Let’s Talk About Attachment Theory: Relationships & Triggers

Couple experiencing attachment issues in relationship

If you have been following along in our most recent blogs, we have been talking all about attachment theory. In the last blog, I introduced the four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. In today’s blog we will expound on how each attachment style manifests in relationships. And just for clarity, I mean all relationships—relationships between spouses, between friends, between co-workers. No relationship is exempt. Additionally, we will explore common attachment triggers and how insecure attachment styles can move toward secure attachment. 

Manifestations of Attachment Styles in Relationships 

Secure Attachment 

Secure attachment is the aim of healthy relationships according to attachment theory. Securely attached adults are aware of their own emotions and emotional needs. They have established ways of experiencing and expressing their emotional world with others in an effective way, which strengthens relational bonds and intimacy. 

Here are some signs that you are in a relationship with an individual with secure attachment: 

  • They exhibit consistent and reliable behavior. Their relational commitment to you is important to them and it shows through their consistent actions. 
  • They are emotionally available and responsive to your emotional cues. They celebrate your successes and offer comfort, empathy, and support during times of distress. 
  • They practice healthy boundaries. They strike a healthy balance between independence and togetherness, allowing each person to maintain their individuality in the relationship. 
  • They have trust in the relationship. Rather than exhibit jealousy or possessiveness, they demonstrate confidence in the bond that you share. 
  • They possess a collaborative and restorative approach to conflict. They will not throw the towel in at the first sign of relational tension or disagreement. They prioritize finding solutions that strengthen the relationship. 
  • They have a positive view of themselves and their relationships. They do not rely on external validation or reassurance to know they are worthy of love. 

Anxious Attachment 

Individuals with anxious attachment struggle to trust in the stability and longevity of their relationships. Anxious attachers are fearful that others will ultimately abandon them. For this reason, they frequently seek validation or reassurance in their relationships and are hypervigilant toward perceived threats to the relationship. 

Here are some signs that you are in a relationship with an individual with anxious attachment: 

  • They frequently ask questions to gain reassurance about the status or quality of the relationship, even if you have reassured them multiple times. They may repeatedly ask things like, “Do you really love me?” or “Are we still friends?” 
  • They may become visibly distressed or anxious when you express a desire for alone time or if you desire to spend time with other people without them. 
  • They exhibit overthinking or overanalyzing behaviors, looking for potential signs of distance in the relationship. They may interpret a delayed response in text messaging as evidence that you are losing interest in the relationship. 
  • They may display emotional reactivity to relational disagreements or misunderstandings that seem disproportionate to the situation. They may cry, yell, or emotionally withdraw in response to perceived distance in the relationship, even though it may seem trivial to you. 
  • Their mood and self-esteem are heavily influenced by the state of the relationship. If they perceive distance in the relationship, they may feel worthless or unlovable. 
  • They express jealousy or suspicion over your interactions with others. They feel threatened by your other friendships or relationships. 
  • They may struggle to respect your boundaries—becoming upset or clingy when you seek to pursue activities or hobbies without them. 

Avoidant Attachment 

Individuals with avoidant attachment ultimately fear that they will be rejected. They believe they are a failure who is inherently flawed, and it is only a matter of time before others realize it and reject them. To avoid the pain of rejection, individuals with avoidant attachment protect themselves by remaining emotionally distant from others. 

Here are some signs that you are in a relationship with an individual with avoidant attachment: 

  • They appear distant or turned off by conversations related to deep emotions or personal experiences. They may try to change the subject or remove themselves from the conversation when these kinds of discussions arise. 
  • They are uncomfortable with making plans or discussing commitments that may make them feel trapped or obligated to the relationship in the future. 
  • They are uncomfortable with physical expressions of closeness. They may shy away from hugs or kisses, preferring to maintain physical distance even in private settings. 
  • They frequently pursue time alone or engage in solitary activities. They may spend hours alone in their room or prefer pursuing hobbies and interests independently rather than spending time on the relationship. 
  • They are hesitant to rely on you for help or support, even in times of need. When you offer to provide help or emotional support, they may brush off your offer and insist on handling it themselves. 
  • They appear emotionally dismissive when you try to express your feelings or discuss issues. They may downplay or minimize your concerns or feelings by treating them as unimportant or saying you are overreacting. 
  • They prioritize independence over connection. When it comes to making decisions, they make choices based on their preferences or priorities over seeking compromise or collaboration. 

Disorganized Attachment 

Individuals with disorganized attachment vacillate between the behavioral manifestations of anxious and avoidant attachment. Disorganized attachers view relationships as unpredictable because their childhood template for relationships taught them that others—especially those closest to them—cannot be trusted. 

