Research shows that attachment is important for mental health. For those who live with an insecure attachment style, relationships can bring up challenges, but there is hope.
As human beings, we’re wired for connection.
But for many, it’s not that simple. Relationships can bring up complicated feelings, such as anxiety, distrust, and even fear.
If this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone, and support is available. You may be living with an insecure attachment style, likely brought on by events in your childhood.
Attachment theory was first developed in the 1950s by psychologist John Bowlby.
In brief, attachment theory infers that the relationships you have with your caregivers can pave the way for the relationships you have in adulthood.
When you have a secure attachment style, you find relationships satisfying, says Liza Gold, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City.
Gold says it also means that you:
- feel comfortable with vulnerability
- express your needs openly
- rebound quickly from disappointment
- find balance in your relationships
- resolve conflict effectively
- communicate your feelings assertively
Attachment disorders are different from secure attachment.
They usually begin in childhood. When someone under the age of 18 has interpersonal difficulties, they may be diagnosed with an attachment disorder.
“It typically means that a child hasn’t experienced reliable and consistent attunement and emotional responsiveness from a primary caregiver or another significant attachment figure that would allow them to experience their interpersonal world as safe and likely to meet their emotional and physical needs,” says Dr. Sarah Bren, a licensed clinical psychologist in Pelham, New York.
Reactive attachment disorder
Children living with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) may have difficulty forming close relationships with caregivers and peers.
Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED)
Children living with disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) may not have a sense of “stranger danger,” so to speak. They may feel completely at ease with adults they haven’t met before or wander off with people they don’t know.
While DSED is still not well-understood, a 2018 study examining the course of signs of DSED in children showed that it might develop in children who don’t get their physical or emotional needs met by their caregivers.
There are four attachment styles for adults:
- Secure. You feel comfortable with both intimacy and space from your loved ones.
- Anxious-preoccupied. You may feel worried about others leaving you, have an intense fear of rejection, or wish for the approval of others.
- Dismissive-avoidant. You may feel uncomfortable getting close to others, have difficulty expressing your feelings, or have a strong desire for alone time.
- Fearful-avoidant. You may oscillate between an intense desire to be emotionally close to others and a need to take space from them.
The last three are considered “insecure attachments,” an umbrella term to describe interpersonal difficulties and fear in relationships in adulthood.
“People who live with an insecure attachment style may have trouble forming secure, trusting, and lasting bonds with others,” explains Gold.
If you want to learn what your attachment style is, try our attachment style quiz.
Experts believe that attachment disorders in childhood lay the groundwork for insecure attachments in adulthood.
“Our early relationships with our primary attachment figures serve as a ‘blueprint’ that we then use throughout our life to predict how others will receive us, respond to us, and meet our emotional and physical needs,” says Bren.
“If we have early experiences in childhood that lead to insecure attachment styles, we very often carry that with us in our ‘blueprint’ and can then subconsciously or consciously find ourselves reenacting those same insecure attachment patterns in our adult relationships,” she explains.
Your attachment style can impact your mental health in several ways. Research shows that an insecure attachment style can shape your mood, how you view yourself, and how you cope.
Insecure attachment styles are linked with:
- hypersexuality (more common with anxious and fearful-avoidant attachment)
- increased social media use
- lack of trust in others
- lowered self-esteem
- social isolation
- uncertainty in relationships
using substances to cope
You don’t have to go through this alone. If relationships pose significant challenges for you, consider reaching out to a mental health professional specializing in attachment theory.
“We know that attachment styles are changeable — they are not fixed,” says Bren. “With support, insight, and corrective emotional experiences, we can shift attachment patterns and help reestablish an individual’s sense of interpersonal safety and security in their relationships.”
Healthy attachments with other people are essential to your mental health.
If you live with an insecure attachment style, you may find relationships difficult and have other challenges, such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem.
But there is hope.
To dive deeper into this topic, you may find it helpful to read books on the subject:
- “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
- “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” by Dr. Sue Johnson
- “Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do” by Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy
“An insecure attachment style doesn’t have to determine the quality of your life,” says Gold. “No matter the nature of your insecure attachment, you can heal from your trauma and learn ways to connect with others that provide emotional fulfillment and satisfaction.”