Have you ever noticed how some people tend to be constantly afraid that their partners will leave them, or that others seem content to pursue a string of short-term romantic connections? These patterns and more can be chalked up to different attachment styles. Attachment theory has been around for a long time, but has become all the rage in recent years among couples (and individuals) seeking to better understand why they do what they do in relationships.
There are 3 insecure attachment styles and 1 secure attachment style, and researchers can’t quite seem to agree on how many of us are securely attached–estimates range from about 50% (Birch, 2018) to 66% (The Attachment Project, 2020). Knowing your and your partner’s attachment styles can be extremely empowering because it gives you the tools and vocabulary to understand the dynamics at play beneath the surface of your relationship, and the awareness to make adjustments in service of your relationship. If you already are or are planning to become a parent, an understanding of attachment styles is even more important. For better or for worse, your attachment style will inevitably impact your parenting style. Below we’re going to explore the 4 attachment styles + how they show up in parenthood.
In adulthood, securely attached people are “CARRP” in relationships: consistent, available, reliable, responsive, and predictable. They don’t routinely leave you on read just because they want to create distance. They also don’t assume you’ve left them for someone else or secretly hate them every time you’re 10 minutes late getting home. They make time to do things together, and they respond empathically to their partner’s relationship needs. During the dating phase, they are adept at striking a balance with how much personal information they share about themselves; they neither share too much nor make themselves completely emotionally unavailable (Birch, 2018).
Most people with naturally secure attachment likely experienced functional family dynamics in childhood. For these folks, both caregivers or at the very least, one adult (Divecha, 2017) likely…
- Was physically present and highly involved when they were growing up
- Gave them sufficient space (without smothering) to explore their interests and self as an individual
- Was attentive, attuned, and responsive to their physical and emotional needs
- Provided multiple opportunities for self-enhancement and discovery, as well as socialization with peers (summer camps, music lessons, sports, art classes, sleepovers, etc.)
- Created a safe space for expressing and talking about emotions
- Comforted them when distressed and made them feel safe from threats
- Showed genuine interest and delight in the child’s personality and way of being (TAP, 2022).
If you have a naturally secure attachment style, it’s likely that as a parent, you will model the same behavior your parents modeled for you: You will respond to your child’s needs, validate them and create lots of opportunities for growth and development in their interest areas, provide them with a sense of safety and comfort when necessary, and be attuned enough to their emotional states to give them space when appropriate and be physically and/or emotionally close when appropriate.
Of course, no parent is attuned to their child 24/7; this would be inhuman and impossible. The key is to be attuned and appropriately responsive most of the time (Firestone, 2015).
The anxious-preoccupied among us are the worriers. These are the folks who, in adult relationships, are likely to fear abandonment and ask for a lot of reassurance (sometimes so much that their partners cannot possibly fulfill their continuous need for attention). Their brains may naturally jump to the worst possible explanation for anything out-of-the-ordinary in relationships, and their partners may complain that they’re clingy. They are also more likely than other types to suffer from low self-esteem. On the bright side, they can make very affectionate and supportive partners.
The parents of anxious preoccupied adults likely…
- Were inconsistent in their attitudes and behavior towards their child. They may have oscillated between support and distance.
Experienced what’s known as ‘emotional hunger’. This means that their motivations for seeking emotional and physical closeness with their child was related to their own needs more than their child’s needs (TAP, 2022).
As you may have guessed, this is a kind of generational transfer thing. A parent who exhibits these behaviors likely has an anxious-preoccupied attachment style themselves, and will parent accordingly, producing offspring with the same attachment style as adults (TAP, 2020)…and on and on until someone intentionally interrupts this cycle. However, anxious-preoccupied attachment does not always manifest through the same behaviors. For example, one parent who experiences emotional hunger may attempt to meet this need by attempting to guilt-trip their child into offering excessive praise, whereas another parent with emotional hunger may attempt to meet this need by smothering their child and seeking excessive closeness.
Avoidant (Also called Dismissive-Avoidant)
Avoidant attachment is basically the opposite of anxious-preoccupied attachment. These folks eschew intimacy, find flaws in partners easily and move on to the next one more quickly than others, and do not enjoy sharing their emotions. Instead, they close themselves off to their partners. Although they will be physically present in relationships, their emotional presence will be either non-existent or very limited. They are often outgoing and fun and may have many social as well as sexual connections, and they project confidence, self-sufficiency, and independence. They attract people, but they don’t need people. Most people with an avoidant attachment style have high self-esteem and do not desire or need reassurance. Some are high achievers.
The primary caregiver(s) of someone with an avoidant attachment style probably…
- Believes that children should learn independence early on
- Is strict
- Expects their child to be tough
- Does not encourage and may even not tolerate emotional expression (may become angry if the child cries or displays too much emotional vulnerability) (TAP, 2022).
As you may have guessed by now, an avoidant adult is also likely to parent the way they were parented (TAP, 2022). Avoidants can benefit immensely from psychotherapy that helps them explore their more vulnerable emotions in a safe space and reflect on their childhood and why they built their emotional walls. This kind of exploration can help them gradually develop a greater attunement to their own emotions, a sense of safety around sharing their emotions, and greater care for and engagement with the emotions of others (especially romantic partners). The process of becoming more comfortable with emotional expression can also positively impact their parenting, giving their children a shot at having a naturally secure attachment style.