Here are some signs that you are in a relationship with an individual with disorganized attachment: 

  • They express or demonstrate a strong desire for connection and closeness one moment, then suddenly withdraw or become distant when the relationship feels too intense or emotionally overwhelming. 
  • They act out in difficult or intolerable ways that end up pushing others away from them. When their acting out behaviors ultimately end the relationship, this confirms their belief that other people will reject them. 
  • Similar to the anxious attacher, they exhibit fear-based behaviors that stem from their fear of abandonment and rejection. For instance, they may become overly clingy or seek constant reassurance in the relationship. 
  • They may have a pattern of choosing unsuitable partners in romantic relationships, recreating the conditions of their childhood relationships. They may subconsciously gravitate toward fearful or potentially abusive partners, confirming their belief that people cannot be trusted. 
  • Similar to the avoidant attacher, they emotionally shut down and appear cold or unfeeling to those around them. 

Attachment Triggers in Relationships 

Whether you are reading this for yourself or someone you are in a relationship with, becoming aware of attachment triggers is an important step toward deeper understanding. Here are some common triggers for each of the insecure attachment styles. 

Anxious Attachment 

  • Loved ones forgetting significant dates related to the relationship—anniversaries, birthdays, etc. 
  • Coming home late without communicating 
  • Failing to respond to text messages or phone calls 
  • Failing to notice or compliment when something is different, such as new clothes or a new haircut 
  • Cancelling plans to go on a date or hang out 
  • Seeing a friend or partner act too friendly or flirtatious with someone else 

Avoidant Attachment 

  • A friend or partner pushing for emotional vulnerability 
  • Feeling pressured to disclose personal information 
  • Being asked if they need help or support with something 
  • Situations that make them feel suffocated in the relationship—friend or partner demonstrating excessive neediness, clinginess, or emotional dependence on them 
  • Thinking that a relationship is taking up too much of their time 
  • Losing their independence 

Disorganized Attachment 

  • A friend or partner expressing dissatisfaction or concern about the relationship 
  • Conflicts or confrontations that escalate quickly, triggering intense emotional reactions that feel uncontrollable and overwhelming 
  • Sudden changes in the mood or behavior of family, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners
  • Relational situations that trigger memories of traumatic events from their past when they felt abandoned or helpless 
  • Making decisions without consulting them (even if the decision or plan is in their best interest) leads to feelings of powerlessness and loss of control 

Earned Secure Attachment in Relationships 

If your early experiences were inconsistent, rejecting, or traumatic, there is hopeful news! You do not have to continue living in the patterns of insecure attachment forever. Our brains are incredibly designed structures, capable of rewiring themselves when exposed to repeated positive experiences. It is actually possible to rework your insecure attachment patterns through exposure to healthy relationships—a concept called “earned secure” attachment. 

An adult with earned secure attachment possesses traits similar to those with secure attachment. They have a positive view of themselves, share comfortably about their emotional world, and have a healthy balance of independence and intimacy. The primary difference being that an individual with earned secure attachment had early experiences that are in alignment with insecure attachment styles. 

Moving Toward Earned Secure Attachment 

While it takes time and effort, it is possible to move toward earned secure attachment in relationships. This process involves making sense of past experiences, altering negative self-perceptions, and changing unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors in your relationships. In an article about earned secure attachment, The Attachment Project highlights two pathways for seeking out earned secure attachment. The first is finding emotional support in an alternative support figure who is securely attached. The second is through psychotherapy with a trained therapist. 

Alternative support figures can be another family member (aunt/uncle/grandparent), close friend, or romantic partner who helps an insecure attacher alter the relational template they developed early on. In the context of these healthy and supportive relationships, insecure attachers learn a different way of relating with others. 

In psychotherapy, the therapist takes on a role similar to an alternative support figure. The therapist demonstrates traits of secure attachment by listening to your needs, providing empathy and validation toward your feelings, and establishing healthy relational boundaries. In the context of a strong therapeutic alliance, an insecure attacher can challenge their mental representations of relationships in order to work toward a more balanced perspective. 

If you have followed along on our exploration of attachment theory and wish to go deeper in your understanding of how attachment influences your relationships, contact us today to start your journey. 

Written by Ginger Hanny 

*Ginger Hanny, MSW, LSW is a therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling. Ginger enjoys doing individual counseling with adults. She also provides premarital counseling and teen and adolescent counseling.  Journey to Joy Counseling serves the Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.