The 3 Adult Attachment Styles & What They Mean

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Attached" by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the three adult attachment styles? Which combinations of styles match up the best? How do you navigate a relationship with mismatched styles?

The three adult attachment styles are secure, anxious, and avoidant. Secure attachers make up the majority of the population and can pretty much get along with any other type. On the other hand, if you combine an anxious attacher with an avoidant attacher, you’re looking for trouble.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about the three adult attachment styles.

The 3 Adult Attachment Styles

Have you ever wondered why your partner behaves in ways you cannot understand? Attached by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller offers practical, science-based wisdom that will help you gain insights into yourself, your beloved, and your partnership. The key is identifying and understanding which of three adult attachment styles—avoidant, secure, or anxious—is wired into your brain, driving the way you interact in romantic relationships. 

Whether you’re searching for a new companion or trying to reignite the spark in a 40-year marriage, the authors distill the psychology of attachment into practical tools for finding an emotionally fulfilling relationship or improving the one you already have. Attached also delivers advice on communicating effectively, resolving conflict, and how to distance yourself from unhealthy relationships.

1. Secure Attachment

A person with a secure attachment style has a compelling desire to achieve closeness with a romantic partner, but they’re also not overly concerned about rejection. They don’t need to constantly negotiate how much intimacy or how much independence their relationship gives them—they’re generally content with whatever their partner wants. 

Secure attachers are consistent and reliable—they show up on time, they phone when they say they’re going to phone, and they keep promises. They discuss plans with you and don’t make decisions until they get your input. They open up their lives to you and typically introduce you to their family and friends relatively early in the relationship. 

They’re also excellent communicators and know how to ask for what they want. They tell you if something is bothering them. They aren’t afraid to discuss emotional issues or “touchy” relationship issues. They express their feelings for you openly and often—for example, it’s easy for them to say “I love you.” 

If you’re in a relationship with a secure attacher, you’re in an emotionally safe place. They’re concerned about your well-being and are almost always willing to work out disagreements in a fair, compromising way. They enjoy being your secure base and making it easier for you to face the perils of the outside world. 

2. Anxious Attachment

A person with an anxious attachment style has a compelling desire to achieve closeness with a romantic partner and is highly tuned in to any perceived threat to that closeness.They’re preoccupied with making the relationship work, so at times they may seem overly focused on you. For example, an anxious attacher may ask a lot of questions about your past relationships to see how they measure up. 

The anxious attacher’s sensitivity to the relationship can be a huge asset, or it can lead to unnecessary drama. If you have to work late or spend a weekend without them, they may feel rejected. They’ll be very concerned about what you’re doing when you’re not together. 

Unfortunately, when an anxious attacher feels threatened, they tend to have a hard time expressing what’s bothering them. They will sometimes act out or get angry because you can’t guess what they need. 

On the positive side, anxious attachers happily show their devotion; for example, they tend to be very affectionate—fond of hand-holding, hugging, and kissing. If you can quell an anxious attacher’s fears and offer them the reassurance they need, you’ll have a highly loving and devoted partner. 

4. Avoidant Attachment

A person with an avoidant attachment style doesn’t possess a compelling desire to achieve closeness with a romantic partner. Like all humans, their brains are wired to seek an intimate connection, but when the partnership gets too close, they feel suffocated. 

If you’re just starting a relationship with an avoidant attacher, you may find that they give out confusing signals. For example, they may call you several times one week, then not at all the next week. They may “come on strong” at first, but start creating emotional distance as your relationship develops—suddenly they may say that their work is all-consuming or they need to take a break from togetherness. 

Avoidant attachers are often reluctant to introduce you to their family or friends. They might make comments about taking a trip or moving to another city without mentioning whether you’re part of that equation. As your relationship progresses, they might suggest that the two of you are better off living in separate houses or not getting married.

If you’re in a long-term relationship with an avoidant attacher, you will find that they use everyday conversations—about what to watch on television, how to care for pets or kids, or when and where to go on vacation—as ways to negotiate their independence. Because you’ve been in this relationship for a while, you’ve probably already learned how to accommodate their needs for distance and space. Most likely, you give in to their wishes. If you don’t, the avoidant partner will withdraw, or the relationship will end. 

