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How Understanding Attachment Theory Can Help You Navigate Dating And Relationships

In pursuit of magic
Understanding Attachment Theory

If you’ve ever wondered why you have difficulty setting boundaries, tend to panic and become clingy when your partner pulls away, or avoid being emotionally vulnerable in your relationships, it’s well worth considering how these patterns may stem from your early childhood experiences.

This concept is the basis for attachment theory — which was developed by psychologist John Bowlby — and which focuses on how the early bond you formed with your primary caregivers may impact the way you relate to others as an adult. Experts say that understanding this theory — and more specifically, your and your partner's “attachment style” — can offer a lot of useful insight.

”Human babies are entirely dependent on their caregivers for survival and use crying and other signals to reestablish safety and soothing during times of distress, such as following a separation, when they experience disappointment, fear, or stress,” explains Stacy, Founder of REDDI, and a mental health practitioner.

“If their caregiver is available and attentive, the baby will be easily soothed and develop a secure attachment. However, if the caregiver is not consistently available, the baby will develop insecure attachment.”

According to Stacy, your attachment patterns develop during infancy and are typically established by the time you’re just 1 year old.

“These early adaptive behavioral patterns become the blueprint of how we understand whether or not our needs will be met,” she adds. “They follow us into our adult relationships as our romantic partners become our new attachment figures.”

Attachment theory may not be able to explain or solve every problematic pattern in your relationships, but it’s certainly a key piece to the puzzle.

Below, we share how you can use attachment theory to help you navigate your relationships.

Figuring Out Your Attachment Style

The first step in applying attachment theory to your dating life and relationships is to determine which attachment style you have (find out your attachment style by taking our free 5 minute quiz). There are three main types.

Secure Attachment

As the name suggests, people with this attachment style typically experience greater feelings of safety in their relationships. This allows them to show up in an authentic way, to be vulnerable when necessary, and to get their needs met in a healthy way.

Here are some other signs that you have this attachment style:

  • You can openly express your thoughts and feelings.

  • You know how to handle conflicts in a constructive way, repair well from conflict, and move toward forgiveness.

  • You’re well aware that you’re loveable and worthy of love.

Those with secure attachment styles view conflicts as external problems to be solved collaboratively, not threats to the relationship. Their nervous system is balanced — they have more capacity for distress. They're able to soothe themselves and quickly return to a state of calm.

Anxious Attachment

Individuals with this attachment style often had caregivers who were inconsistently responsive to their needs. As a result, they tend to be overly dependent on their partners and constantly seek reassurance and validation. They may worry about their worthiness of love and fear abandonment.

Other signs of anxious attachment, include:

  • You often worry about the stability of your relationship.

  • You’re extra sensitive to perceived signs of rejection or distance.

  • You have difficulty managing your emotions in relationships.

  • You need a lot of closeness and connection in your relationship to feel safe.

  • You find yourself “on the lookout” for signs that you’re losing connection and stability in your relationship.

  • You feel like you’re never quite good enough.

  • You tend to feel anxious or upset when a partner doesn't respond to your texts or calls promptly.

Avoidant Attachment

This attachment style develops when caregivers are emotionally unavailable or dismissive of the child's needs. Avoidant-dismissive individuals tend to be highly independent and self-reliant. They may downplay the importance of emotional intimacy and avoid getting too close to others. They often have difficulty expressing their own emotions and may have a fear of dependency on others.

According to Stacy, here are some other signs you have this attachment style:

  • You often feel disconnected from your own feelings and may feel uncomfortable when others express theirs.

  • You self-soothe during conflict by shutting down or isolating yourself.

  • You’re quick to shut down or leave during conflict.

  • Others say you come off as distanced or aloof.

  • You’re quick to move on after a breakup and don’t typically allow yourself to process your feelings about the ending of the relationship.

  • You’re very uncomfortable letting your guard down.

  • You may prioritize personal space and autonomy over your partner’s needs.

Something to keep in mind: According to Stacy, all of these styles exist on a spectrum that can range from mild to severe. And just because someone is, loosely speaking, ‘insecurely attached’ does not mean they are incapable of forming important, healthy, and long-lasting relationships.

It’s also important to note that attachment styles are not necessarily fixed for life.

Individuals can develop a degree of flexibility and adaptability in their attachment behaviors through self-awareness and personal growth. Additionally, attachment styles are not strictly limited to romantic relationships; they can also impact friendships, family relationships, and other social connections.

How Knowing Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationships

Understanding your own attachment style and that of a romantic partner can provide several benefits to your relationship, such as improved communication and conflict resolution, increased empathy, and personal growth.

Improved Communication

Let’s say you know you have an anxious attachment style - this understanding can lead you to learn new ways to express your need for reassurance.

Or, if you know your partner has an avoidant attachment style, you’re less likely to take their need for space personally or perceive it as a rejection. Instead, you can cultivate empathy for their needs while also looking for ways to ensure your own are met.

Conflict Resolution

If both you and your partner have anxious attachment styles, you may be prone to heightened emotions during disagreements.

Understanding this, you can work together to develop strategies for minimizing conflicts and finding solutions.

Increased Empathy

If you have an avoidant attachment style and your partner seems to exaggerate grievances or misinterpret your intentions, you might understand that they are expressing fear and assurances of closeness, and you can approach them with patience and empathy, rather than interpreting their behavior as histrionic or theatrical.

