Attachment Styles

A Critical Look at Attachment Styles Theory

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In recent years, numerous authors, bloggers, and public figures have written and spoken about attachment styles (myself included). This concept suggests that an individual develops a particular pattern of attachment to other people associated with early caregiver experiences.

While this may have been a useful concept when first proposed, modern research has revealed that attachment styles are not always an accurate or useful way of explaining how people relate to each other.

This article will discuss the reasons why attachment styles are an incomplete and overly generalized concept, and why it’s important not to put too much stock in the idea.

An Analysis of Attachment Styles Theory

The idea of attachment styles has become wildly popular in mainstream psychology and self-help literature. It is frequently suggested that individuals can identify which attachment style is associated with their upbringing, and that understanding this can help them to make sense of their current relationships.

While this may help shed light on an individual’s approach to relationships, this is an overly simplistic view of attachment theory. Recent research has shown that attachment styles are not static and can change over time. 

Attachment styles, defined by John Bowlby in the 1950s, suggest that how we interact with our caregivers in childhood can develop into an enduring “style” of attachment that we carry into our adult relationships. Although many psychologists have built upon Bowlby’s work, the notion of attachment styles is becoming outdated, and recent research suggests it may no longer be relevant when it comes to predicting adult behavior.

Limitations of Attachment Theory

According to Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., author for, one serious limitation of attachment theory is its failure to recognize the profound influences of social class, gender, ethnicity, and culture on personality development. These factors, independent of a mother’s sensitivity, can be as significant as the quality of early attachment. (1)

As early as 1962, psychologists criticized Bowlby’s theory for being “single factor” because it focused so much on the behavior of a child’s mother. Some studies directly contradict attachment theory and have found that a person’s attachment style in romantic relationships doesn’t always mirror their relationship with their parents. And there is also much research that suggests that a person’s attachment style and behavior is different in their professional relationships, in their friendships, and with their love matches and, therefore, debunks the all-encompassing nature of attachment theory (2). 

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Additionally, research suggests that how we interact with our caregivers in adulthood may be more important than how we interacted with them in childhood when it comes to predicting adult behavior. For example, one study found that adults with negative relationships with their caregivers in adulthood were more likely to engage in risky behavior than those whose relationships were positive (3).

Further, research has suggested that other factors may be at play when it comes to predicting adult behavior. For example, one study found that a supportive network like family and friends was more predictive of adult behavior than attachment style. This suggests that there may be other factors at play when it comes to predicting adult behavior, and that attachment style may not be the most reliable indicator of future behavior.

The book Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, summarizes the characteristics of each type of person as follows: “A secure person feels comfortable with intimacy and is usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are usually preoccupied with their relationships, and worry about the ability of their partner to love them back; avoidant people fear intimacy as a loss of independence and try to minimize closeness.”

As you can see, this implies a hierarchy of personalities. People who are secure in their relationships exhibit the highest level of behavior. The avoidants are cold fish in a sea of anxious people, while the anxious are damaged and wounded.

Attachment Styles Are Not Permanent 

Is it really possible to categorize people so neatly in all their complexity? Doesn’t boxing people in this way, at best, limit our interactions with them and, at worst, color our perception of them? The point at which we diagnose the attachment style of people we have barely or never met certainly indicates something is amiss. 

At its heart, the concept of attachment styles is based upon a model of the secure-insecure system. According to this model, people can either be securely attached in their relationships or insecurely attached. Secure attachment supposedly results from a secure and consistent relationship between the parent and child, whereas insecure attachment results from an inconsistent relationship between the parent and child.  There are other purported attachment styles, but they typically originate from either being secure or insecure.

While this model is a useful way to understand attachment initially, there needs to be a more comprehensive way of looking at it. Research has shown that there is much more to attachment than this simple secure-insecure dichotomy. Other elements, such as anxiety, avoidance, and ambivalence have been found to be important in understanding attachment.

