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Relationship attachment styles, explained!

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When beginning the terrifying (yet exhilarating) first stages of a blossoming relationship, it’s not uncommon to ask your new flame their star sign – it’s a quick-scan compatibility test we’ve come to accept as gospel. But instead of investigating whether they’re a Gemini or a Libra, there is something else you should be looking for to determine your compatibility, one that has a basis in science.

WATCH BELOW: Brittany Hockley and Laura Byrne talk attachment styles

What is attachment theory? 

The theory of attachment was first coined in the 1950s by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He hypothesized that during evolution babies who cried, screamed and clung to their mother had a higher chance of survival as they were more likely to be fed, comforted and protected. Because of this he believed that babies who were separated from their mother would struggle later in life.  

This theory was researched further in the 1970s by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Her study observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months and their reactions as they were placed in unfamiliar situations and briefly separated from their parents. Based on the baby’s responses, they found three styles of attachment: secure, anxious, and avoidant.

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‘Attachment theory explains how we connect with others, particularly in intimate relationships.’ (Credit: Getty)

Wondering what any of this has to do with your love life? Well according to Dr George Blair-West and Jiveny Blair-West, authors of How to Make the Biggest Decision of Your Life: Unlocking the Secrets to a Healthy Lasting Relationship, attachment theory explains how we connect with others, particularly in intimate relationships.

“It tells us how early experiences with the people who cared for us in our formative years can leave us with certain expectations in later relationships,” Dr Blair-West says.

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Those with secure attachment ‘are often good at maintaining close, long-term friendships and tend to have good relationships with their immediate family and wider community.’ (Credit: Getty)

Secure

In Ainsworth’s study, infants with secure attachment showed signs of distress when separated from their parents but were easily comforted upon their return. Those who grow up with a reliable caregiver form a secure attachment and are able to enjoy closeness and intimacy with others, while building relationships with healthy boundaries, explains Dr Blair-West.

“They are empathetic and good communicators with the ability to manage their impulses and feelings. Furthermore, secure people are less likely to take things personally.”

“They are often good at maintaining close, long-term friendships and tend to have good relationships with their immediate family and wider community,” he says.

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Influencer Abbie Chatfield often discusses attachment theory on her podcast, It’s A Lot. (Credit: Instagram)

Anxious

Those with anxious attachment grew up with an inconsistent caregiver. In Ainsworth’s study, these infants showed intense distress when separated, but resisted contact when reunited.

Anxiously attached individuals are what you might refer to as ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’. According to Dr Blair-West, anxiously attached people tend to be the pursuers in relationships and try to move things forward too soon. They need constant reassurance from their partner and are often terrified about the relationship ending. 

“They regularly seek reassurance from their partner and can become anxious when there is uncertainty in the relationship,” Dr Blair-West adds.

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Anxious partners ‘regularly seek reassurance from their partner and can become anxious when there is uncertainty in the relationship.’ (Credit: Getty)

Avoidant

These babies showed minimal stress when separated from their parents and ignored them when they returned. This avoidant attachment is a result of growing up with caregivers who were unavailable and unresponsive.

Dr Blair-West explains that avoidant individuals associate relationships with a loss of freedom. And that they often send mixed messages as a result of their inner desire for closeness, and their fear of it.

“At first, they might actively pursue a relationship but then once the potential of a relationship starts to become real, they withdraw.”

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Hosts of the podcast Life Uncut, Brittany Hockley and Laura Byrne, have an episode dedicated to attachment theory. (Credit: Instagram)

What to look for…

While it’s never wise to ask someone to rehash their whole dating history on a first date, there are a few tell-tale signs to help you spot an attachment style early on.

Dr Blair-West says that that those who describe having lots of ‘friends’ but none long-term are likely to be insecure, while someone who has close and healthy relationships with friends and family is more likely to be secure.

“People with avoidant attachment styles tend to be less comfortable talking about their feelings and instead focus on more superficial topics of conversation without getting too personal. By contrast, a secure person is likely to be more relaxed about opening up,” he says.

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It can take a little while to realise what someone’s attachment style is. (Credit: Getty)

It can take a little while for someone to reveal their true colours he explains, as both anxious and avoidant can initially present as secure. Because of this Dr Blair-West adds that paying attention to how people communicate between dates is just as important.

“An anxiously attached person might start texting or calling you regularly to check in and connect, almost as if they assume you’re already in a relationship,” he says.

“In contrast, an avoidant person is more likely to leave lots of space between communication, be non-committal to a next date and keep things a bit open-ended.”

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