Having more empathy for your partner — and vice versa — can then allow you to find new ways to care for each other rather than continually triggering old attachment wounds.

For example, suppose you discover your partner has avoidant tendencies and is sensitive to criticism. You notice they often shut down during conversations if they feel you are judging them or if they fear being perceived as doing something wrong. With this awareness and understanding, you can reframe any requests you make or concerns you raise with them so you start with a positive remark or acknowledgment. You can incorporate questions instead of making demands.

Or, if your partner has anxious tendencies, you could incorporate a regular check-in during the afternoon to make sure they feel prioritized and loved.

What to Know About Attachment Style Pairings

Experts say that some attachment style combinations may experience more challenges than others. That definitely doesn’t mean these relationships are doomed to fail — but rather, that they may have more work to do in making sure they form a healthy and sustainable bond.

“Relationship success is not solely determined by attachment styles,” explains Stacy. “Many factors, including communication skills, individual growth, compatibility, and mutual effort, play significant roles in determining the health of a relationship. That said, attachment compatibility plays a significant role."

Here’s what to know about the different attachment style pairings:

1. Secure-Secure: The Harmonious Bond

A relationship between two securely attached individuals is generally the most harmonious and stable.

2. Secure-Anxious: Balancing Reassurance and Independence

This pairing can work well, but it may require some adjustment from both partners. A securely attached person can provide the reassurance and support that an anxious partner needs, thus reducing their anxiety. The anxious partner can learn to manage their fears and insecurities with the help of their secure partner's consistent emotional availability.

3. Secure-Avoidant: Bridging Emotional Intimacy

This is another pairing that can work well, but requires mutual understanding and respect. Secure individuals are generally understanding and accepting of their avoidant partners' need for space and independence. Avoidant partners, in turn, may need to become more open to emotional intimacy and communication.

4. Anxious-Anxious: Intense Emotions and Self-Worth

Two people with this attachment style may form a relationship with heightened emotional intensity. While they can understand each other's emotional needs well, conflicts may arise due to their shared fear of abandonment and concerns about self-worth. The relationship can work if both partners actively address their anxiety and work on developing emotional resilience.

5. Avoidant-Avoidant: Independence and Emotional Distance

As you might expect, this pairing may struggle with emotional intimacy and communication. Both partners may value their independence and may not express their emotional needs readily. Issues may get swept under the rug, and without one person challenging the other to be vulnerable, there might be a lot of distance between both partners unless they’re willing to work through their discomfort with closeness and dependence.

6. Anxious-Avoidant: The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic

Avoidant individuals often attract anxious partners and vice versa. This results in a ‘pursuer-distancer’ dynamic. As the avoidant individual withdraws, the anxious one becomes increasingly clingy, thereby driving the avoidant individual further away. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that reaffirms both their respective fears. That’s not to say this combo can’t work, though, if both partners are aware of their tendencies and willing to compromise.

What Each Attachment Style Can Work On

No matter your attachment style, there’s always an opportunity for growth. Here’s what each style can work on to become a better partner.

Secure Attachment

If you resonate with secure attachment patterns, then my tip for you is to use your ability to express your needs and feelings to repair quickly when disagreements arise. Don’t wait for your partner to initiate repair, but set up a time to talk. Incorporate regular times to connect and take turns listening and reflecting on each other’s feelings about your day. Use eye contact and nonverbal cues of safety.

We recommend focusing on understanding your partner’s childhood experiences and how their attachment style may differ from yours.

“A secure attachment style provides a stable base for your partner to explore and grow,” says Stacy. “Encourage their individuality and personal development and be there to support their goals and aspirations.”

Anxious Attachment

According to experts, the number one thing this attachment style can work on is learning to sit with and regulate their emotions.

“Practice mindfulness techniques to become more aware of your emotional responses and to avoid reacting impulsively,” says Stacy.

Instead of looking immediately to your partner or another outside source to soothe you, Stacy advises looking toward yourself: “Can you provide self-compassion to all those parts of you that want to be heard and seen and loved?”

She also suggests working on building your self-esteem and self-worth independent of external validation and cultivating a sense of independence and self-sufficiency by pursuing your own interests and hobbies.

Avoidant Attachment

Experts agree that people who have this attachment style should focus on building awareness of their emotions — and learning ways to express them.

“Start by writing down your feelings in your journal or taking notes on your phone,” says Stacy. “Lean into asking for help, asking your partner how they feel, and sharing your thoughts and feelings. If you feel overwhelmed in a conflict, request to take a break and offer a specific time when you will be able to reconvene to continue discussing the concerns.”

It can also be helpful to dig into the underlying fears behind your avoidance of commitment and intimacy.

Challenge yourself to become more vulnerable in your relationships. Understand that sharing your feelings and needs with others is a sign of strength, not weakness.

To conclude, it is possible for any two people, regardless of their attachment styles, to have a healthy relationship as long as they are both willing to understand their attachment wounds and traumas, and how those may be showing up in the relationship.

We do believe a relationship can heal and become a place where partners find and develop safety, even if they did not have it within their families of origin. But if someone is unable to do this deep introspective work, on their own or with their partner, it will be hard to stay and maintain a healthy relationship.

Want a harmonious psychological relationship? There has never been a better time to date more intelligently.

Join the REDDI matchmaking dating app based on the 3 attachment styles.

REDDI Dating App
REDDI Dating App


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