Relationship attachment styles: What do they mean, and why do they matter?
In order to truly understand your partner, it’s important to understand their attachment style, especially when you're early in the process of looking for a partner.
Each person has their own unique attachment style and that can influence their expectations and needs within a relationship.
Understanding your own — as well as your partner's relationship attachment style will grant you a deeper, more thorough understanding of your connection and relationship.
What Is the Attachment Theory?
According to the Gottman Institute, "Attachment theory describes how our early relationships with a primary caregiver, most commonly a parent, creates our expectation for how love should be... Our view of ourselves and others is molded by how well these caregivers were available and responsive to meet our physical and emotional needs. In our adult relationships, our attachment system is triggered by our romantic partners."
In other words, how we were taught to conceptualize ourselves as young people in relation to those who we loved can have an influence on our romantic relationships as adults.
It does not mean that we are destined or bound by these patterns, but they can influence the ways in which we form romantic bonds and relationships throughout our lives.
Having an understanding of our own attachment styles is useful, but developing an understanding of how it complements the attachment style of our partner can be priceless.
What Are Gottman's Attachment Styles?
Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples.
His expertise in relationships has helped millions of people find deeper and more meaningful romantic and sexual relationships.
Dr. Gottman has a series of categories of attachment that can impact the way you relate to your partner as an adult. If, as a child, your caregiver was unresponsive, he theorizes that you can form an insecure attachment pattern. An insecure attachment style manifests in three main ways:
Anxious Attachment: Develops when a caregiver has been inconsistent in their responsiveness and availability, confusing the child about what to expect. As an adult, this person acts clingy at times and finds it difficult to trust their partner.
Avoidant Attachment: Develops when a caregiver is neglectful. These are the children that play by themselves and develop the belief that no one is there to meet their needs. As adults, they typically label themselves as very independent.
- Disorganized Attachment: Develops from abuse, trauma, or chaos in the home. A child learns to fear the caregiver and has no real “secure base.”
While these attachment styles can be detrimental in how you connect to your partner as an adult, they do not need to define your relationship.
Alternatively, a secure attachment is not plagued by these troubles — it is one marked by the freedom to be an individual within a relationship, confidence in one's independence and interests, and the ability to ask for one's desires and needs within a relationship.
Discovering Your & Your Partner's Attachment Style
If you're not sure about what your specific relationship attachment style might be, there are some quizzes that you can easily take to examine it further:
- Relationship Quiz: How Well Do You Know Your Partner? from The Gottman Institute.
- Attachment Style Quiz from The Attachment Project.
While these kinds of online tests are not the equivalent of feedback from a trained psychological professional, they may help you and your partner begin to explore the different types and styles of attachment.
When you can identify your varying (or similar!) styles of attachment, you can begin to discover the ways in which your relationship can bring a deeper level of connection, commitment and security to one another. With a more in-depth understanding of both partners' backgrounds and needs within an intimate relationship, you're empowered to act with more empathy, compassion and understanding. Whether that shows up in date night plans, the bedroom or what movie you pick on a Friday night, understanding and caring are priceless within the context of a loving relationship.
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
Short answer? Yes and no.
Our individual attachment style is deeply influenced by the people who raise us, and that's not a factor we can go back to influence.
However, we do have power over developing our own sense of self and confidence, which can help move us closer to a state of secure attachment.
Ways to do this include:
- Developing self-confidence through positive self-talk.
- Trying new (safe) activities outside your comfort zone.
- Improving your physical fitness and well-being.
- Improving your psychological well-being (via meditation, therapy or other means).
- Giving back to your community (via volunteering, donations, etc.).
These activities can contribute to your own sense of self-worth, and also help you enter into relationships with other people guided by the best version of yourself; not the part of you acting from past insecurity or pain.
Attachment Style and Sex
Your (or your partner's) attachment style can have an impact on your sex life. Anxiety, insecurity or past attachment-based trauma can influence the way that adults are able to connect within a relationship.
The best way to address, explore and manage these differences is through open and honest communication.
Suppose you're able to talk to your partner about your past, anxieties, hopes, and most essential elements of your relationship. In that case, these past influences will be more easily navigated. Almost everyone has had challenges in past relationships — honesty and openness help everyone build healthy connections in the present moment.
Of course, if there are issues surrounding trauma, or things from your past that you're unable to resolve on your own, there is no shame in seeking the professional support of a counselor.
Trained mental health professionals can help you (and your partner) navigate the challenges posed by issues stemming from your background. These challenges are never your fault — and they never indicate that you are not worthy or deserving of a loving, fulfilling and healthy sexual relationship.
According to Gottman's Theory of Attachment, your individual attachment style is influenced by the relationships that you had and witnessed when you were growing up. As an adult, he theorizes, your relationships are likely to mirror the patterns you saw as a child. These patterns can range from insecure to totally secure, and each comes with unique challenges.
However, he proposes that with work and dedication to understanding your own unique strengths, personality and totally-valid desires in a relationship, you can learn to develop healthy and positive attachments that bring richness and joy to your life.
Take a Look --
Your Attachment Style Influences the Success of Your Relationship. (February 2017). The Gottman Institute.
Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. (1987). American Psychological Association.
Relationship Quiz: How Well Do You Know Your Partner?. (2021). The Gottman Institute.
Attachment Style Quiz. (2021). The Attachment Project.
How To Rewire Your Brain To Have A Secure Attachment Style. (March 2020). Mind Body Green.
Sex and Attachment Styles: What You Need to Know. (March 2020). Psychology Today.