Couple on the couch talking about their attachment styles. She's holding a notebook and he's looking at her.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Attachment Theory Basics: Why Figuring out Your Attachment Style is Important for Your Relationship

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

TL;DR

  • The relationship we have with our primary caregivers growing up is the example from which we form, understand, and navigate our way through our own relationships. 
  • The four attachment styles are: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised or fearful-avoidant, and each of these has different effects on the way you approach relationships and sex.
  • Attachment styles are not set in stone; they are open to revision based on new experiences, and you can have different attachment responses to different partners. 
  • Secure attachment is generally associated with higher sexual satisfaction than insecure attachment, but most couples will experience sexual difficulties at some point in their relationship, regardless of their attachment styles.

If you've never heard of attachment or attachment styles before, you're about to learn one of the most important and well-evidenced new pieces of psychology that there is - and how it impacts your romantic relationship and your sex life. 

What does attachment mean?

At its simplest, attachment means a deep, emotional bond or tie with people who are important to us, starting with our earliest primary caregivers (like our parents or guardians), and eventually shifting towards our romantic partners.

Attachment is the main way babies regulate their distress and develop their primary patterns of relating to others. This is because, unlike all other mammals, we are completely dependent on our primary caregivers for our survival for several years - not just for our physical needs, but all of our emotional needs as well, which are just as important. That's why the quality of our attachment to those caregivers is so important, because we can't survive - or thrive - without them.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory tells us that the type of care we received from our earliest caregivers as an infant shapes the way that we view ourselves and others. So, if we have a sensitive, consistent caregiver as a child, we can see ourselves as lovable, and have positive expectations of other people. And if we receive insensitive and/or inconsistent care, we have trouble seeing ourselves as lovable, and come to expect others to disappoint us. 

And now the science-y part

Don’t skip it! If it helps, think of this as the attachment theory origin story...

Initially created by British psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory was further developed by Mary Ainsworth, who applied it to infants and their mothers in a series of experiments called the 'strange situation'. In these experiments, infants were separated from and reunited with their mothers, and their reactions were analysed by Ainsworth and her team.

Most children were visibly upset by the separation and searched for their missing parent; when the mother returned, they sought contact and were easily soothed. We call this type of behavior secure attachment. Other children, though, behaved differently, displaying insecure attachment, either not expressing distress when their mother left and refusing to be soothed on their return (avoidant attachment) or expressing distress and then seeking comfort, but not being easily soothed (anxious attachment). 

How do I know if I'm attached to someone?

As the 'strange situation' experiments helped to demonstrate, there are four main characteristics of an attachment bond: the attachment figure provides us with a secure base from which to go out and explore the world, and a safe haven to which we can return when we need support and comfort. And because, when we were young, separation from our attachment figure could be life-threatening, we also experience separation distress when we are apart from them or feel emotionally distant from them, as well as an innate drive to stay as close to them as we can, both physically and emotionally (what we call proximity maintenance). 

However, attachment in romantic relationships is slightly different from attachment when we're children. When we're young, our main attachment figure is our primary caregiver, but this eventually changes as we get older, and our romantic partner normally becomes our primary attachment figure. When this happens, the way that we express our attachment needs changes and develops. For example, instead of just being looked after, caregiving now becomes a two-way street, and our attachment style will influence how we respond to conflict, how accessible we are when our partner needs us, how responsive we are to those needs, and how emotionally engaged we are with what they need from us. And, for most people, sexuality also becomes a new, important way of expressing our attachment needs.

What are the 4 attachment styles?

There are four main attachment styles, which are based on where you tend to fall on two scales - attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. But before you read these descriptions and get too 'attached' to them (sorry, sorry) remember that our attachment styles are open to revision based on new experiences, and you may find that different relationships bring out different attachment styles in you. 

So, here are the four main styles of attachment and how you might experience them:

Secure attachment style

  • Characterized by low anxiety and low avoidance. You trust others and feel worthy of love; you can be close and connected to your partner but you're also OK with having some space and separation from each other. Roughly 50 percent of people are securely attached. 

Anxious attachment style

  • Characterized by high anxiety: You're more likely to view yourself negatively, as unlovable, unworthy, or needing lots of reassurance; you might be more “clingy”, get into relationships or fall in love quickly, and have difficulty letting go of relationships. You view others as basically good, usually better than yourself. Roughly 20% of people have an anxious attachment style. 

