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What's your attachment style?

When we’re babies, we need a safe place from which to explore the world. If we’re lucky, our parents provide this, and we grow up feeling confident about going off on our own, knowing that there’s always somewhere to go back to when things get difficult.

This is called attachment and, depending on our childhood experiences, we can grow up with different attachment styles. We carry these into adulthood [1], so it’s helpful to understand what they are and how they can affect our couple relationships:

  • Secure attachment. With a secure attachment, your couple relationships are likely to be more trusting and independent. You’ll feel safe spending time on your own, knowing that your partner is there for you. You’ll find it easier to express your love and ask for support [2].
  • Anxious attachment. People with an anxious attachment style tend to be clingy and insecure in couple relationships. They are often looking to be rescued by a partner and may worry unnecessarily when their partner does something without them. You may recognise this as a fear of abandonment.
  • Avoidant attachment. People with an avoidant style tend to distance themselves emotionally from their partners. They don’t want anyone to get too close and may say they don’t need loved ones at all.
  • Fearful attachment. Some people have a mixture of the anxious and avoidant styles and are afraid of getting either too close or too distant. In a couple relationship, this can mean that the person they rely on for support is also the person they are afraid of being close to. This can lead to some overwhelming emotions [3].

One of the reasons childhood attachment styles can have such a powerful effect on adult relationships is that they give us expectations of how people will respond to us. Even when our expectations are challenged, we tend to trust our own beliefs and it can be difficult to break out from something we’ve learned at such a young age [2].

How childhood experiences affect your own parenting

As well as the impact on your couple relationship, your attachment style can affect the way you interact with your child as a parent. With a secure attachment style, you’re more likely to be able to be open with your child and offer the kind of nurturing care that they need. But, if you or your partner have an insecure attachment, it can be much more difficult to know how to respond to a distressed child. How do you provide a safety net that wasn’t there for you?

The good news is that one partner with a secure attachment style can be a positive support for another partner with an insecure style. This means that if you feel more secure than your partner, you can offer support to help them work through some of the difficulties they may be having [1].

By becoming aware of the different attachment styles, you can start to notice your own patterns in the way you interact with your partner [4] [5]. This can then help you recognise where you might need to seek extra support. Social support from friends and family can be great, but it’s also important to address the beliefs and feelings behind an insecure attachment [6] [7].

Lots of parenting programmes help parents to deal with this, so it may be useful to find out what’s available in your area. Good places to look include your local children’s centre, community centre or faith centre, and your GP may also be able to point you in the right direction. It’s never too late to learn how to be warm, open, available and responsive to those who need you most.


[1] Millings, A. & Walsh, J. (2009). A dyadic exploration of attachment and caregiving in long-term couples. Personal Relationships, 16, 437-453.

[2] Fraley, R.C., & Shaver, P. R. (2000) Adult romantic attachment: Theoretical developments, emerging controversies, and unanswered questions. Review of General psychology, 4(2), 132-154.

[3] Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L.M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226-244.

[4] Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment and Human Development, 7(4), 349-367.

[5] Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.

[6] Green, B. L., Furrer, C., & McAllister, C. (2007). How do relationships support parenting? Effects of attachment style and social support on parenting behaviour in an at-risk population. American Journal of Community Psychology, 40, 96-108.

[7] Millings, A., Walsh, J., Hepper, E., & O’Brien, M. (2013). Good partner, good parent: Responsiveness mediates the link between romantic attachment and parenting style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 170-180.

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