Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Queen's U chapter.

If you find yourself wondering why commitment scares you, why you have a fear of abandonment, or why you have a tendency to self-sabotage in relationships, it may be time for you to learn about attachment theory. Attachment theory posits that our patterns and behaviours in relational situations have to do with the security of our connection to our primary caregiver. People have one of three attachment styles: secure, avoidant, or anxious. Read on for an introductory guide to everything you need to know to figure out where you are on the attachment security spectrum!

The Beginning

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth conducted a ground-breaking study called “The Strange Situation.” In this experiment, babies were brought into rooms with their mothers, who were their primary caregivers. The mother was told to leave the room, and then come back, with the psychologists focusing on how the baby reacted to the departure and return of their mother. Babies who cried at the loss and were then soothed by their mother’s return exhibited a healthy, secure attachment. 20% of the babies did not cry when their mother left the room and avoided her when she came back—these children were avoidantly attached. The remaining 20% started crying when their mother left and did not stop when she came back, as if punishing her for leaving—these children were anxiously attached.

Who is the primary caregiver, and why do they matter?

The primary caregiver is often the mother, as demonstrated in the Strange Situation. In childhood, it’s the guardian who is primarily responsible for your care and immediate, physical needs; how they respond to your needs determines the security of your attachment. A guardian who is responsive and loving will create a secure attachment, while one who is turbulent and unreliable will create an insecure one. These are the basics of attachment theory, but what’s interesting is that as we grow into adults, the primary caregiver shifts from parent to partner. This means that the current most important person in your life functions as the caregiver, or the person who determines your attachment. Someone who grew up with a wonderful parent may enter a toxic relationship in their teens, and have their secure attachment turned into an insecure one.

Secure Attachment

Securely attached people comprise about 60% of the population and are exactly what they sound like: healthy, secure people who are able to enter relationships with confidence and trust. All people can get hurt or have their hearts broken, but securely attached people have a faster recovery time and are more likely to use healthy communication to overcome obstacles.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidantly attached people, comprising 20% of the population, are also exactly how they sound: people who avoid communication, confrontation, or profound connection. Insecure attachment of both kinds is synonymous with a fear of abandonment, which creates a series of defence mechanisms. In the case of avoidants, their fears manifest as an avoidance of deep relationships, a tendency to run away when things get too real, or an issue with being unable to communicate. In an adult relationship, this might look like one partner keeping secret funds “in case” they are abandoned and need to survive on their own: it’s a case of hyper independence.

Anxious Attachment

20% of the population is anxiously attached, and these people are just that: anxious. They defend themselves from abandonment through people pleasing, constant contact, an overwhelming need to be close to their partner, and bids for attention, which can look like starting arguments. These people constantly doubt that they are loved and swing wildly on a pendulum of putting their partner on a pedestal and seeking attention through conflict, jealousy, or aggression.

Adult Relationships

The issue with these different attachment styles is that opposites do not attract: instead, insecurely attached people attract insecurely attached partners and have insecurely attached children. Securely attached people attract each other and have securely attached children. It’s easy to theorize and simple to understand, but the cycle itself is vicious. Attachment determines cognitive patterns, which when severely distorted can result in very painful and long-term emotional damage for insecurely attached people.

Breaking the Cycle

For insecurely attached individuals, their first healthy relationship can sometimes feel boring, because it’s lacking fear, manipulation, or conflict. But how do we get to that first healthy relationship? Over the years, I’ve collected several methods:

  1. The secure role model: Do you have a friend who seems like everything just works out for them? Use them! Observation carries immense powers of education, and it’s amazing what you can learn from simply studying a securely attached friend. Notice the little things: how they talk about their partner, how they talk to their partner, the balance they strike between their individual and coupled life. Internalizing the behaviours of a securely attached friend can help you to put those behaviours into practice when the opportunity comes.
  2. Self-study: I feel like I repeat this constantly, but there is never a time when self-reflection is not helpful. The most important thing you can do for the people in your life is to know your own mind. Know your weaknesses, know your trigger points, and figure out when you slip up and how. If you know why and how you mess up, you can start to implement controls to prevent yourself from ending up in those situations.
  3. If you can’t have a healthy relationship, don’t have a relationship: If you have issues with your attachment style, it is pivotal that you take the time to heal before entering into a relationship. At best, you will strengthen your pattern of insecure attachment, but at worst, you will ruin or worsen the attachment style of your partner. The hardest thing to realize is that this brand of interpersonal psychology goes beyond yourself: it is more than easy to really hurt someone. Be present in your own life by taking accountability for yourself, healing and learning, before searching for someone who is secure and ready to enter into a healthy relationship with you.

Further Reading on Attachment Style

  • The basics: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337
  • Anxious attachment: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/anxious-attachment/
  • Avoidant attachment: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/avoidant-attachment-style/
  • Intersection of place and attachment theory: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494409000486
Annalynn Plopp

Queen's U '23

Annalynn is a fourth year concurrent education student at Queen's. Her major is English, minor is French, and she owns a golden retriever named Sunday!