Furthermore, the idea of attachment styles needs to consider the changes that take place over time. It is commonly assumed that the attachment style that was established in childhood will remain the same throughout adulthood; however, this is not always the case. Studies have shown that individuals can change their attachment style throughout their life, depending on the relationships they form with other people. 

For example, many people in emotionally abusive relationships will often stumble upon the topic of attachment styles and identify themselves as having an insecure attachment style. However, if the suspected “insecure attachment” is due to another person’s abusive and manipulative behaviors, then it’s more a trauma response than an insecure attachment style.  It’s crucial to not try to determine your attachment style while you’re in the throes of a toxic relationship because it could very well be that the relationship is clouding your judgement and assessment of yourself.

Each individual is unique, and there is no single ‘correct’ way of relating to others. People’s attachment styles will vary from person to person, and from relationship to relationship. This means that it is impossible to define attachment styles in terms of simply ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ or whatever other “style” of attachment has been created; instead, it is much more helpful to think of attachment styles as being more fluid and as changing depending on the context of individual relationships.

Not to mention, it seems mainstream psychology ‘experts’ are now coming up with as many attachment styles as categories of narcissism!  There is, consistently, a new flavor of the week used to describe toxic relationship dynamics, when these ways of showing up in relationships are most often due to being treated abusively and disrespectfully.

In Conclusion

It is important to remember that attachment styles are not the only factor affecting how people relate. Other factors, such as communication style, personality, cultural background, and contextual factors, such as stress levels, will also have an impact on how people interact. This means it is impossible to accurately predict how an individual will behave in a particular situation based solely on their supposed attachment style.

Although dismissiveavoidant people may not seem like typical abusers, their behavior can be classified as a form of abuse. According to research published in the journal Family Process, dismissingavoidant behavior can constitute psychological abuse of a partner, includingwithholding of love, trust, and affection, intentional disregard for the partners thoughts and feelings, and a lack of support and care.(Lam et al., 2018). Additionally, a study published in Violence and Victims found that dismissiveavoidant individuals were more likely to engage in partner violence, particularly if they also exhibited higher levels of narcissistic traits (Frazier et al, 2005).

Therefore, it can be concluded that dismissiveavoidant people may not present as typical abusers, but they do abusive things and cause harm to their partners.  This is why it’s best to not think you can work it out with someone who you believe has a dismissive-avoidant attachment style.  While there are authors and bloggers who claim that relationships with these people can be healed or improved, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can say this has worked for them in real life.  

Two of my Instagram followers weigh in on a post I published about the impossibility of making relationships work with so-called DAs:

Dealing with someone who has a dismissive-avoidant attachment style (or an abuser you think has an insecure attachment style) is every bit as damaging and devastating as dealing with any abusive personality.

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My best recommendation is to find an online program to keep you on track and to offer support.  The Break Free Program has been vetted by therapists and neuropsychologists as an effective step toward getting over narcissistic abuse. Aside from keeping you safe from narcissists, it also empowers you to go out into the world with confidence.

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1. Kagan, J. (N.D.). Attachment Theory. 

2. Schannen, A. (2020). Attachment Theory: Exploring Our Need for Close Connections. Psychology Today. 

3. Chango, J.M., Abela, J.R., Auerbach, R.P. & McQuillan, A.T. (2014). The intergenerational transmission of emotion dysregulation: The role of the attachment relationship in adulthood. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38(3), 193205. 2. La Greca, A.M. & Albarracín, D. (2010).

4. Social anxiety as an influence on risk behavior: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(3), 317338. 3. Kobayashi, T., Cassady, K., Bhullar, N., & Fehon, D.C. (2012).

5. The influence of adult attachment security and partner support on healthcompromising behavior: Results from a largescale community survey. Social Science & Medicine, 75(9), 15601570.

6. Wang, C., Zheng, X., Zhang, J., Lu, L., Yang, L., & Wang, Y. (2019). Do Attachment Styles Change Over Time? Longitudinal Evidence From China. Journal of Adult Development, 26(4), 237247. 

