Identifying and understanding our relationship attachment styles — as well as our partner’s — can help us understand the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses.

According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, our attachment styles are born out of the bond we form with our first primary caregiver, usually a parent. 

Our relationship with these caregivers has an overarching influence on the way we act in future relationships. There are three main groups of attachment styles: 

  1. Anxious: where we may feel insecure or vulnerable in our relationships
  2. Secure: where we feel comfortable in our relationships
  3. Avoidant: where we may try and keep our distance as that feels safe

Learning how to take charge of our attachment style and understanding our partner’s style gives our relationship the best chance to succeed. For example, people with a secure attachment style tend to believe their romantic partners were and are there for them, so they act accordingly.

Conversely, people with insecure attachment styles may have had a belief in the past that their partner would either abandon them or overwhelm them, and so they act in response to that belief. 

Attachment styles can shape adult relationships

In my practice, I often see what looks like, at first blush, startlingly different stories of relationship battles. Amazingly though, they almost all boil down to attachment styles and how one person’s operating system connects with their partner’s operating system. 

Let’s take a look at two people on each end of the attachment spectrum, Sarah and Sanjay.  Each was working hard to make sense of their relationships, wanting to love and be loved, and their styles were impacting their relationships in very different ways.

Sarah has an anxious attachment style. She came to see me as she was finding it hard to keep a relationship going. Her relationships would start out well, she often thought her partner was the one, but something would go wrong fairly quickly. 

If she hadn’t heard from her partner when she expected it, she would respond either by sulking or by becoming frantic — calling and texting repeatedly. She felt like all the good men had gone and she was now just meeting men who didn’t want to commit. Her last partner said to her: “You’re too much, I can’t breathe”.

Sarah was brought up by her mother after her parents divorced in her early childhood, and she had seen very little of her father since then. She didn’t feel like her parents were available, and this repeated itself in her present relationships where she needed a lot of reassurance. 

What was happening for Sarah was that, in the early stages of a relationship, if she felt like she wasn’t being made a priority by her partner, it triggered her internal safety alarm. This led her to use protest behavior to try and get her feelings met. 

Protest behavior is any action that is used to re-establish a connection with a partner, and often involves trying to get their attention by punishing them or sulking. It’s the adult equivalent of stamping our feet like a hurt and angry child — and is often unhelpful in a relationship.