.

“These adults start initiating contact as often as possible, knowing that at some point they’ll get what they need. They might call themselves needy because when the new seeds of a relationship form they’re excited and give it attention. As the other person moves away, they give the relationship even more attention.”

Disorganised

“The disorganised attachment style develops because a child tried both the avoidant and anxious attachment style and neither worked,” Dr Soph says.

“This person might crave attention but be absolutely terrified of it happening.” 

How to figure out what your attachment style is

Dr Soph recommends asking yourself:

1. Do you believe people, particularly the people you date, can be there for you and support you in a way that feels good?
A) Yes
B) No
C) Sometimes

2. Do you often feel attracted to people you meet?
A) Sometimes
B) I rarely ever find people I am attracted to
C) Often, I have high hopes for many people

3. When people get emotionally close to you, do you shut down and pull away or do you lean in offering more and more attention?
A) Neither. I like to go with the flow and keep things steady
B) I mostly shut down and pull away
C) Leaning in is my thing

4. Are you self-reliant or do you usually put your partner’s needs first?
A) Neither – it’s give and take
B) I rely on myself and no one else
C) It’s all about them – if they need something, I can meet that need

5. Have you ever been told you are needy or cold while dating?
A) Neither
B) High walls and cold as ice
C) People always say I am needy and, even when they don’t say it, I believe they are thinking it

If you mostly answered As you probably have a secure attachment style.

If you mostly answered Bs you probably have an avoidant attachment style.

If you mostly answered Cs you probably have an anxious attachment style. 

It’s useful to know your attachment style, but it’s even more important to recognise when it’s changing

Dr Soph’s advice for managing your attachment style

Know that you are normal

“Stop beating yourself up if you feel like there’s something wrong with you,” Dr Soph advises. “Often, people with anxious attachment styles feel embarrassed or that there’s something wrong with them, but the reason you feel the way you do is because you were very good at adapting as a child.”

Think about people you know in secure relationships

“Write a list of friends, colleagues or family members who seem like they’re in a secure relationship. Think about the specific things they’ve said or done which make you and others feel calm and safe around them and write down a concrete set of actions you can take,” Dr Soph advises.

“Think about the techniques you’ve developed as part of your attachment style and the things other people do instead,” she adds.

Learn to communicate your needs

“With an anxious attachment style, to feel safe and secure you might simply need to know that the other person cares about you, so learn to communicate that need,” Dr Soph says. “If you need someone to text you more, tell them you need them to text you more.”

“If you have an avoidant attachment style, you need to communicate how you feel and tell people how they can help you with this,” she continues. “For example, say something like: ‘I can feel quite overwhelmed when I feel emotionally close to someone. Sometimes, I just need a few days on my own to reset.’”

Seek out securely attached people

“Insecurely attached people tend to gravitate towards each other. So, often an anxiously attached person will find an avoidantly attached person,” says Dr Soph. “It feels great at first but it becomes a vicious circle where the avoidant person is totally shut down and the anxious person is really overwhelmed.”

“If you’re in this anxious-avoidant cycle, it’s crucial to get good at communicating to find a way that works for the two of you,” she advises. “Or seek out securely attached people with whom you won’t end up in this cycle.” 

Do an attachment style quiz with any new partners

“I’ve seen a lot of people doing attachment style quizzes together when they start dating, which can be so helpful when it comes to setting boundaries and building good communication in a relationship,” says Dr Soph.

“However, attachment styles are not fixed so if you have an avoidant attachment style but you date someone who has an attachment style that is even more avoidant than yours, you might start to develop an anxious attachment style,” she explains. “It’s useful to know your attachment style, but it’s even more important to recognise when it’s changing so you know how to communicate with your partner accordingly.”

Don’t worry if you feel your attachment style kicking in

“Even if you’ve managed to over-ride your attachment style, your brain will still use it as a coping skill during times of distress,” Dr Soph says.

“On occasion, these old ways will come up but that only has to be temporary, so long as when you notice them coming up, you start to practice the healthier communication techniques you’ve learnt,” she advises. 

Dr Soph is the author of A Manual for Being Human (£14.99, Gallery Books) out July 8th. Find more expert-led guides and how-tos at Stylist.co.uk

Images: Emily Hlavac Green, Getty

  • Dr Soph, clinical psychologist and author

    Dr Soph is the author of A Manual for Being Human

    Dr Soph is a clinical psychologist aiming to make psychology as accessible as possible. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology, a masters in neuroscience, a doctorate in clinical psychology and has worked on the frontline at London’s Homerton Hospital. She shares her psychological knowledge on Instagram, her blog and through her online private practice. She is also an expert for the mindfulness app Happy Not Perfect. 

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