How you attach to other adults strongly corresponds with how you attached to others as a child. Four distinct styles of attachment have been identified — and perhaps recognizing yourself in one of them is the first step toward strengthening your relationships.

The four child/adult attachment styles are:

  • Secure – autonomous;
  • Avoidant – dismissing;
  • Anxious – preoccupied; and
  • Disorganized – unresolved.

Adults with these attachment styles differ in a number of significant ways:

  • how they perceive and deal with closeness and emotional intimacy.
  • ability to communicate their emotions and needs, and listen to and understand the emotions and needs of their partners.
  • modes of responding to conflict.
  • expectations about their partner and the relationship (internal working models).

There are three primary, underlying dimensions that characterize attachment styles and patterns. The first dimension is closeness, meaning the extent to which people feel comfortable being emotionally close and intimate with others. The second is dependence/avoidance, or the extent to which people feel comfortable depending on others and having partners depend on them. The third is anxiety, or the extent to which people worry their partners will abandon and reject them.

The outline below describes four adult attachment styles regarding avoidance, closeness and anxiety — and prototypical descriptions of each.

Secure: Low on avoidance, low on anxiety. Comfortable with intimacy; not worried about rejection or preoccupied with the relationship. “It is easy for me to get close to others, and I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”

Avoidant: High on avoidance, low on anxiety. Uncomfortable with closeness and primarily values independence and freedom; not worried about partner’s availability. “I am uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust and depend on others and prefer that others do not depend on me. It is very important that I feel independent and self-sufficient. My partner wants me to be more intimate than I am comfortable being.”

Anxious: Low on avoidance, high on anxiety. Crave closeness and intimacy, very insecure about the relationship. “I want to be extremely emotionally close (merge) with others, but others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t love or value me and will abandon me. My inordinate need for closeness scares people away.

Anxious and Avoidant: High on avoidance, high on anxiety. Uncomfortable with intimacy, and worried about partner’s commitment and love. “I am uncomfortable getting close to others, and find it difficult to trust and depend on them. I worry I will be hurt if I get close to my partner.”

The outline below explains the four adult attachment styles; the behavioral, cognitive and social aspects of each style; and the way in which they differ regarding closeness, dependency, avoidance and anxiety. It is common for adults to have a combination of traits rather than fit into just one style.

Autonomous (Secure):

  • Comfortable in a warm, loving and emotionally close relationship.
  • Depends on partner and allows partner to depend on them; is available for partner in times of need.
  • Accepts partner’s need for separateness without feeling rejected or threatened; can be close and also independent (“dependent–independent”).
  • Trusting, empathic, tolerant of differences, and forgiving.
  • Communicates emotions and needs honestly and openly; attuned to partner’s needs and responds appropriately; does not avoid conflict.
  • Manages emotions well; not overly upset about relationship issues.
  • Insight, resolution and forgiveness about past relationship issues and hurts.
  • Sensitive, warm and caring parent; attuned to child’s cues and needs; children are securely attached.

Dismissive (Avoidant)

  • Emotionally distant and rejecting in an intimate relationship; keeps partner at arm’s length; partner always wanting more closeness; ” “deactivates” attachment needs, feelings and behaviors.
  • Equates intimacy with loss of independence; prefers autonomy to togetherness.
  • Not able to depend on partner or allow partner to “lean on” them; independence is a priority.
  • Communication is intellectual, not comfortable talking about emotions; avoids conflict, then explodes.
  • Cool, controlled, stoic; compulsively self-sufficient; narrow emotional range; prefers to be alone.
  • Good in a crisis; non-emotional, takes charge.
  • Emotionally unavailable as parent; disengaged and detached; children are likely to have avoidant attachments.

Preoccupied (Anxious)

  • Insecure in intimate relationships; constantly worried about rejection and abandonment; preoccupied with relationship; “hyperactivates” attachment needs and behavior.
  • Needy; requires ongoing reassurance; want to “merge” with partner, which scares partner away.
  • Ruminates about unresolved past issues from family-of-origin, which intrudes into present perceptions and relationships (fear, hurt, anger, rejection).
  • Overly sensitive to partner’s actions and moods; takes partner’s behavior too personally.
  • Highly emotional; can be argumentative, combative, angry and controlling; poor personal boundaries.
  • Communication is not collaborative; unaware of own responsibility in relationship issues; blames others.
  • Unpredictable and moody; connects through conflict, “stirs the pot.”
  • Inconsistent attunement with own children, who are likely to be anxiously attached.

Unresolved (Disorganized)

  • Unresolved mindset and emotions; frightened by memories of prior traumas; losses from the past have not been not mourned or resolved.
  • Cannot tolerate emotional closeness in a relationship; argumentative, rages, unable to regulate emotions; abusive and dysfunctional relationships recreate past patterns.
  • Intrusive and frightening traumatic memories and triggers; dissociates to avoid pain; severe depression, PTSD.
  • Antisocial; lack of empathy and remorse; aggressive and punitive; narcissistic, no regard for rules; substance abuse and criminality.
  • Likely to maltreat own children; scripts children into past unresolved attachments; triggered into anger and fear by parent–child interaction; own children often develop disorganized attachment.

Attachment patterns are passed down from one generation to the next. Children learn how to connect from parents and caregivers, and they in turn teach the next generation. Your attachment history plays a crucial role in determining how you relate in adult romantic relationships, and how you relate to your children. However, it is not what happened to you as a child that matters most — it is how you deal with it. Many people go from victim to overcomer.