Avoidant attachment style

  • Characterized by high avoidance: You're more likely to view others negatively, as not trustworthy or reliable; you usually focus on self-reliance and independence, and usually don’t get too close in relationships because you need a lot of space. Roughly 25% of people have an avoidant attachment style.

Disorganized attachment style (or fearful-avoidant attachment style)

  • Characterized by a combination of anxiety and avoidance: This style of attachment is often due to having a trauma history. You want and need people to come close, but people are also scary (because the ones you love and who were supposed to love you are the ones who hurt you) so you will push away when they get too close. This can also be associated with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Roughly 3-5% of people have a disorganised or fearful-avoidant attachment style.

How do you know your attachment style?

If you don't immediately recognise yourself in one of the above types of attachment styles, there are several questionnaires that you can take online that evaluate adult attachment styles and help you to work out which one best fits you at the moment and in your current relationship. Remember again that these things are not set in stone, and the reliability of the quizzes can vary - especially because people's results tend to come out as more secure than in reality, because attachment insecurity comes out mainly when a relationship is threatened (e.g., when you have an argument with your partner) - and you're most likely answering the test in a more relaxed state of mind. 

How do attachment styles affect sex in adult relationships?

You might also recognise yourself in some of the following ways that people with different patterns of attachment behave in a relationship, and the impact it has on their sex lives.

Secure attachment & sex

People with a secure attachment style are usually more responsive to their partner's emotional needs, in a way that helps the couple's bond, feel strong enough to let their guard down, express their needs and wants freely, and play together. It also helps when there are sexual differences and difficulties to overcome, because securely attached people are less likely to make negative meanings from sexual problems. They tend to have sex to express their love and affection to their partner, and they also often prefer sex within a committed relationship, rather than casually. In short, securely attached people are usually more sexually satisfied than those with insecure attachment styles. (1)

Anxious attachment & sex

Those with anxious attachment tend to engage in more behaviours that are actively designed to prove their love for their partner and to seek proof of their partner's love. This is because anxiously attached people are particularly sensitive to signs of abandonment and rejection, so need lots of reassurance and responsiveness from their partner. Sex is often a way to express their love, although it can also be used as a way to relieve any fears that their partner might reject them, or simply to please their partner, rather than to express their own sexuality or seek pleasure. (2) 

Avoidant attachment & sex

Avoidant individuals tend to have a fear of intimacy, prefer more emotionless or casual sex, experience less pleasure from sex (or even avoid sexuality completely), and shy away from things that might be considered 'bonding', like spooning or cuddling. They might also have sex just to de-stress, or create distance between themselves and their partner when they feel like their partner needs too much emotional intimacy, or when there are other uncomfortable emotions at play. Because of the importance of emotional intimacy for a long-term sexual connection, there is an association between attachment avoidance and low sexual satisfaction. (3)

How can I change my attachment style?

Whether you recognize yourself in one or more of these descriptions or not, it's important to remember that regardless of the attachment styles involved, most couples will experience difficulties with sex during their time together: it's a completely normal part of intimate relationships. If you think that your attachment history might be negatively affecting your relationship or your sex life, there are many things you can do to help change it. For example,  including individual psychotherapy, sex therapy, and couples therapy, all of which will help you to recognize your patterns and the situations that trigger them, and help you to work through those things in a safe, compassionate, and confidential way. Many therapists practice in a specifically attachment-oriented way, which might be especially helpful here, so it’s worth asking any new therapist about their approach to attachment issues.

(1) Johnson, S. (2017). 'An Emotionally Focused Approach to Sex Therapy', in Peterson, Z. D. (Ed.) The Wiley Handbook of Sex Therapy (Wiley Clinical Psychology Handbooks). Wiley Blackwell: Oxford, UK. pp. 250-265.  
(2) Cooper, M. L., et al. (2006). 'Attachment Styles, Sex Motives, and Sexual Behavior: Evidence for Gender-Specific Expressions of Attachment Dynamics', in Mikulincer, M. and Goodman, G. S. (Eds.) Dynamics of Romantic Love: Attachment, Caregiving, and Sex. The Guildford Press: New York. pp. 243-274.
(3) Péloquin, K., et al. (2013). 'Integrating the Attachment, Caregiving, and Sexual Systems Into the Understanding of Sexual Satisfaction'. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. 45:3. pp. 185–195. DOI: 10.1037/a0033514
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