Attachment Style in Adult Relationships

Last week I began writing about love relationships and as promised this week I am going to expand a little on the connections with Bowlby‘s “Attachment Theory”.

During the 1960’s Bowlby was interested in child development and in particular how children developed an attachment style with their parents. The style developed was related to the type of parenting the child received. In a nutshell he identified three well known labels for attachment, Secure, Ambivalent and Avoidant.

He believed there were four distinguishing characteristics of attachment;

  • Proximity maintenance – the desire or drive to be near important care givers and attachment figures.
  • Safe haven – the ability to return to the attachment figure when threatened or afraid for comfort and safety.
  • Secure base – the attachment figure provides a safe base to venture out from to explore the surrounding environment.
  • Separation distress – describes the type of anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

According to Bowlby attachment has an evolutionary component connected to our survival. The parenting style shapes the attachment style developed. Most developmental psychology books provide more information on this part of the theory if you want to know more. Below I have detailed the characteristics of each attachment style at the childhood stage:


  • Confident and able to separate from parent.
  •  Will seek comfort from parent when frightened
  • Receives positive emotional responses from parent on return.
  • Prefers parents to strangers


  • Often wary of strangers.
  • Become very distressed when parent leaves.
  • Do not appear to experience a sense of comfort from the parents return and may passively rejected the parent.


  • May actively avoid their parents.
  • Will not seek out much comfort or contact from the parents.
  •  Shows little or even no preference between parents and strangers.

A fourth style has also been suggested that appears to be a mixture of ambivalent and avoidant called “disorganised attachment”. This may develop where the parenting style is inconsistent and the child may feel both comforted and frightened of the parent at the same time.

In 1987, the researchers Hazen and Shaver suggested that the attachment styles from childhood may form the basis of adult attachment styles in particular they noted that people with different attachment styles seemed to have specific patterns in their beliefs about love.

They noticed that securely attached adults were more likely to believe that romantic love was enduring while ambivalently attached adults reported falling in love often and avoidant types thought love was rare and/or temporary.

What I find interesting is the presence of such patterns, on the one hand we cannot say for sure that childhood attachment styles directly correlate with adult attachment styles but there does appear to be enough of a pattern to make this intriguing.

When we start to look at the characteristics of adult attachment styles some interesting things start to surface. If we look first at securely attached adults, they are more likely to have good self-esteem and trusting long term relationships. They will share feelings with friends and partners easily and comfortably. They will also feel comfortable seeking out social support.

They are most likely to be attracted to someone else who is also securely attached. These are the relationships that are most likely to be happy. From a psychological perspective, a happy relationship is a much higher experience of positive emotions than negative on a day to day basis.

There is some research that suggests that ambivalent attachment is relatively rare (e.g. 7 to 15% in infants), however when you read the characteristics I wonder is you like me will doubt that finding at least in adults.

This style could be described as “needy” and the individual may spend a lot of time worrying that their partner may not love them. They become extremely distraught with the break up of a relationship to a degree that could be described as obsessive.

Paradoxically they may also be reluctant to become close to others. So even though they fear their partner does not love them they may passively reject their partner. Descriptions of “clingy” and over-dependent are also given to this attachment style.

The avoidant style may have problems with intimacy and be reluctant or unable to share feelings and thoughts with others. They may invest little or no emotional coin in social and romantic relationships. They will avoid intimacy by making up excuses such as tiredness etc and may not be concerned when a relationship breaks up. They may appear to move on straight away. They may also be unsupportive of a partner who is experiencing stressful times.

One observation I have made is that ambivalent types often seem attracted to avoidant types and vice versa! This seems to provide a guarantee of dissatisfaction in the relationship but also familiarity!

Much less has been written about the disorganised attachment style in adults. One characteristic seen in children aged around six with this style is taking on a parental role either of their parents or siblings. They become caregivers of their parent. It could be speculated that this might manifest in an adult relationship as controlling behaviour.

My intention in re-visiting Bowlby today is to start looking at patterns and see where these are leading us in our understanding of adult love relationships. For me this is a journey of hope.

For those of us who were not fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that fostered secure attachment there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I recognise in myself aspects of the ambivalent attachment style and I can see the avoidant type in my early romantic partners. As I recovered a healthy level of self-esteem, learnt to put in boundaries and discovered that it is possible to be happy my attachment style changed. I now have a secure attachment style.

