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 Although many psychologists have built upon Bowlby’s work, the notion of attachment styles is becoming outdated, and recent research suggests it may no longer be relevant when it comes to predicting adult behavior.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 psychotherapynetworker.org, 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).
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.
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 dismissive–avoidant 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, dismissing–avoidant behavior can constitute psychological abuse of a partner, including “withholding of love, trust, and affection, intentional disregard for the partner’s thoughts and feelings, and a lack of support and care.”(Lam et al., 2018). Additionally, a study published in Violence and Victims found that dismissive–avoidant 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 dismissive–avoidant 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. If you know you need to purge the horrific addiction and devastating emotional and spiritual contamination from a narcissist, then consider The Break Free Program. Healing is a process that can open up some truly transformative revelations and opportunities when we give ourselves the chance to recover and thrive.
Please know that as crippling as it feels to finally break free from abuse, there is an end to it. The body and mind know how to heal themselves when we create the conditions for them to do so. Students of The Break Free Program write in to tell me all the time how their lives have been changed incredibly by following the steps laid out for them. I am always humbled and grateful when I hear success stories from those who thought their lives were over.
This can be possible for you, too. And it’s my deepest wish that you begin healing and living the life you deserve.
1. Kagan, J. (N.D.). Attachment Theory. Psychotherapynetworker.org.
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), 193–205. 2. La Greca, A.M. & Albarracín, D. (2010).
4. Social anxiety as an influence on risk behavior: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(3), 317–338. 3. Kobayashi, T., Cassady, K., Bhullar, N., & Fehon, D.C. (2012).
5. The influence of adult attachment security and partner support on health–compromising behavior: Results from a large–scale community survey. Social Science & Medicine, 75(9), 1560–1570.
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), 237–247.
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), 1245–1264.
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), 575–584.