The 4 Attachment Types: What Parenting Says About Your Relationships

It is perhaps every human being’s deepest desire: to be securely connected to someone. But what if you have never experienced that before? Your caregivers are the first persons in your life from whom you learn to connect. If you have never experienced a safe connection before, it can get in the way of having safe and loving relationships.

Connecting with others can be compared to a dance. You react to each other’s movements, if the other takes one step to the right, do you come along? Or are you moving in the opposite direction? Or do you not move at all and put your heels in the sand? You learned the way you connect from your parents. For establishing relationships, it might be useful to study your attachment style. Reflecting on your attachment style might explain why you encounter the same things in relationships or attract certain types of people. Moreover, you can break patterns that you have learned from your parents and prevent passing them on to your children.

First Impression

When you come into the world as an innocent baby, you are completely dependent on your caregivers. In addition, you communicate in a language other than that of your parents. Was there a quick and understanding response to your crying? Then there is a good chance that you will become securely attached. Was there sometimes a response and the other time not? Then you become anxiously attached. If you have been left to your own devices on a regular basis, you will become avoidant attached. There is also a fourth category, which is disorganized attachment. This form of attachment is common for children who have been abused or neglected.

The numbers

65% of humanity is securely attached.[1]
35% of people are not securely attached, of whom
15% have an anxious attachment style,
10% have an avoidant attachment style,
and 10% have a disorganized attachment.

The 4 attachment styles

John Bowlby is the founder of the attachment theory as we know it today. He based his attachment theory on the behavior of juvenile delinquents and socio-emotionally unadapted children. His student Mary Ainsworth helped Bowlby prove his theory scientifically. She observed the bond between mother and child. Her research was unique for the time in that she focused on behavioral patterns in context, rather than counting the frequency of specific behaviors. Ainsworth observed children aged 12 to 20 months and identified four types of attachment.[2]

  1. Secure attachment style: The child receives unconditional love from the parents, the space to be themselves and an appropriate response to the child’s needs. For example, if a child falls, he or she is comforted. Children who have a secure bond with their parents try new things and learn that they can rely on themselves and others. As an adult you can easily enter into intimate relationships, you feel safe and secure in relationships. You take into account the needs and wishes of the other and can also clearly indicate yours.
  2. Anxious attachment style: The child can hardly or not at all count on his / her parents. The parents are overprotective, inconsistent or unpredictable. As an adult you feel insecure in relationships and often need confirmation. You are hypersensitive to the behavior and social signals of others.
  3. Avoidant Attachment Style: The child has detached parents. They are not taking good care of the child or it may be that the child was taking care of them. There is an inadequate response to the child’s needs. As an adult you have trouble showing feelings because your parents reacted negatively. You have learned to stand on your own two feet. You keep your distance from others and you are closed. You avoid relationships and intimacy. If you do manage to build them up, they will not last or they will be superficial in nature.
  4. Disorganized Attachment Style: The child displays behavioral characteristics of avoidant and anxious attachment style. Attachment becomes disorganized because the parent is a source of security and fear. As an adult you have little faith in yourself and others.

Inner search

Only when you dare to look at how you are attached to your caregivers, can you see if you are stepping into old patterns that you have learned in the past. Do you act according to your own needs or the needs of others? Nowadays there are all kinds of tests you can take to find out which attachment style applies to you. There is a checklist in the book Stay with me by Rika Ponnet. [3] See example below:

Safe attachment style (Ponnet, 2012, 380)
• Is comfortable with intimacy and closeness
• Names the positive and negative things about himself and the other
• Has no fear of conflict, does not run away

Anxious attachment style (Ponnet, 2012, 370-371)
• Comes from a family where parents showed little confidence in their children, spoiling children, over-anticipating their needs, not teaching them how to deal with frustration and sadness
• Children were not given room for self-development due to strong authoritarian parenting and therefore develop too limited self-confidence
• Acts independently

Avoidant Attachment Style (Ponnet, 2012, 364)
• A lasting feeling of being alone, even though they are in a relationship, based on the conviction: the other is not there when I need them, I can only rely on myself
• At times when there is imminent intimacy, vulnerable connectedness or emotionality, people withdraw from the contact
• Suppressing feelings, desires, expectations: if I don’t want anything from others, I don’t need others and I can’t be hurt

People choose what they know rather than what they long for

If you are not securely attached to your parents, there is a good chance that an insecure attachment style will also be reflected in your partner. People choose patterns that they recognize, because they see them as “normal”. If you believe that you are not worthy of being loved, then you are attracting people who do not love you in the way you would like them to. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. People who are aware of the inner conflict and who immerse themselves in their own behavior are about to make a change in their lives.

In any type of relationship, it’s essentially about being seen, heard, and feeling accepted. And that is often difficult to achieve in reality, because you have to dance to the same beat. But there is good news! The attachment style you have now, does not have to determine the rest of your life. You can work on it by improving your communication, going into therapy or reading up on these topics. Having loving relationships in which connection is central, always starts with you. And a loving relationship, don’t we all want that?

[1] Richtlijn Problematische gehechtheid, 2017.

[2] Ainsworth, M. D. S., en Wittig, B. A. (1969). Attachment and exploratory behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. In B. M. Foss(Ed. ), ‘Determinants of infant behavior’, jaargang 4, p. 111-136). London, Methuen.
[3] Rika Ponnet (2012). Blijf bij mij. Terra-Lannoo Uitgeverij.

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