Many of us have likely heard of the book The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, or at least the theory in the book. In it, Chapman breaks down five different ways people like to give and receive love. As Chapman argues, knowing how to communicate this allows people in relationships to better accommodate their partners’ needs. If you haven’t heard of this concept or taken the test yet, click here.
Another idea that could really benefit us is to learn our attachment style. In Attached, Amir Levine gives his readers a psychological perspective on relationships and compatibility. He explains that attachment is a natural and essential part of the human experience, and each person fits into a specific attachment style group.
Approximately 50 percent of people exhibit a Secure attachment style, while 20 percent have an Anxious style and 25 percent are Avoidant. An additional five percent of people exhibit what’s known as Anxious/Avoidant, which is a combination of the two. To learn your attachment style, take the test here.
There are some concepts in the book that gave me pause, including the idea of avoidance strategies, which we’ll get into below. Furthermore, at times the text felt a bit one-dimensional and didn’t explain the variety of experiences that can be found within each group of people.
Even so, I hope this breakdown is helpful to you as it was to me. It gave me clarity in my past experiences and clear direction on ways to improve current and future connections. It also helped me reconsider comparing my own relationships to other people’s, as these experiences are not as black and white as they may seem and there is a lot going on beneath the surface.
How Do We Develop into Each Group?
Can You Switch?
How to View These Categories?
Before I dive into the specific characteristics of each attachment style group, I want to note that I wouldn't take the following categorizations word for word. Instead, I felt they were enlightening guidelines to help understand past and present decision-making processes, and create tools to improve relationships in the future. Hopefully, you’ve taken the quiz by now and can see if the category descriptions below are relatable.
If you have an Anxious attachment style, you exhibit a greater need for intimacy, availability, and security in a relationship (1) than your peers.
Attachment Activation: If the needs outlined above are left unmet, an anxious person often feels heightened emotions, such as anxiety and frequent thoughts about how to re-establish closeness with their partner. If their partner gives them the love and intimacy they are seeking, the situation de-escalates and the person moves back into a calm state. If that reassurance isn't found, it’s common to enter what is known as the “the danger zone,” in which someone feels additional anxiety and may not be able to avoid additional thoughts about their partner (1).
Protest behavior: These are actions that work to get the attention of, or reconnect with, a partner (1). Signs of protest behavior, as outlined in the book, include:
Withdrawing, acting hostile or manipulative, acting busy or unapproachable, and/or trying to make a partner feel jealous
Sex: Anxious people can sometimes use sex as a measure of security, or simply for validation.
Toxicity: It is important to remember that the loop of obsession and validation that anxious people experience is not passion or love. It is instead a search for relief from feelings of anxiety or insecurity, and a reliance on the other person. For a further look at toxic loops and the sex that often results, check here.
Heartbreak: It might take longer for an anxious person to recover from a relationship than other people. This is because once the attachment style is activated, it is common to glorify an experience and focus on the highs of the relationship. “The fact that one person can take away all our discomfort in a split second makes it very hard to resist the temptation to see him or her again,” Levine explains (1).
Furthermore, one study found that anxious people are less likely to exhibit emotional regulation than people in the other groups (for example, areas of the orbitofrontal cortex are less active). If this is you, it’s worth remembering that it’s crucial to give yourself compassion during these experiences.
But that also means that in the long run, it’s worth not acting on the desires for reconnection, and instead focusing on healing. While clearly more painful, the pain of a heartbreak can actually be really important and motivating. It can act as fuel for self-growth, independence, and often cause positive transformations in moving yourself from anxiousness to becoming significantly more secure.
Tools: Levine recommends that anxious people:
1) Acknowledge the common need for intimacy, availability, and security in partnered experiences.
2) Take up an abundance philosophy. This group has the tendency to think there are only a few romantic options out there for them. This is not true, as there are plenty of viable partners for every person. (You know what they say about fish in the sea…) It can be helpful and even encouraging to focus on a bigger romantic picture, and possibly even help to detach yourself from unhealthy or mismatched partners.
3) Work on slowing down your responses. Anxious people tend to make assumptions about their partner’s emotions, quickly causing miscommunications and the activation of the attachment system. Instead, Levine recommends not assuming the worst. Furthermore, if a fight still ensues, you could follow the advice of popular sex therapist Emily Nagoski, who recommends you try to flip the narrative, and argue as your partner while they argue as you. This could be a written or verbal exercise, but the main point is that can help you demystify your partner’s intentions (2).
