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Attachment theory is an old and well-documented area in psychology, developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It talks about how our primary attachment bond — the bond we cultivate during early childhood by how we interact with our parents — represents a model for our future relationships and how out of that primary attachment, we develop one of four attachment styles:
- The anxious attachment style.
- The avoidant attachment style.
- The fearful-avoidant attachment style.
- The secure attachment style.
These styles influence our emotional health, self-esteem, and maturity, the partners we choose, how our relationships pan out, and how we respond when they end. And despite what some self-help advice would lead you to believe, developing healthy emotional attachments with others leads to greater happiness, productivity, and stability in one’s life.
In this article I’ll explain each attachment style in turn and how to go from an unhealthy variant (anxious, avoidant, fearful-avoidant ) to a healthy one (secure).
So buckle the fuck up — things are about to get nerdy.
Anxiously attached individuals are typical pleasers who think of themselves as lesser than the person they’re in love with. They have trouble being alone or single. They’ll often succumb to unhealthy and abusive relationships. They rely on them for happiness because they can’t make themselves happy. And they yearn for validation and approval from others.
They’re also prone to forming a fantasy bond with the person they love. Rather than developing real loving feelings for them, they develop an emotional hunger to be and stay with them instead, which also makes them act irrational, sporadic, neurotic, and overly emotional.
Real-Life Example: This is the man who calls you 20 times a day and clings and obsesses over you to the point where he becomes repulsive. This is the woman who spies on you and constantly overanalyzes everything you say.
Response To Breakups: Anxious individuals feel most distraught out of all the attachment styles. After a breakup, they either go on a dating rampage in hopes of finding someone new to attach to, or they try to get their ex back. These people also have the highest chance of becoming depressed following their breakup. (2)
Origin: Anxious individuals were usually taken care of by parents or caregivers who offered inconsistent responses to their cries for attention and affection. Therefore, they had no reliable safe base to attach to.
Avoidants are the type of people who suppress their emotions and distance themselves from those they love. That is, at least until those people give them sufficient space, at which point they slowly become responsive to intimacy again.
They tend to seek isolation, avoid intimacy, and focus on their own needs and comfort rather than the needs and comfort of others. They also tend to shut down emotionally and defend themselves from pain by turning off their feelings. Heated emotional situations will bring this out the most, as they may respond to threats and anger with things like, “I don’t care.” (3)
Real-Life Example: This is the woman who wants nothing serious and keeps hopping from one dating prospect or one shallow relationship into another. This is the man who works and travels all the time and gets annoyed when women want to see him more than once or twice a week.
Response To Breakups: Avoidants usually act as if they’re not affected. They repress their pain and negative feelings to the point where it seems they haven’t got any. As a result, they often develop trauma.
Origin: Avoidant individuals were usually raised by parents or caregivers who spent little to no time with them. In fact, they probably rarely acted upon the child’s requested wants and pleads for closeness. As a result, they made the kid numb to healthy attachments.
These are the people who possess both the anxious and the avoidant attachment. On the one hand, they fear excessive closeness, but on the other, they fear excessive space. They also tend to have frequent mood swings. When they feel rejected, they become desperate for affection. And when they feel trapped or as if someone got emotionally too close, they push back and want space.
Fearful-Avoidants will also attempt to keep their feelings at bay even though they’re seldom capable of doing so. In fact, they will try to run away from them, but instead of succeeding, they often just become overwhelmed by their own reaction and fall into emotional turmoil.
Real-Life Example: This is the person who first calls you 20 times but then pulls away as soon as you get intimate with them. And only after giving them space do they resume spamming your phone.
Response To Breakups: People with a fearful-avoidant attachment have mixed reactions after a breakup. They often start by trying to numb or push down their feelings, just like typical avoidants. But they eventually become conscious of those feelings and must deal with them. At that point, they become desperate for a new relationship — a new person to attach themselves to, just like anxious individuals.
Origin: Disorganized individuals are often victims of the most thankless childhood experiences like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and abandonment.
Secure individuals tend to be satisfied with their relationships since they normally feel safe and connected in them without feeling constrained. Their security promotes a sense of freedom of movement for themselves and their partner so they can explore the world without worrying about niggling insecurities.
On top of that, they tend to trust quicker (and are often trustworthy themselves), have less relational anxiety, draw clear boundaries and stick to them, and are more comfortable displaying interest and affection than their insecure counterparts.
They also offer support if their partner feels distressed and will not be afraid to go to them when they feel the same way. Their relationship will be open, honest, and equal, allowing both individuals to feel independent while still displaying a loving and affectionate nature towards each other.
Response To Breakups: Secure individuals have it the easiest. They still feel heartbreak, but they cope with it efficiently. They also move on faster than people with an insecure attachment style and have fewer tendencies to want their ex back after their breakup.
Origin: Secure individuals often had parents or caregivers who kept being there for them, meeting their needs, and consistently handling their requests — they became their safety base.
