Attachment Styles Explained: How Your Childhood Impacts Your Adult Relationships

Guest post by Cameron Staudacher, Presented by BetterHelp.


Did you know scientists believe how you bond with parents or caregivers as a child influences how you form interpersonal attachments as an adult? Attachment theory asserts that the manner in which you were raised and how close you were to the people raising you might be among the most significant factors that determine how you navigate personal and professional relationships in adulthood. This article will examine attachment theory and explain what researchers know about the relationship between childhood and adult attachment. 

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory provides a framework for understanding the impact early relationships have on our emotional development and interpersonal dynamics in adulthood. Originated by John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, it posits that the bonds formed between a child and their primary caregivers are crucial to their emotional and social development. These early interactions lay the foundation for attachment patterns, influencing how we relate to others.

Bowlby’s work was further elaborated by Mary Ainsworth, who identified different attachment styles through her “Strange Situation” study. This groundbreaking research demonstrated that the nature of our early attachments—whether secure, anxious, or avoidant—plays a pivotal role in shaping our relationships, affecting everything from our self-esteem to our capacity for intimacy.

At its core, attachment theory suggests that early experiences of care and connection—or the lack thereof—become internalized as working models. These models guide our expectations in relationships, affecting how we perceive ourselves and others, manage emotions, and navigate social interactions. 

Evidence suggests that early attachments mold our approach to friendship, parenting, and even professional interactions. While the early work done by Bowlby and Ainsworth was focused primarily on children, later research was able to draw distinct connections between childhood attachment styles and attachment styles seen in adulthood. Today, four broad attachment styles are usually considered. 

The four attachment styles

Attachment theory categorizes adult attachment into four distinct styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. These styles, established during early childhood, significantly influence our behaviors and interactions in adult relationships.

  • Anxious Attachment involves a preoccupation with relationships and a heightened sensitivity to partners’ responses. Those with an anxious attachment often fear rejection and may require constant reassurance and attention from their partners.
  • Avoidant Attachment is marked by a desire to maintain independence and emotional distance. Avoidantly attached individuals often struggle with intimacy and may prioritize self-reliance over close relationships.
  • Fearful-Avoidant Attachment (sometimes called disorganized) combines features of both anxious and avoidant attachments. Individuals with this style may desire close relationships but find it difficult to trust others fully or to depend on them. 
  • Secure Attachment is characterized by a strong sense of security and self-worth. Individuals with this attachment style tend to have healthy, trusting relationships. They are comfortable with intimacy and independence, balancing the two with ease.

Those with anxious attachment tended to have parents or caregivers who were inconsistent in their parenting approach. They may have been kind and nurturing one moment and misattuned to the child’s needs the next. Avoidant attachment tends to appear when a person’s caregivers meet the child’s physical needs (food, shelter, etc.) but do not meet their emotional ones. Disorganized attachment is often found when a child is raised in an abusive, traumatic, or neglectful environment. 

In addition, all types of insecure attachment are associated with adversity outside of adult relationships, such as a higher risk of substance use disorders. Some people with insecure attachment styles go on to develop dual diagnoses, where a substance use disorder co-exists alongside another mental health condition. For more information on dual diagnoses, check out this link from BetterHelp:

Secure is typically considered the most favorable of all the attachment styles. Secure attachment can be thought of as the absence of a disordered attachment, wherein a person can confidently connect to others in a safe and secure way. If you’d like more information about your own relationship style, consider taking this quiz from the Attachment Project for greater insight. 

How adult relationships are impacted by childhood attachments

The influence of childhood attachments on adult relationships is profound and multifaceted. Early experiences of bonding with caregivers not only shape our expectations for love and support but also mold our capacity for emotional intimacy and vulnerability. When these foundational relationships are secure, we are more likely to develop healthy self-esteem and an optimistic view of relationships, enabling us to form deep, meaningful connections with others.

Conversely, if early attachments are fraught with inconsistency or neglect, we may carry forward patterns of anxiety, avoidance, or fearfulness into our adult relationships. These patterns can manifest as difficulty trusting others, an excessive need for reassurance, or a tendency to shy away from intimacy altogether. The shadow of these early attachments can influence our choices of partners, communication styles, and even conflict-resolution strategies.

Understanding the impact of childhood attachments allows us to recognize the root causes of our relationship dynamics. This insight is a powerful tool for personal growth, offering a roadmap for healing and change. By acknowledging and addressing these deep-seated patterns, we can work towards forming healthier attachments in our adult lives, paving the way to develop an earned-secure attachment style. Earned-secure attachment is the same as secure attachment, except that the person with an earned-secure style can clearly articulate how their childhood impacted their attachments as an adult. 

Making meaningful changes to your attachment style

Recognizing your attachment style is only the first step towards cultivating healthier relationships. The journey from awareness to action involves intentionally moving towards a more secure attachment pattern. This transformation is rooted in self-reflection, understanding the origins of our attachment styles, and actively working to change maladaptive patterns.

Therapy, particularly approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can offer valuable tools for addressing issues related to attachment. These therapeutic modalities help individuals understand the impact of their early experiences on their current behaviors and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Self-help resources, such as books, podcasts, and online courses, can also provide insights into attachment theory and practical strategies for self-improvement. Engaging with these materials can enhance self-awareness and bolster personal growth.

Conscious relationship choices are crucial in this transformation process. Seeking out relationships that promote security and growth, setting healthy boundaries, and practicing effective communication are critical steps in forming more secure attachments. By actively working towards change, individuals can break free from the constraints of their past attachments and build fulfilling, resilient relationships.


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