People with avoidant attachment styles commonly use emotional boundaries to keep serious attachments at bay. They are often less in touch with both their feelings and their ability to interpret other people’s emotions. For example, one study found that many avoidant peoplerated their partners' feelings as “indifferent” when they mentioned someone else being very attractive — when in reality, the partner had said they felt upset by this. This could cause the avoidant person to come off as insensitive, when it may be a lack of emotional connection to intimacy.
Avoidant people often use deactivating strategies, which is the opposite of what a person with an anxious style would need (you can see how things could get complicated in a relationship between people from each group).
Deactivation Strategy: When people with avoidant styles want more space or independence from the intimate partner, they can try a variety of things, including:
Not saying “I love you,” checking out mentally, keeping secrets, avoiding physical closeness, focusing on small imperfections, flirting with others, pining after an ex (“Phantom X”), and looking for “the perfect partner”
“The Perfect Partner’:” Having an idea of “The One” — or someone who checks off every box — keeps people on the hunt for a very specific person, who may not even exist. This can be unhelpful, as it is easy for avoidant people to criticize current partners in very minute ways to keep themselves unattached.
“Phantom X:” Have you heard the phrase “They always come back?” This could be due to an avoidant attachment style. Phantom X is a phenomenon where an avoidant person dismisses current partners, then later has sudden feelings and an urge for connection with the old flame. This causes avoidant people to avoid connection with a current partner — and that’s most likely a continued cycle from past relationships, too.
Protest Behavior: When avoidant people feel like the space they have put between them and a partner is being infringed, they can up the ante by:
Belittling a partner, getting up and leaving, withdrawing, minimizing physical contact, and reducing emotional sharing
Sex: Avoidant people can sometimes use intimacy to keep distance between them and a partner, such as not cuddling after sex.
Are They Really Just Anxious? Researchers found that when avoidant people were distracted by other tasks, such as answering questions, “their ability to repress [emotions] lessened and their true attachment feelings and concerns were able to surface” (1). There is a theory here that underneath all that avoidance is the same needs as those of the anxious attachment group, but it hasn’t been solidified.
Tools: Levine recommends that avoidant people:
1) Become more aware of when they are using strategies to disengage.
2) Work on collaboration instead of constantly asserting independence.
3) Use distracting strategies which are essentially engaging in joint activities to promote bonding without necessarily realizing it, such as hiking, sailing, and cooking.
People with secure attachment styles have strong internal beliefs about healthy relationships. Researchers have found that these people are more psychologically primed to focus on themes such as love and closeness, while other people’s brains light up more when they see the words “danger” or “separation” (1).
Relationships for those with secure attachment styles tend to be healthier, as well as more stable and secure. Their experiences, thought processes on relationships, and intimacy levels are often quite healthy.
One important thing people with secure attachment styles should watch for is the quality of their relationships. Sometimes they continue to give a partner the benefit of the doubt or view their partner’s well-being as their responsibility. On the flip side, however, they are better at detecting and avoiding red flags than other groups.
Secure Relationships: Among the most seamless relationships are a pairing in which a person with a secure relationship style partners with someone who is anxious or avoidant. In particular, secure people often elevate anxious people’s security levels.
If you come from an avoidant-anxious connection, beginning a relationship with a secure person may feel boring at first, as the same highs and lows you experienced in your last relationship are not as present (1).
Anxious/Avoidant Relationships: While people with secure attachment styles are typically a better match for both anxious and avoidant people, it's common for avoidant and anxious people to be together. These pairings are likely because people with secure styles often enter relationships and remain there for a decent amount of time (at times not even reappearing in the dating world at all).
Furthermore, it is common for anxious and avoidant people to be attracted to one another because, “each reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and about their relationship, so in a way, each style is drawn to reenact a familiar script over and over again,” Levine explains. “The avoidant’s defensive self-perception that they are strong and independent is confirmed, as is the belief that others want to pull them into more closeness than they are comfortable with. The anxious type finds that their perception of wanting more intimacy than their partner can provide is confirmed (1).”
Others: Sometimes people with similar attachment styles pair up — but two people with anxious attachment styles can also add some challenges. On the other hand, researchers did not find one pair of avoidant/avoidant, which may suggest these people are less compatible with others like them.