How to Discover your attachment style
Here’s a fun test for you: think back to when you were still with your ex. How did you react when, say, they told you they would call you in an hour but didn’t fulfil that promise. What did you do?
- Did you sit patiently and assume that your ex might’ve just been busy and forgotten about the phone call?
- Did you become overwhelmed with fear, worry, anger, and frustration, ran 100+ different scenarios of what could be going on in your head, and even though things like, “It’s over. They don’t love me anymore. They are probably cheating on me?”
- Did you become fearful and anxious when they actually did call you and perhaps even avoided the call altogether?
Option one would plot you into the secure attachment category, option two into the anxious attachment category, and option three into the avoidant attachment category. But this is just one of the hundreds of tests out there. If you really want to nail down your attachment style, I encourage you to take this online quiz.
Generally speaking, when trying to figure out your attachment, you should a) observe and analyze your behavioral patterns, b) scrutinize the emotions you feel, and c) be really fucking honest about what you find out and the connections you make.
How to Change your attachment style
Changing your attachment style is possible but not easy or fast — it takes months or even years. And there’s no “hack” you can deploy to speed up the process.
It took me two years of therapy, dating, and self-help to go from anxious to secure. It took my best friend even longer than that to go from avoidant to secure. And I’ve consulted clients who needed even longer to reach the end of their transformation.
Yet, don’t lose hope.
Here are some tips on how to move from an insecure attachment to a secure one. Just note that I won’t address the transition from a disorganized attachment style because a) it’s unlikely you have it, and b) if you do have it, the only way you can change it is with the help of a therapist; not a random blogger.
How To Go From Anxious To Secure Attachment
First, find what triggers your anxiety and become aware when you’re feeling anxious. The idea is that once you figure out what triggers your anxiety, you can find ways to eliminate those triggers. And when you become aware of your anxiety, you can manage it better.
Third, look for overreactions to certain situations. Then try to see them for what they are: overreactions. You do this by cultivating self-awareness and in heated situations and asking yourself, “is it reasonable to feel so anxious, or is my attachment style playing tricks on me?”
Fourth, when you start dating again, look for someone who has a secure attachment style. It’s proven that you can change your anxious attachment by dating or getting into a relationship with someone with a secure one.
Fifth, replace your negative self-talk with a more realistic variant. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m a failure,” you can say,” I’m okay. Everyone fucked up at some point.” Or, instead of telling yourself, “I’m unlovable,” you can tell yourself things like,” I’m not perfect, but I’m lovable and enough.”
How To Go From Avoidant To Secure Attachment
First, practice vulnerability. You need to get used to opening up to others about your views, goals, and beliefs, and the things you care about — the things you’re most scared to express. This will be painful at first, but over time you’ll see it’ll be one of the best changes you’ll make. And you don’t need to go overboard with vulnerability. You can start simple.
For instance, try being actively curious about the feelings and the inner world of others. Maybe meet up with a good friend for drinks and start a conversation. After a few minutes, find the courage to share some of your own deeper thoughts and emotions with them — something you haven’t shared yet. Something uncomfortable.
Second, practice self-awareness. Try to notice your avoidant tendencies in your interactions. And instead of closing off when they happen, make a conscious choice to open up even more.
Let’s say you’re on a date. But a few minutes in, you start feeling panicky because things are moving too fast. After all, your date got too close to you emotionally. It’s at these moments that you need to find to courage to not close off. Find the courage to share yourself even more.
It may also help if you ask yourself, “Do I feel alarmed for a good reason (is my date actually clingy), or are my avoidant tendencies getting the best of me?”
Third, find someone who is secure, and date them. Yes, I gave people who want to go from anxious to secure the same advice. It’s proven that you can change your avoidant attachment by dating or getting into a relationship with someone who has a secure one.
We All Lose Control Of Our Attachment Car Sometimes
Regardless of your attachment style, the road to changing it is filled with obstacles. And you will inevitably bump and crash into some of them.
Sometimes anxious attachment types will reach out to their ex even though they know they shouldn’t. Other times, avoidants will go on a bed-crushing, cum-on-the-wall rampage with total strangers, only to push their hurt deeper into their subconscious.
People lose control of their Attachment Car all the time. When it happens to you, don’t beat yourself up about it. When you bump into your next obstacle, just put the bitch in reverse, get the car unstuck, adjust course, center grill, and slam the living shit out of that gas pedal. Then repeat the process at the next obstacle. And the next. And the next… until you reach your destination — the secure attachment.
And even once you arrive, know that you’ll still have insecure tendencies. Avoidant or anxious, you’ll never get rid of all of them. But you will learn how to manage them better.
If you need more help healing from your breakup, check out my Radical Recovery Course. With over 5h of video, 200 pages of writing, and personalized 1-on-1 coaching, I'll walk you through every step of the recovery process from start to finish.
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