7. Lam, W. W., Hui, K. S., Mak, K. K., Leung, P. C., & Yik, M. M. (2018). Psychological Abuse and Relationship Satisfaction in Chinese Couples. Family Process, 57(4), 12451264.

8. Frazier, P. A., Conlon, M. A., Glaser, T., & Murdock, N. B. (2005). Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Style and the Severity of Partner Abuse. Violence and Victims, 20(5), 575584.




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Carts says June 14, 2023

I sort of stumbled across attachment theory when I was trying to understand how my gitlfriend was behaving towards me.
She initially pursued me for a rship that I was not expecting and cautiously agreed to try. She seemed warm and genuine; telling me she had repeatedly cheated on her previous partners who were a good fit for her; and the last 18 months had been in open uncommitted rships ( one of the signs of avoidant traits). We started dating and initially she was keen to see me. It was the honey moon phase and in my past rships that have been more healthy and emotionally avail the honeymoon phase lasted 6-12 months as you got to know them. Within 3-4 weeks of dating this person a few warning signs appeared for me. The big one was the feeling of lack of reciprocation. And i know that can be an anxious trait. But i was logical. I said to myself its thr honey moon phase, i wanted to see her like 3 times a week; once on the weekend and the other two quick catch ups over a meal; and she wouod begin to distance herself and make herself unavailable, while at the same time saying she was keen as. What she was saying didnt line up with how she was acting. While great communication to start with she began to avoid communicating with me. Subtle at first. Her responses would get slower and slower then non existent. And then it felt like emotional abuse where she would actively avoid communucating, make her own plans, then be dismissive when you asked is everything ok, ive noticed you a bit distant of late.
There were moments of pure bliss in there; where in the moment my ex was able to be present and vulnerable and it felt very promising; so much so that i saw a future with her. But then i started hearing communucation like “i cant give you what you need” “i need my independence” “work is just so busy I dont have time” but she always managed to find time for her other hobbies. When i raised this openly she wouod get dismissive then raise her concerned she didnt want to feel conctrolled. Another warning sign was that she said she wanted a strong person who was independent and did their own thing”. I was doing my own thing but it was this pattern emerging that raised my concerns.
She struggled with intimacy, and was not able to communucate her feelings, often saying she didnt know how she felt. But that was combined with being a people pleaser. I would ask her to do something like dinner; she would say yes, but then get irritable with me and also pre occupied at time with her irritability while we saw each other. That manifested by her lack of wanting to have sex or be physically intimate.
I suggested it would be worth reading the five love languages so we both know how we fee and reciprocate love. She refused to read it, dismissing the idea. Later saying she feels loved when people give her her freedom and independence. I remember a conflict we had, we were discussing how much to see each other; and it felt really off to me( here she was saying she was really into me but not wanting to see me. I remember aftrr i suggested she might be avoidant saying “if you know know I am avoidant cant you change your own style to suit me?” And i thought about that quickly and she was right! If i was able to act more securely I wouod be able to achieve that. So i got to reading and journalling, and i mapped out what were some of my behaviours that might be triggering her and wrote down how i could act that gave her more space. She gave me feedback it was a lot better but she was worried I would slip up again.
I noticed the following in our rship; she never apologised for anything. Like anything. And she didnt have any accountability. She didnt seem to realise that being in a rship affects the other person. She also said “this is who I am take it or leave it” and that was a major warning for me. As it indicated she thought it was me the issue and she didnt have to improve or have anything to work on. It indicated to me she lacked the self awareness to realise the role she had in the rship and that both parties should be working on themselves.
The way the rship ended was abrupt. I had asked her for some support and while she gave it for a few days she then said she didnt want to continue the rship and cut me off like i didnt exist. The trauma was painful.

