Your Attachment Style Probably Isn't As Important As You Think, But It's Not Totally Useless

Perhaps you have seen infographics about attachment styles proliferate on social media. Perhaps you can even name them by heart: anxious (preoccupied), avoidant (dismissive), disorganized (fearful-avoidant), and secure. But attachment styles are not just a social media trend; they are based on a midcentury theory first suggested by psychologist John Bowlby and expanded upon by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. The central tenet of attachment theory is that the bond between caregiver and infant has an immediate influence on the emotional development of the infant that continues into adulthood, per Simply Psychology. Psychotherapist Talitha Fosh tells Stylist, "Attachment styles are simply patterns of emotions that are activated in childhood by the extent that their needs are met. Children then develop belief systems which then go on to manifest in their romantic relationships." Many people have thus flocked to attachment theory for the insight it might give them into both their complex relationships with their families and friends, and also the relationships they have with their partners.

Online content surrounding attachment styles often suggests that some are more compatible than others in relationships. For example, the partner with an anxious attachment style and the partner with an avoidant attachment style might not be considered a solid match, where each has potentially opposing needs. But how much does your attachment style really matter when it comes to your close bonds? And are attachment styles a reliable way to examine your relationships? 

The issues with attachment theory

While attachment theory may help some people piece together important insights about themselves and their relationships, other people may feel limited by it. With just four main categories that one is assumed to fit into, there is not much room for nuance. The truth is, many people do not just fit into one category of attachment. Besides, it would be stifling to suggest that the way you form attachments to others cannot change as you grow and learn — it absolutely can.

Similar to how astrology tends to assign personality traits to certain zodiac signs, attachment theory assigns characteristics to attachment styles that can be rather reductive. For example, those with an anxious attachment may need their partner to emphasize reassurance to them. But reducing someone to the archetype of "the clingy partner" for this reason would be denying their real, emotional experiences. As such, we wonder what hierarchies attachment styles manifest, where secure attachment is put on a pedestal as the "best" way to be. There is, of course, no "best" way to be except as your authentic self — nothing is wrong with you because you identify less with a secure attachment than an anxious attachment, for example. Often, online content proffers ideas on how to "fix" attachments that are not secure. But what if we recognized that having wants, needs, and emotions makes us human, not construction projects?

Attachment styles can offer ideas

Despite the potential pitfalls of attachment styles, anything that might present new perspectives in learning about yourself and others can be a valuable resource to consider. For example, while attachment styles are not diagnoses in themselves, they can assist you in uncovering certain patterns of behavior that may have previously been unknown to you, perhaps even guiding you toward a mental health diagnosis, should you be seeking one. And caretakers should be aware that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes two disorders surrounding attachment in children: reactive attachment disorder and disinhibited social engagement disorder, per Medical News Today. Learning about attachment styles could help you resonate with certain feelings that you might then choose to honor and work through. And it could also help you raise awareness about how you show up in the world, and with others, providing you with a framework to consider when you want to make a change to one behavior or another. 

Talking with your friends, family members, and romantic partners about what attachment styles resonate with one another could additionally instigate honest and vulnerable conversations about how to best support each other. Attachment styles should ultimately be about creating better connections, not putting each other down for our differences. Engaging in empathy both with yourself and others is key to the success of any relationship.