Disorganized (also called Fearful-Avoidant)
Disorganized attachment is a combination of anxious-preoccupied and avoidant attachment styles. We know this may seem counterintuitive, because those two styles are polar opposites. This uncanny mixture manifests in a push-pull dynamic in which the person craves and desperately needs intimacy, but is also terrified of it (TAP, 2022). Their partners often report that it’s as though the person is holding out one hand in a stop sign position and gesturing ‘come here’ with the other hand–like they’re saying “come here” and “go away” in the same breath (Shorey, 2015). They may say that the intense love they feel for their partners scares them. If their partner pulls away, they feel anxious and seek reassurance. If their partner leans in, they feel smothered and shut down or run away.
This type of attachment usually arises in childhood as a result of a parent or primary caregiver who…
- Was abusive
- Inflicted or was a negative part of traumatic childhood experiences
- Did not provide a sense of safety
- Displayed highly inconsistent, unpredictable, and contrasting behavior (TAP, 2022).
A child in this circumstance unconsciously knows that their caregiver is supposed to provide them with safety, and they will seek closeness while immediately rejecting it, becoming afraid and turning away out of fear and self-protection (TAP, 2022).
Disorganized attachment is often known as one of the more difficult ones to shift, and it’s correlated with higher rates of substance abuse and borderline personality disorder. However, it’s still very much possible for disorganized people to develop a secure attachment style. As mentioned above, therapy is a good starting point. Someone with a disorganized attachment style who is already in a relationship might benefit from couple’s therapy together with their partner.
For the good of their children, their partners, and themselves, it’s absolutely crucial that these individuals develop an awareness of their attachment style and learn different behavior patterns–ideally before becoming a parent. It’s no one’s fault that they have an insecure attachment style, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to do the necessary inner work in order to show up as their best selves for their kids.
You can change your attachment style
If you don’t have a secure attachment style, learning about attachment styles can help you to become aware of how your insecure attachment style may affect your parenting. Having an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to make the same parenting mistakes as your parents. It does mean that you have to intentionally make some adjustments and choices about how you will parent, and that will likely involve reckoning with the painful experiences of your childhood (Firestone, 2015), often through therapy.
Think of adjusting your parenting style based on an unfamiliar attachment style as similar to driving a car in manual versus automatic mode. If you’re driving an automatic car, you don’t have to think about things like shifting gears because this just happens automatically, whereas with a manual you need to take care to shift gears as appropriate. If you don’t automatically have a secure attachment style, then you’ll have to make some manual adjustments. It might not feel natural at first and you’ll make some mistakes and experience some frustration and vulnerability, just as you’ll probably stall a lot when learning to drive manual. Over time, however, you won’t have to think about it as much. You might even change your attachment style by doing this.
Attachment style also sometimes changes naturally over time, especially in cases which are not very extreme. Our natural attachment styles can also be quieted or accentuated by our relationships. For example, if an anxious-preoccupied person gets together with someone with avoidant or disorganized attachment, they’ll likely experience a strong ‘spark’ but compound one another’s existing wounds and sensitivities. If you’re someone with one of the insecure attachment styles, dating a secure person can help you learn secure attachment (Birth, 2018).
If you have insecure attachment and you are a parent or planning on becoming one, you can give your kids the best chance at healthy, stable, fulfilling adult relationships by doing the work to shift your own attachment style.
Your Attachment Style and Your Prenup
No matter what your attachment style, it’s a good idea to get a prenup–especially if you plan on becoming a parent. A prenup gets you on the same page about financial needs and expectations in marriage, opens up in-depth communication around finances, and contributes to a sense of safety in the relationship. All of these things can deepen security for the already securely-attached, while they can help to calm the anxieties associated with anxious-preoccupied attachment. The process of drafting a prenup also demands accountability, which is something that may not come easily to those with avoidant or disorganized attachment styles. Going through the prenup process can help these attachment styles practice and become more comfortable with accountability, and can be reassuring to their partners.
If you haven’t started drafting your prenup yet, check out Hello Prenup’s innovative online prenup platform. You can draft and customize your prenup from the comfort of your home. Here’s how it works. And if you plan on having kids, here are a few clauses to consider including.
Birch, J. 2018. Knowing your ‘attachment style’ could make you a smarter dater. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2018/08/16/knowing-your-attachment-style-could-make-you-a-smarter-dater/
Divecha, D. 2017. What is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t “Attachment Parenting” Get You There? Retrieved from: https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there
Firestone, L. 2015. How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Parenting. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201510/how-your-attachment-style-affects-your-parenting
Shorey, H. 2015. Come Here, Go Away: The Dynamics of Fearful Attachment. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment#:~:text=In%20childhood%2C%20the%20attachment%20system,is%20himself%20frightening%20or%20frightened.
The Attachment Project. 2022. Avoidant Attachment Style: Causes and Symptoms. Retrieved from: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/avoidant-attachment-style/
The Attachment Project. 2022. Early Childhood Mother/Caregiver #1. Retrieved from: https://quiz.attachmentproject.com/relationship-structures/mother-conditions?token=01467cb690320a67a798749cb17d78b5
The Attachment Project. 2022. Anxious Attachment: Causes and Symptoms. Retrieved from: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/anxious-attachment/
The Attachment Project. 2022. Disorganized Attachment: Causes and Symptoms. Retrieved from: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/disorganized-attachment/
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected].