• When certain attachment styles get into relationships together, predictable patterns emerge

  • Charisse Cooke, author of The Attachment Solution, explores anxious-avoidant and insecure-secure bonds

  • If you need support in your relationships, find a therapist here

Adult attachment can complicate our relationships enormously. In our partnerships, each other’s attachment styles can impact the quality of the relationship, the communication that takes place within it, and even how long the relationship is likely to last. Knowing and understanding each other’s attachment styles is vital to creating happier and healthier love stories.

Pioneered in England in the 1950s, attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who were able to classify and predict how children could relate to others and have relationships later in life, based on the consistency of care they received from their caregivers when they were infants. 

Because of this ground-breaking work, and countless research that has happened since, we now know that what we do in our adult relationships is highly predictable. The vast majority of our behaviour is unconscious, and a big part of that is how we relate – our attachment style. 

Most of us fall into categories of secure attachment, anxious attachment or avoidant attachment. And within avoidant attachment, there are two categories: dismissive avoidant attachment and fearful avoidant attachment.

Secure attachment 

We feel satisfied in our relationships and trust easily. We believe we are worthy of love and have good self-esteem. We support our partners and our partners come to us for support to. Communication is easy and our relationships are not high conflict.

Anxious attachment

We seldom feel satisfied in relationships. We struggle to trust and don’t feel worthy of love. Our self-esteem can be low and we can idealise others, but then feel very disappointed when they don’t live up to our expectations. We crave relationships and validation.

Avoidant attachment 

We can feel satisfied in relationships, but only if we get the necessary space. We struggle to trust people but have a high self-esteem. We prioritise autonomy rather than connection in partnerships, and can resist taking responsibility and being accountable.

Dismissive avoidant attachment 

We maintain distance in our relationships by devaluing the relationship or others. We can be cruel and unkind, and protect our independence at all costs.

Fearful avoidant attachment 

We struggle to feel satisfied in relationships, due to being high anxiety, and more comfortable with drama than intimacy. We are very fearful of having relationships but also of being alone. 

When individuals with these various attachment styles come together and try to have relationships, the results can be very painful. Our attachment styles are also self-perpetuating, so if we do not challenge ourselves to grow and change our behaviour to be more secure, we can go on to repeat the same cycles in all our relationships.

Let’s explore the different insecure attachment styles and what goes on within their partnerships:

The anxious-avoidant dance

The anxious-avoidant relationship is the most common of all insecurely attached relationships. In these relationships, we can experience a lot of passion and chemistry, but also a lot of frustration and upset. That is because these two attachment styles have conflicting needs. 

The anxious attached individual desires closeness and connection, while the avoidant attached person prefers a degree of separateness and space. The dance takes place as the anxious attached individual keeps stepping into the relationship wanting more, while the avoidant attached individual keeps stepping out of their relationship, wanting less. 

After a period of time that anxious attached person gets fed up, and takes a step out of the relationship, which the avoidant attached individual notices, who then, fearing rejection, steps back into the relationship. This dance can go on for quite some time and can leave the anxious attached individual suffering a great deal as they continue to feel de-prioritised and unimportant.

The avoidant-avoidant roadblock

When avoidant attached individuals have a relationship, they can be very understanding of one another’s needs. They both enjoy plenty of activity outside the relationship, and do not put pressure on one another to connect. 

For this reason, however, this relationship can lack traction and progression, as everyone involved does not prioritise the relationship or think too much about the future. These relationships can drift, and can ultimately be quite empty.

The anxious-anxious fusion

People with an anxious attachment are predisposed to wanting to meet another persons’ needs, so this match has positives. These individuals want relationships, want to put effort into relationships and are not overly independent. 

In the extreme, however, these relationships can become enmeshed. Individuals are overly involved in one another’s lives, become codependent and allow their lives outside the relationship to shrink. These partnerships can progress very quickly, with long-term commitments being made, without fully knowing the other person and how compatible their personalities are.

The insecure-secure opportunity

Even though there are many negatives to these insecure partnerships, there is still the possibility of more enjoyment relationally, if one person is secure or working to be secure. When we are secure, we are not reactive, so the defensiveness and high conflict nature of these other couplings is not so common. We can be more interested in problem-solving and embodying love, rather than succumbing to endless fear. 

Sadly, however, if we are secure, we can also be drawn in to unhealthy dynamics that we are not accustomed to. We can be wrong-footed and find ourselves in toxic scenarios we do not know or understand. In this way, we can develop our own insecurities and our attachment style can shift to one of insecurity, either anxious or avoidant. 

This is why knowing our attachment style and being able to recognise the attachment style of those we invite into our lives (and beds) is so important. We can understand the kind of relationship we are likely to have with these individuals, and decide whether or not that is right for us. This awareness can really help us make more loving choices for ourselves, and stay dedicated to growing in ways that will enhance our ability to be secure and happy.

Charisse Cooke is the author of The Attachment Solution

Further reading

Insecure attachment in couples: How to mend negative communication cycles

How to psychoanalytic theory and attachment theory work together?

Why do I push away the people I love?

How unconscious forces affect your behaviour at work

Can you change your attachment style?