These days, we hear more about attachment styles in relationships than ever. Attachment theory was developed by a British psychologist named John Bowlby in 1958. He proposed that the initial bonds we form with our primary caregivers (such as our parents) when we are children go on to impact our relationships in adulthood.
If our primary caregiver is consistently responsive to our needs, we develop a secure attachment style. If our caregiver is inconsistent, absent or aloof we may develop insecure attachments. These are categorised as avoidant, ambivalent (anxious) and disorganised.
Bowlby’s theories have since been applied to adult relationships, notably by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Amir Levine and the psychologist Rachel Heller in their bestselling book Attached, a guide to using attachment theory to find love. By identifying your own attachment style and that of your partner or potential partner, Levine and Heller argue, you can build stronger, more fulfilling relationships.
I have read about attachment theory with great interest. Why? Because fear has been a consistent presence in my relationships. When I’m supposed to enjoy falling for someone, my brain goes into panic mode. I start over-analysing their behaviour: why did they take so long to reply? Is it because they don’t like me? I wouldn’t blame them. Can’t be too keen, or they will reject me. Why does my coldness not bother them as theirs bothers me? It’s because they are too good for me. I mean, look at me. I’m a nervous mess. Who could love me?
As someone who values their life outside of relationships, I resent how fixated I become on them when I’m in one. I’ve also internalised the misogynistic narrative that men are “repulsed” by so-called “clingy” women and learned to suppress my desire for emotional intimacy until it bursts out of me. When that happens, I berate myself for being “needy” and continue the vicious cycle.
However, things changed with my last partner. They challenged my negative thought patterns and were willing to have difficult conversations. They made me feel supported and worthy of healthy love. However, during a period of awful mental health, my overly attached behaviours reappeared. I had put this person on a pedestal, so I relied on them to ‘fix’ me. Obviously, they couldn’t. Nobody can fix you, that’s work we have to do ourselves.
Sadly, my partner and I broke up. Through talking therapy, support from loved ones and self-reflection, I didn’t spiral. Something clicked. I realised that I wasn’t “unloveable”. Instead, I’d had a partner who just couldn’t match my needs. This was a liberating realisation.
Given that human relationships are the thing we all have in common, it will come as no surprise that attachment theory is a popular subject on social media. On TikTok, where the majority of users are women aged 16-24, #attachementstyle has over 162 million views and #anxiousattachmentstyle has more than 23 million. Videos under the latter describe signs and share advice on how to develop a more secure dating style.
Similarly, the subject is huge on Reddit. I asked one Reddit group whether they thought someone with an anxious attachment style could change while writing this article. “I’m not sure if anxiousness ever fully goes away,” replied one woman. “However, I’ve learnt that healthy love isn’t obsessing over someone, so hopefully I won’t freak out if my future partner doesn’t give me their full attention.”
Elsewhere in the subreddit, women with an anxious attachment style discuss how it felt to be with someone they describe as avoidant. It’s a dynamic that’s repeated over and over in TV and film: insecure woman pines over emotionally unavailable man. But what is really happening here?
The attachment theory framework is undeniably helpful in understanding our behaviours in relationships but there’s something rather bleak about the idea that our behaviors are immovable. That we are condemned to repeat the same patterns for time immemorial. Moving forward, I wanted to know whether I could change my attachment style?
Indeed, research that people who want to become less anxious can, in time, experience less attachment anxiety. Dr Akua K. Boateng, is a licensed psychotherapist based in Philadelphia. She explains that humans come out of the womb “primed to connect with one another”. If the security you receive is sporadic, you learn to adapt. It’s survival.
“Avoidants run from the distress, while anxious people run towards it,” she tells me. “Ironically, if they then receive that connection, it’s still hard to settle the fear that this is unstable. This can present in so-called clingy behaviour.”
People with anxious attachment don’t like feeling insecure. A recent study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people with anxious attachment are more likely to form parasocial (meaning one-sided) relationships. This term was initially coined to describe the way that people developed relationships with their favourite fictional characters on TV in the 1950s. The more recent study’s authors suggest that this sort of attachment is soothing to the anxiously attached, who can enjoy the warmth and attention they crave without fearing rejection.