We have the ability to change our beliefs, patterns and emotional responses. Often we need the help and support of others, however ultimately we make these changes for ourselves. One of the NLP pre-suppositions reads:

“We have all the resources we need within us!”

I believe this is true, we have the ability to change and it is within each and every one of us. What needs to be added is the fact that as human beings we are social animals. We are meant to be in relationship not just romantic but also friendships and family. By freeing ourselves from unhealthy patterns we are allowing ourselves the opportunity to engage in healthy relationships with all the people we care about.

For those of you wanting to seek support in your own journeys please know that I would love to help and support you as you move forward. We have a one day workshop on 28th January in Bedfordshire, UK called Your Brilliant You! It is designed to help you reconnect with you own true nature and magnificence.

The workshop is based on my dissertation research into how NLP improves self-esteem. Self esteem is the first step toward a healthy relationship. Click on the link below for more information about the workshop and to download a free two hour MP3 of a previous workshop.

For those of you ready to go even further consider joining us in March for a 9 day intensive NLP Practitioner programme. You will be amazed at how much you transform if you give yourself the opportunity! Click on the link below for more information.

March 17th to 25th 2012

Our NLP Practitioner programme uses a humanistic and person centred approach. You will learn new skills and have the opportunity to let go of limiting beliefs and experience your own magnificence. We teach ethics and provided ongoing supervision and support to all our students.

Next week I will discuss another angle including why most people seem to want to change key aspects of their partner even if those aspects were what attracted them in the first place!

About Melody @ GWizlearning

Melody spent fourteen years gathering experience of the business world working in banking, telecommunications and the public sector before co-founding The GWiz Learning Partnership in 1993. Melody has a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology, a degree in Psychology and a diploma in Psychotherapy. She is an NLP Master Trainer which allows her to run NLP Practitioner, NLP Master Practitioner and NLP Trainer Training courses certified by the Positive School of Intrinsic Neuro-Linguistc Psychology. She is also a qualified Myers Briggs practitioner and EI practitioner and added to all this is five years Transactional Analysis training, meaning she is able to help organisations access the hidden potential in their staff. She is also in demand for her work in transforming average or even troubled teams into high performers. Melody is a visiting lecturer at University of East London, teaching "Wellbeing and Positive Psychology" to undergraduates. Additionally, she is a member of the CIPD and is ILM accredited. Melody's interests are many and varied. She has a keen interest in personal development, canine and wolf psychology, conservation, movies and running. She also enjoys western horse riding, walking the GWiz dogs, nature watching and stage combat (particularly sword fighting).
This entry was posted in Emotional Awareness, Emotional Intelligence, NLP, NLP Master Practitioner, NLP Practitioner, NLP Trainer's Training, Personal Development, Self Esteem and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Attachment Style in Adult Relationships

  1. Caroline, great blog. I remember learning about Bowlby and attachment theory on my TA Psychotherapy Foundation Course. How you related to your care givers in infancy, definitely correlates on how your relationships work as an adult. It sets a pattern, but as you express can be shifted to healthier positions if necessary, so long as ones ‘adult’ ego state is open to acknowledging what things were influential in infancy/childhood.
    Enjoyed the read, thanks!

  2. chris says:

    Melody great article(s) thanks for posting. I work with children, young people and parents alot and do see clear patterns- ambivalent children seem, perhaps not surprisingly ,to feature highly in the care system as do disorganised. disorganised usually results from abusive caregiving (or lack of) and the caregiver is scary as well as incapable hence the child becomes the ‘young carer’. things can change as you rightly say but many adults develop the ‘well it didnt do me any harm ” approach , presumably as a defence mechanism, so see no need for change, and like you say, there needs to be a certain amount of self awareness to desire change, let alone achieve it. !! controlling behaviour often occurs as a survivial strategy in the child, and obviously self esteem is affected. this can make the child hard to like /love by alternate caregivers and the world at large!
    there is an adult attachment style interview profile which i have used. if any one interested let me know and i will look up the link.

    • Thanks Chris, some good additional information in your comments. Do let me have details of the questionnaire and if the copyright allows I’ll publish the link in next weeks blog.


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