Do "attachment styles" really matter in relationships?

Like love languages and zodiac signs, attachment style is the new pop psychology fad for determining compatibility

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 13, 2022 2:00PM (EST)

Silhouette Couple Holding Hands During Sunset (Getty Images / Siam Pukkato / EyeEm)
Silhouette Couple Holding Hands During Sunset (Getty Images / Siam Pukkato / EyeEm)

American singles have no shortage of rubrics they can turn to for determining romantic compatibility. Some of these are more grounded in folk wisdom than others — say, zodiac sign versus Myers-Briggs type — while others are purported to based in psychology, such as enneagram type or love language. Recently, Americans have been obsessed with attachment styles — the idea that there are four "patterns" of attachment, and that these can help determine both the success of a relationship as well as how to communicate with one's partner.

Unlike the mysticism of zodiac signs, the idea of a person's attachment style is rooted in psychology theory. Indeed, attachment theory is taught in psychology programs and taken seriously by psychologists and psychoanalysts alike.

It's all well and good that psychologists think about these things. But how much do they really apply to the average person looking for love? Indeed, are attachment signs really meaningful at all in terms of determining compatibility? Or are they, like love languages, a pop psychology fad that's more fun than serious?

The theory of attachment has its roots in psychoanalysis. Attachment theory was first developed by a British psychoanalyst named John Bowlby who was attempting to understand what infants experience when they are separated from their parents. Bowlby's theory suggests that babies come into the world biologically programmed to form an attachment with their caregiver. As such an attachment helps them to survive, Bowlby theorized, any disruption to a secure attachment can have severe consequences. Bowlby further suggests that a baby's attachment style established with their caregivers essentially becomes a prototype for all future relationships — including romantic ones.

RELATED: Are "love languages" real, or self-help snake oil?

Adding to Bowlby's research, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth introduced the concept of caregivers being the "secure base" for infants, and determined there were four patterns of attachment: secure, anxious-ambivalent, disorganized and avoidant. The theory was popularized by researchers, but the idea of attachment styles really took off as it applied to adult love when the pop psychology book "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love," was published in 2010. That bestselling book was written by Dr. Amir Levine, a clinical psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, and psychologist Rachel Heller.

Attachment theory states that if a person has a secure attachment style, they are able to form secure, loving relationships with others. Such people are not afraid of intimacy, and do not feel afraid or panicked when a partner needs space. According to foundational attachment research done by social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver in the 1980s, 56 percent of people have secure attachment.

But the theory posits other attachment "styles" besides secure, too. Those who have an anxious attachment style supposedly have a deep fear of abandonment. This can manifest when, say, a partner doesn't text back fast enough. In theory, an anxious attachment's caregiver was unpredictable with love and affection, perhaps also not present entirely.

Someone with avoidant attachment is said to have a deep fear of intimacy, and therefore has a pattern of distancing themselves from a romantic partner when the relationship becomes too intimate. This person's caregiver was usually dismissive and distant.

Finally, disorganized attachment is when a person has a combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. According to the attachment style theory, people with this attachment style may have been neglected or abused as children.

In the psychology world, the theory has something to say about compatibility. Supposedly it is difficult for an avoidant person to have another relationship with another avoidant person; likewise, an anxious person and an avoidant person are likely to have a messy relationship.

Yet differing attachment styles do not necessarily doom relationships. Indeed, couples therapists tell Salon nearly any combination of attachment styles is possible, though there are some caveats. Plus, it is possible for attachment styles to change. 

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"What's most valuable about attachment styles is being able to recognize them in ourselves, not necessarily in our partners, and to be conscious of when our attachment style is being activated so that we may be thoughtful and intentional about the choices we make," said Saba Lurie, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. "When we aren't in tune with our attachment styles and something happens to activate or trigger a response from that place, it can be really harmful and disruptive to relationships— as long as we are conscientious and thoughtful there's room for relationships to develop and for us to become more secure in our attachment styles."

Indeed, in the aforementioned book "Attached," the authors note that even if someone possesses an insecure attachment style, it doesn't mean that they are doomed for love and can't forge healthy relationships. The idea is that with a conscious effort, a person can become more secure — or go from being secure to anxious.

"We can also do the opposite and start secure, but due to a rupture of trauma in the relationship we may in turn shift towards an anxious attachment," said Nikki Nolet, LMFT and founder of Relationships Redefined. "This is based mostly on the safety and connective experiences we have with our partners."

In other words, a person's attachment style — which is supposedly influenced by a person's relationship with their caregivers at a young age — isn't a done deal as an adult. Like personalities, they can evolve throughout a person's life.

"To change your style to be more secure, seek therapy as well as relationships with others who are capable of a secure attachment," Nolet siad. "If you have an anxious attachment style, you will feel more stable in a committed relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style."

Does this mean that attachment styles are irrelevant? Not entirely. But there is a danger to over-identifying with one's attachment style, experts say.

"People have a tendency to over-identify with just about anything — their attachment styles, their astrological sign, their alma mater; it only becomes problematic when it begins to limit the ways we engage with others and the world around us," Lurie said. "If you are so fixated on your attachment style and it's compatibility with someone else's that it prevents you from being able to have a meaningful relationship with that someone, then it might be time to take a step back and recognize that while our attachment styles are helpful guidelines, they're just that."

Lurie emphasized attachment styles don't "determine who we are as people or even necessarily how we'll react in every situation."

"Our attachment styles are plastic, and there's always room for us to change and develop in our relationships," Lurie said.

Psychologist Alexander Burgemeeste agreed.

"It is possible that people identify too much with their attachment style in a relationship, but perhaps more awareness of these attachment styles could be beneficial for relationships," Burgemeeste said. "Identifying your own attachment style can allow you to challenge toxic or negative behavior in order to change the direction of your relationship in a good way."

However, sometimes, identifying with an attachment style too much can be used as an excuse for why there are "existing issues" and thus ending the relationship, explained Omar A. Ruiz, LMFT and founder of TalkThinkThrive.

"However, if they are unwilling to make any necessary changes, then identifying with their attachment style has no real world value other than a conversational piece," Ruiz said. "It's more effective to schedule a session with a couples therapist to discuss how to achieve a secure attachment style within one's relationship."

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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