We now understand more than ever about how we develop these behaviours but it can also be limiting. Laura Holliday, a 26-year-old freelancer living in London, told me that some of her male partners have seen her anxious attachment style as an inherent part of womanhood. Can that really be the case?
“There’s a socialisation element to it,” Dr Boateng explains. “A woman’s emotional expression is often categorised as anxious-attachment.” And therein lies the rub: this is chicken and egg. We still live in a world where women are undermined and chastised for communicating their feelings. So, we need to be careful when categorising asking for something within a relationship as “needy” or “anxious”.
In any case, people who were socialised as men can be anxiously attached, just as those socialised as women can be avoidant. This doesn’t mean women are naturally more insecure, but rather that they are affected by heteronormative social conditioning. Traditionally, men are taught that they don’t need anybody, so they view neediness as a feminine (and in turn, weak) trait. Conversely, women are taught that a man’s approval is the ultimate sign of their worth. These stereotypes may shape how we approach relationships.
You need to understand and forgive yourself for how you learned to attach. This will give you the psychological steadiness to not be threatened all the time, and to trust your intuition.
Dr Akua K. Boateng, psychotherapist
The impact of stereotyping can mean that we have difficulty addressing what’s in front of us. Georgina Crothers, a 24-year-old masters student, has been with her partner for four years. When she met him, she was expecting a male partner to be more “in control” and “confident” than her.
“When my partner wasn’t those things it made me worry,” she explains. “I began thinking ‘he’s going to find someone who’s smarter and more confident and he’ll realise how much better they are’. He was such a nice person that I couldn’t accept that for myself.”
Through therapy, Georgina learned to relax. “Being in a faithful, trusting relationship became proof that I am good enough, and that men aren’t always thinking about the next best thing,” she said.
Similarly, when Laura ended her five-year relationship, she realised she was drawn to emotionally unavailable partners. “On dating apps, I was put off by people who sent loads of messages, while those who messaged sporadically held my attention for longer,” she reflects. To break this pattern, Laura is now setting boundaries to avoid getting invested too quickly and to filter out people who don’t respond well to open communication.
It seems counter-intuitive that anxiously-attached women who crave closeness would pursue people who aren’t giving them that but, according to attachment theory, it makes perfect sense. “We cling to what is familiar,” Dr Boateng explains. “When navigating love, we subconsciously want to recreate the dynamic that feels like home.”
Learning to trust safe relationships rather than the turbulence we are used to is key. While being treated badly can trigger insecure attachment styles, a healthy relationship can have the opposite effect. Mariana, a 25-year-old trainee coder, is prone to overthinking. “If someone is distant, I automatically think I’ve done something wrong,” they explain. “This fear was exacerbated when my ex wasn’t vocalising his feelings, or able to give me the reassurance I needed.” Mariana is now in a secure relationship, which has helped them calm their anxious thoughts and feel more confident.
That being said, it’s understandable that fearful thoughts can resurface following a breakup or within bad relationships. “You need to understand and forgive yourself for how you learned to attach. This will give you the psychological steadiness to not be threatened all the time, and to trust your intuition,” Dr Boateng says. “Women especially stop trusting their feelings when they’ve repeatedly heard ‘you’re doing too much, you’re hysterical.’ Trusting your gut will help you to recognise what healthy relationships are, so they stop feeling so unfamiliar.”
Once you’ve explored the deep stuff, you need to develop coping strategies. As Dr Boateng explains: while the brain rationalises, the body remembers. Meaning you may still have physiological reactions to relationship distress, even if you think differently. To build up emotional tolerance she suggests having a ‘process partner’ (a friend) to talk through anxious thoughts and trying meditation, grounding and breathwork exercises.
So, can an attachment style be changed? Not overnight. Technically, we can’t fundamentally change our attachment style since it was formed in childhood. What we can do is notice when deep-rooted fears are triggered and take a breath. You might still panic, but you can stop letting it control your behaviour through learning self-respect and compassion.
As Laura reflects: “When you feel worthy of love, you question why you thought someone would leave. Equally, if they do leave, that’s ok. Relationships serve different purposes throughout our lives. We don’t have to hold on to something just because we fear not having it.”
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