Most people who have an interest in psychology have heard of the benefits of attachment. Developed by psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory states that young children develop attachments to at least one adult who provides comfort when they are afraid, vulnerable, or distressed.
The insecure attachment style describes a pattern of interaction in relationships in which a person displays fear or uncertainty. It is in contrast to a secure attachment, in which a person feels safe and comforted around their partner during times of distress.
People who receive consistent care and nurturing as children become secure in their attachments.
This can lead to relationship conflict as well as difficulty forming close relationships with others. It is not surprising that a review of the research shows that individuals who are insecure in relationships have lower levels of satisfaction with their relationships.
An insecure attachment is an umbrella term that describes people who approach relationships with fear and distress, but there are several types of insecure attachment patterns:
1. Insecure-ambivalent attachment
In people with this attachment style, insecure behavior manifests itself in the form of clinginess.
Someone who is insecure-ambivalent will need frequent reassurance from their partner, and they may be fearful of being abandoned. This attachment style is also sometimes called insecure resistant attachment.
Experts have also reported that unresolved loss and trauma can lead to insecure attachment styles in adults in addition to child abuse and neglect.
Losing a parent, being separated from parents, or exposure to traumatic events such as war, gang violence, or domestic violence can therefore lead to an insecure attachment style. Physical and sexual abuse are also forms of trauma.
There can be several explanations for what causes insecurity in relationships, but it mostly comes down to experiences in past relationships, primarily those with a parent or primary caretaker.
A secure attachment develops if caregivers were warm, nurturing, and consistently available and responsive to a child’s needs. Insecure attachments develop when this type of care is lacking, whether because of abuse, violence, neglect, or emotional absence.
Children whose parents or primary caregivers were not consistently responsive or supportive can cause their children to develop insecure attachments, eventually leading to attachment issues in adulthood.
For example, if a parent is physically absent from a child’s life or emotionally unavailable, the child may develop insecure attachment patterns. A parent who struggles with mental illness or addiction may be minimally responsive and increase the risk of insecure attachment in children.
Similarly, if a parent sometimes responds to a child’s needs or tends to the child during times of distress, but other times does not, the child may be unsure if their needs will be met, leading to insecure attachment.
For someone with an ambivalent attachment, this leads to anxiety and clinginess to prevent abandonment.
In contrast, someone with an avoidant attachment style will refrain from becoming close to others, so they are not disappointed or hurt if they are abandoned, or their partner does not meet their needs.
How insecure attachment affects relationships in adulthood
Unfortunately, it is known that an insecure attachment style that develops during childhood can have lasting effects, carrying over into adult relationships.
When someone has an insecure-ambivalent attachment, for example, they may be so anxious in relationships that they want to spend all of their time with their partner, never allowing the partner to have alone time.
This clingy behavior can be a turnoff and push away potential partners. On the other hand, a person who has an insecure-avoidant attachment pattern may struggle with loneliness because of fear of being close to others.
They may also come across as cold and uninterested in their relationships, which can lead to conflict.
Research has looked at the specific effects of insecure attachments on adult relationships. One study found that individuals who had avoidant or resistant attachment styles tended to use immature defense mechanisms when interacting with others.
For example, they may be prone to repressing their emotions or projecting their own fears and anxieties onto others. This is understandably problematic for relationships, but it is an attempt to protect themselves from being hurt by people with an insecure attachment style.
Other research suggests that insecure attachment relationships can lead to the following behaviors:
When a person with an avoidant attachment style is distressed, they likely will not seek comfort from their partner, nor will they offer comfort to a distressed partner.
People with an insecure avoidant attachment style tend to seek less physical contact and to distance themselves from their partners when separating, such as before the partner leaves for a trip at the airport.
Someone with an insecure attachment style may become highly distressed when discussing a conflict with their partner, and they tend to view their relationship negatively during times of stress.
A person with an avoidant attachment style will disengage from their partners during times of stress. In contrast, someone with an ambivalent or resistant attachment style will tend to behave dysfunctionally, damaging the relationship.
Furthermore, the attachment patterns that begin in childhood tend to continue into adulthood if nothing is done to change them.
For example, a child who learns he or she cannot rely on parents to provide emotional support and protection will be resistant to rely on a romantic partner, so they do not turn to their partner for help and connection, which is generally expected within a relationship.
Outside of causing damage to relationships, insecure attachment styles in adults can lead to low self-worth, depression, and other mental health issues.
An insecure attachment style can be ambivalent/resistant, avoidant, or disorganized.
These styles have roots in childhood when people either develop secure attachments with their caregivers or learn that they cannot rely upon caretakers to provide
Consistent, adequate support and safety, leading to insecure attachments. These attachment patterns from childhood tend to follow people to adulthood, but there are ways to cope so that the insecure attachment style does not harm your relationships.
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Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.