Interestingly, two people with avoidant styles rarely end up in a partnership because neither one is ever willing to compromise. 

When Anxious and Avoidant Attachers Collide

The most volatile partnerships combination occurs between anxious attachers and avoidant attachers. Conflict between the two adult attachment styles is inevitable, and chronic fighting will occur over seemingly trivial issues as well as major ones. 

If you’re part of an anxious-avoidant pairing, you’ll likely experience these conditions: 

  • An abundance of highs and lows. Periods of extreme closeness are followed by extreme withdrawal. 
  • A “stably unstable” pairing. The relationship may last for years, but it’s always off-kilter because neither partner achieves the degree of intimacy they desire. 
  • Arguments about extremely trivial issues that don’t seem worthy of an argument, like how your partner squeezes the toothpaste tube. 
  • Conflicts that never get resolved. Resolution would result in emotional closeness, which the avoidant is trying to avoid. 
  • A feeling of being trapped. Both parties know the relationship isn’t working, but they feel too connected to the other person to leave. 

Why Anxious-Avoidant Conflicts Escalate  

When anxious-avoidant relationships last for a substantial period of time, both parties can get trapped in an escalating cycle. The anxious attacher tries harder to get closer, and the avoidant tries harder to distance themselves. The anxious attacher utilizes activation strategies; the avoidant utilizes deactivation strategies. The result? Both parties are stuck in a simmering, or sometimes exploding, conflict—no matter how much they genuinely love each other. 

In these “stably unstable” relationships, interactions tend to worsen over time because the couple’s differences expand into every corner of life. For example, what starts as a conflict over whether to get married becomes a standoff over issues like visiting each other’s families, splitting the household chores evenly, or spending money on a joint vacation. The gap between partners widens as every aspect of their shared life becomes a point of contention. 

How Anxious-Avoidant Pairs Can Find Resolution

Although anxious-avoidant partnerships face abundant conflicts, that doesn’t mean the only solution is to break up. Typically, an anxious-avoidant pairing can succeed if the anxious partner makes frequent concessions and lets the avoidant partner run the show—or determine how and when intimacy is achieved. 

However, there are two healthier ways for anxious-avoidant couples to achieve a happier ending—if they’re both willing to make an effort: 1) Both partners can find good role models and mimic their behavior, and 2) they can take a good hard look at their past relationships. 

1. Find Good Role Models and Copy Them  

Research tells us that it’s possible for someone’s adult attachment style to change over time—for example, an avoidant or anxious partner could become more secure. One way this can occur is through “security priming,” which is essentially role-modeling of how secure people interact and behave.  

First, both the avoidant and anxious partner must find a role model—someone who has a comfortable and secure way of dealing with their romantic partner. The avoidant or anxious partner thinks about that role model’s specific behaviors and actions in response to a variety of life situations. For example, how do they behave when their partner feels bad? When do they respond directly to their partner’s behavior or words, and when do they turn the other cheek?

2. Inventory Your Behavior in Past Relationships 

If you’re trying to improve who you are in a relationship today, it’s worth looking back at your relationship history. Based on the previous sections, you already know your adult attachment style. The next step is to dig a little deeper and examine how your attachment style has played out in your past relationships. This can help you understand what’s going on in your present relationship. Follow these steps:

  • First, list the names of your last three romantic partners, both long-term partners and also people you dated for a shorter period of time. 
  • Make a brief list of what stands out about those relationships—vivid recollections of the time you shared. It’s best to come up with specific scenarios rather than general impressions. Ideally, come up with similar scenarios for each relationship. (For example, if you lived with all three partners, think about how you felt immediately after you moved in together.) 
  • How did you respond in those scenarios? Did you feel sad, resentful, pressured, angry, inferior, worthless, aloof? How did you behave—for example, did you pick a fight, threaten to leave, make yourself busy or unavailable, withdraw from physical contact, make critical comments, stop listening to your partner, or look for ways to make your partner jealous? 
  • Look for recurrent patterns. Can you see how your attachment style figured into what you did, said, felt, or believed?  
  • Do you see any ways in which your attachment style is hindering your ability to have a good relationship right now?
  • How would your secure role model have behaved in those scenarios with your past partners? How would he or she advise you to behave? 