I am much more aware now to talk about attachment, not as it being pathalogical, but by understanding who the person is and their childhood; by better understanding their needs you are better able to accomodate them. I definitely want to make sure the next person I date is a bit more self aware, and if they are avoidant I wouldnt date them unless they had told me they knew they had avoidant traits and had an active plan to work on those avoidant traits, and be open to feedback to how to strengthen the rship. Thid person I dated is so beautiful and smart, and caring, and she deserves to have a fruitful loving and intimate rship in her life. I just hope she is able to see how her actions make it very hard for someone to get close to her and have that intimacy, and that she realises if she doesnt change she might never get that. What has she got to loose by trying something new.

Fahim Chughtai says April 23, 2023

It is important to be cautious of placing too much emphasis on attachment styles when understanding how people relate to each other. While attachment styles were a useful concept when first introduced, recent research has shown that they are not always accurate or reliable in predicting adult behavior. Factors such as social class, gender, ethnicity, and culture, as well as how we interact with our caregivers in adulthood, may be more important. Additionally, people’s attachment styles can change throughout their lives, and it is essential not to diagnose oneself with an insecure attachment style when experiencing abuse or trauma. It is vital to remember that each individual is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding how they relate to other

M says March 30, 2023

I believe that my husband may be DA. Not diagnosing him, but based on what I have observed, a lot seems to fit.

I would say that I’m more of an anxious type. I need to feel secure in relationships. My husband’s attachment style is more like…reel somebody in, treat them well to a point, then push them away after a while.
This causes me a lot of anxiety and frustration. As I type this, he is gone on yet another business trip. When he IS home, he hardly talks to me and doesn’t want me talking to him most of the time.
I wish I could rewind time and never have married him at all (despite loving him). We simply don’t fit together because of our different needs.

It doesn’t make him a bad person. He is a truly great guy in some ways. But after many years, I need to feel seen and heard and valued.
With a dismissive-avoidant, this won’t happen. He is more suited to having casual flings/”girlfriend” types that expect nothing and don’t want stability or real commitment. I’m somebody who needs to know that I can trust my partner 100%…that their values are similar to my own and that we can share a healthy life together free of mind games. With a DA, you can never really be sure that they are committed to you because they are so focused on “independence” and a lone wolf lifestyle (unless it involves seeking new supply in some cases).

I love my independence too, but as the more anxious type, I also want a more family-oriented relationship.
He is more focused on his job, his hobbies, giving me the silent treatment, stonewalling, and only being interested in me when it suits him.
Also…DA’s will sometimes show way more interest in talking to everybody else than they will to the one they are with. They will sit in a room for a whole day ignoring you, but be chatty and talkative with others.
Again, this is what I’ve noticed. I apologize if that offends anyone but it’s true.

Being the wife (or husband, for men that are married to a woman like that) of a DA is often a thankless job.
The person might be great in other ways. But it makes for a lonely life. Oftentimes you feel like you’re not truly in a relationship or marriage at all. You feel alone in many ways.
I’m aware of my own issues. I still have a lot of trauma from how I grew up. So I’m not perfect either…I’m damaged too.
But the difference is that I know it, and I want to heal. I want to fix myself. He seems content to simply alienate me, deny my needs/feelings, and avoid important subjects or do any type of self-reflection.

Another aspect is what a dismissive-avoidant might do with things like social media, shutting you out of their inner circle…even if you’ve been with them for decades. It came to my attention that some people don’t even know he is married!
That was the pivotal moment, the wake-up call. That’s when I told myself: “How (or why) am I with somebody who shuts me out like this? He doesn’t want kids. He doesn’t want people to know he is married. He ignores me at home. Why do I accept this?”
That is where I’ve had to look within and do the inner work of exploring what I want in life, and what I DON’T want.

As the anxious type, what I need is…communication. Loyalty. Trust. Commitment. Shared values (children, stability, a sense of being grounded in reality). His needs probably look more like this…travel, companionship without expectations, a partner who provides sex and other comforts (but then he can ignore you after).
And I find that with some DA’s, they will never change because they don’t see a problem. They don’t see how hurtful it is to a person with an anxious-attachment style, those of us who need security in relationships because we never had it growing up.

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