4 Self-Destructive Adult Attachment Styles
Is it time to change your relationship behavior?
Posted Jun 30, 2019
The theory of attachment developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified two continuous dimensions of attachment that run from low to high. One dimension, known as attachment anxiety, reflects the degree to which you are inclined to think that people in your life, such as your parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners, care about you and are prepared to support you and respond to your needs.
If you are high in attachment anxiety, you spend a great deal of time worrying about what others think about you, and unless you are constantly reminded that others care about you, you are likely to doubt that they do. If you are low in attachment anxiety, by contrast, then you don’t spend all that much time thinking about what others think about you. In fact, you won’t be inclined to worry too much even if you learn that other people don’t like you. What people think about you doesn’t make or break you.
The second dimension, known as attachment avoidance, reflects the degree to which you depend on other people to feel good about yourself. If you are high in attachment avoidance, then you feel uncomfortable getting close to and depending on other people. If you are low in attachment avoidance, by contrast, then you strongly desire closeness with others, and your social relationships are the primary means by which you can experience a sense of well-being.
Most adults are neither low nor high in attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance but fall somewhere in between. People who fall more or less exactly in the middle of the continuum are securely attached. Everyone else has some degree of insecure, or maladaptive, attachment.
Attachment theorists recognize three maladaptive attachment styles: dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant and anxious-preoccupied attachment. They are characterized by low anxiety and high avoidance, high anxiety and high avoidance, or high anxiety and low avoidance.
But this classification leaves out a style of attachment that clearly is maladaptive in adults, namely the combination of low attachment anxiety and low attachment avoidance. In children this combination of features is the hallmark of secure attachment. But in adults, it’s maladaptive. I will refer to low attachment anxiety and low attachment avoidance in adults as “immature attachment.” This gives us a total of five adult attachment styles:
Secure Attachment: If you are securely attached, then you are neither high nor low in attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance but fall somewhere in the middle.
As you are moderate in attachment anxiety, you are fairly confident that the people you feel close to care about you and will be there for you if you need them. For this reason you don’t tend to worry much about whether they feel close to you and care about you, but you do worry if you discover that people you care about and feel close to don’t feel the same way.
As you are moderate in attachment avoidance, you are comfortable getting close to others, and you don’t have a problem trusting and depending on the people you feel close to, but your whole life does not revolve around other people. You are comfortable being on your own now and then, and your happiness doesn’t depend solely on your social relationships.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: Dismissive-avoidant individuals, or “dismissives” for short, are low in attachment anxiety but high in attachment avoidance. Their past experiences have led to a deactivation of their attachment system. Although they may worry what other people think of them as engaged in a particular pursuit, they couldn’t care less about whether others genuinely care about them as persons.
Dismissive-avoidant people’s high attachment avoidance originates in their implicit portrayal of true intimacy and closeness as a mirage. They automatically regard what others refer to as “intimate relationships” as practical arrangements in which insecure, codependent individuals can get their unhealthy desire for validation met. They do not themselves have any apparent need for closeness or intimacy but usually prefer to be on their own and to have full control over how they spend their time. They are so compulsively self-reliant that they only rarely form lasting romantic relationships.
While their social relationships tend to be superficial and short-lived, their lack of closeness and intimacy doesn’t usually cause them any distress. They do not spend much time contemplating whether the people in their lives truly care about them and will be there for them if they need them.
Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: Fearful-avoidant individuals, or “avoidants” for short, are high in both attachment anxiety and avoidance. Their high attachment anxiety makes them worry incessantly about whether people they feel close to really care about them. This is grounded in their uncertainty about whether they are worthy of being loved and whether they are fit for being in a relationship.
But unlike dismissive-avoidant individuals, they have not experienced the kind of attachment trauma resulting in a complete shutdown of the attachment system. Deep down they are longing for intimacy and closeness. Yet their internal working model represents intimate relationships as risky and scary arrangements that are bound to lead to rejection and emotional suffering. As a result, they suppress or deny any need for intimacy and frantically push away people who want to get closer to them because the very thought of intimate relationships triggers unbearable discomfort.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: If you have an anxious-preoccupied, or dependent, attachment style, you are high in attachment anxiety and low in attachment avoidance. Because of your high attachment anxiety, you often worry about whether the people you feel close to feel the same way about you and whether they have your best interests in mind.
Because you are low in attachment avoidance, you do not shun intimate or close relationships, however. Rather, you ache and yearn for the affection, approval, and responsiveness that your caregivers or former partners were unable to provide. It is as if your attachment system is on Adderall. You are so desperate for validation that if someone who ordinarily doesn’t pay any attention to you tosses a few crumbs of affection in your direction, you may experience a powerful high. Deep down your desperate cry-outs for closeness and validation are painful reenactments of how you used to interact with parents or former relationship partners.
Immature Attachment: Immaturely attached people are low in both attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. In young children, this is the ideal combination of attachment features. Young children should feel comfortable being close to their caregivers. They shouldn’t have trust issues or doubts about whether their caregivers love them and will keep them safe and respond to their needs.
But in adults, immature attachment is a form of insecure attachment. If you are immaturely attached as an adult, then you have an extremely high need to feel close to others, and you have difficulties making normal adult decisions without first consulting with people you feel close to. Because of your low attachment anxiety, you are confident that the people in your life care about you and will be there for you when you need them. But it’s a one-way street. No one who knows you well expects you to take care of their needs or look out for their interests. Your style of interaction is essentially that of a child.
Few people fit these categories perfectly. But your attachment style is likely to overlap more with some of these categories than with others.