When You Should End the Relationship 

While you can learn from role models and the past, some relationships can’t be fixed. If these statements apply to you and/or your relationship, your partnership has become harmful and possibly abusive, and you may need to end it:  

  1. You don’t want your friends and family to witness how your partner treats you. 
  2. Your partner has a reputation for being a wonderful human being—but this doesn’t match up with what you see.
  3. Your partner is more concerned about how strangers view him or her than how you do.
  4. Your partner is nicer to other people than he or she is to you. 
  5. Your partner dismisses your opinion or insults your intelligence.
  6. You don’t really know much about your partner’s life, so you feel you have to spy on them to find out. 
  7. You don’t feel confident that your partner would be there for you in an emergency situation. 

How to Communicate Like a Secure Attacher 

Secure attachers express their needs and expectations directly and in a nonthreatening, inoffensive, noncritical manner. Because secure people believe they are worthy of love, they ask for a kiss if they want affection. If they think their partner is brooding over something, they ask questions about what they’re feeling. If they aren’t sure where the relationship is headed in the future, they state what they would like to occur and then ask their partner what they want. 

What Effective Communication Sounds Like

Follow these principles of effective communication: 

  1. Be brave and assertive. Don’t apologize for feeling what you feel. Even if your partner doesn’t view your concerns as legitimate, you do—and that’s why you’re initiating this conversation. Example: “I’m 35 years old, and I’d really like to start a family in the next couple years. I’m hoping to have at least two kids. I want to find out if you want to have a family, too.” 
  2. Focus your words on what you need or want. Use phrases like “I need,” “I feel,” and “I want.” Example: “I need to know that I can trust you. When you stay out late at night and I can’t reach you on the phone, I worry about our relationship. I feel concerned about whether or not you’re being faithful.”  
  3. Use specific examples to illustrate your concerns. Don’t rely on generalities, which leave room for misunderstandings. Stick to concrete language. Example: “When you don’t sleep in the bed with me after we have sex, I feel like you don’t want the kind of intimacy that I need.” 
  4. Avoid blaming, judging, or accusing. Your goal is not to make your partner feel inadequate—after all, their needs are just as valid as yours. Example: “I need to know that you respect my intelligence. When you make jokes about me being a dumb blonde, I question whether you value me for my brains or my looks.”
  5. Time your discussion for when both parties are calm and collected. If the situation is already volatile, let it simmer down before you attempt an honest, forthright discussion. 

How to Handle Day-to-Day Conflicts Like a Secure Attacher

Many of us think that the best relationships don’t involve arguing or conflict, but that’s a romantic myth. Numerous studies have proved that even the most secure couples have arguments, and they often serve as opportunities for growing closer. 

Conflict between partners comes in two flavors: intimacy-related disagreements and daily-life disagreements. The former are the complex relationship problems that are discussed throughout this summary. The latter are more trivial issues, like who will make dinner or take out the trash. As we’ve seen, both types of disagreements may be connected—an argument about where to go on vacation may actually be an argument about intimacy. But even when daily-life conflicts aren’t symptomatic of a much deeper conflict, it’s still helpful to have solid strategies for managing them. Follow the tips in this playbook: 

The Secure Attacher’s Playbook: How to Defuse Relationship Conflict 

  • Show a genuine concern for the other person’s feelings. Remember that a disagreement between partners is not a zero-sum game—one person wins and the other loses. If we’re in a relationship, our happiness is dependent on our mate’s happiness—so it makes sense that we should tune in to what the other person wants or needs. When both partners’ feelings are validated, both parties win.
  • Keep the argument centered on the present issue—don’t get sidetracked or expand the argument to include other issues. A conflict about someone leaving the kitchen a mess shouldn’t spill into a conflict about whose family you’ll visit at Thanksgiving..  
  • Be willing to take part in the discussion—don’t disengage or withdraw. Both partners need to be willing to approach the issue head-on until it gets resolved in a mutually agreeable way—even if it takes some arguing to get there. 
  • Openly communicate your needs and feelings. No matter how long you’ve been together with your partner, don’t expect him or her to be a mind-reader. Tell them exactly what you need or want. 
The 3 Adult Attachment Styles & What They Mean

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  • Why your partner behaves the way they do
  • How your attachment style affects your relationship
  • How to distance yourself from unhealthy relationships

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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