A woman looks frustrated sitting in front of a man.

You’ve heard it before—your relationships with your parents help model your romantic relationships going forward. Intuitively, this makes sense. Through their actions, your parents shape how you see yourself and others, influencing your expectations for relationships. For better or worse, your parents imprint on you the most important factors that determine how you approach love.

But how much influence do they actually have? Are the terrible relationships you find yourself in as an adult really all their fault? 

We could spend hours unpacking this topic, but it all starts with attachment theory. This psychological framework suggests that the bond you formed with your primary caregiver as a child leaves a lasting impression on how you relate to others as an adult.

What is the attachment theory?

Developed by psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory suggests that infants have an innate, evolutionary need to form an emotional bond with their caregiver (usually, but not always, one of their parents). This is primarily for the purpose of survival, as infants are completely dependent on their caregivers for food and protection.

The main idea behind attachment theory is that an infant will learn how to get a parent’s attention to receive what they need. If a caregiver responds quickly and consistently to the needs of the child, they will feel secure in their attachment bond. If the caregiver is inconsistent or not responsive, the child may learn that only extreme behaviors get their attention and develop an insecure attachment.

The quality of this attachment is important at all stages of life. The interaction you have with your primary caregiver(s) as an infant follows you into adulthood and influences how you relate to the people in your life, specifically your romantic partner.

But because your attachment style is a blueprint for how you relate to others, your attachment style can also predict your parenting style.

What are the attachment styles?

Psychologists have identified four attachment styles—although you may have heard only about  the first three.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth., who worked with Bowlby’s research team, conducted a famous study to learn how children reacted when their primary caregiver left the room. Based on their response, she categorized children into three attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment (also called anxious attachment) and avoidant-insecure attachment.

The fourth attachment style, discovered by psychologists Mary Main and Judith Solomon years later, is disorganized-insecure attachment. 

#1: Secure Attachment

When a parent is sensitive and responds to a child’s needs, the child develops secure attachment. These infants feel a healthy sense of independence and a desire to explore the world because they know their caregiver is reliable and will be there for them to return to when they need support or feel frightened. When their caregiver leaves the room, this child gets visibly upset but doesn’t worry that the parent won’t return. 

Children with secure attachment end up being well-adjusted adults who feel comfortable in relationships, are good at communicating their feelings, and don’t shy away from intimacy.

#2: Avoidant-Insecure Attachment 

Avoidant attachment is easy to suss out by its name. When a child has avoidant attachment, they display little distress when their caregiver leaves. When they return, the child will not greet them with joy and may instead avoid their caregiver.

What's happening here is the child has learned that their caregiver is not a reliable source of comfort or support, so they don’t bother seeking it out. Seen more in caregiver-child relationships that are cold or neglectful, children get the message that relying too much on their caregiver will not get them anywhere, so they learn to avoid asking for help.

As adults, they may be emotionally distant in relationships and tend to keep their independence to the point of avoiding intimacy.

#3: Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment (or Anxious Attachment)

An ambivalent or anxious attachment may form when a parent isn’t physically or emotionally available for their child on a consistent basis. Some days they may be all over the child; other days they may be cold and distant. As a result, the child is unsure of what to expect from their caregiver.

In these relationships, the child never receives a consistent safety net of support. So they try to even out the highs and lows of their relationship by clinging to their caregiver when they’re around. This carries over into adulthood, and these adults crave intimacy but have trouble finding it because they don’t know how to trust that someone will be there for them.

#4: Disorganized-Insecure Attachment

Inconsistent parenting, neglect or abuse may cause a disorganized attachment style. This style is most common when there is childhood trauma or the child is raised in an environment of chaos or fear.

These children don't learn what structure and stability look like. They only have an unpredictable pattern to work from, and this sets them up for confusion and an inability to regulate their own emotions – a facet of emotional intelligence known as emotional control.

As adults, they may struggle with maintaining healthy relationships, as their learned coping mechanisms often involve shutting down emotionally or lashing out in anger.

What do the attachment styles look like in adult relationships?

Since it can be hard to recognize your attachment style as an adult, here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to how each attachment style manifests in adulthood:

Secure attachment

Adults with secure attachment have these behaviors in relationships:

  • A feeling of security
  • A trusting nature 
  • Comfort with intimacy
  • Communication with active listening and empathy
  • High self-esteem
  • A healthy social life
  • A desire to resolve conflict in a healthy way
  • Ability to manage emotions well and openness about their feelings with their partner
  • A history of long-term relationships

Avoidant attachment

If you have avoidant attachment as an adult, you might notice patterns like:

  • Intimacy problems
  • A fear of commitment 
  • A lack of emotional investment in relationships
  • An inability to share feelings
  • Extreme independence and a fear of depending on others
  • Trust issues that make you suspicious of others’ intentions
  • A tendency toward logic in emotional situations
  • A lack of commitment or a history of surface-level relationships

Anxious attachment

People with anxious attachment display dating behaviors such as:

  • A fear of rejection and abandonment
  • A need for reassurance and validation from their partner (clinginess)
  • Emotional highs and lows depending on how close they feel their partner is to them
  • Common overthinking and overanalyzing of scenarios
  • Reluctance to become close to others for fear of rejection
  • Worry that they’re somehow unlovable, and their partner doesn’t love them
  • Difficulty setting healthy boundaries
  • Feeling extremely distraught when a relationship ends
  • A history of staying in unfulfilling relationships or repeating the same relationship pattern

Disorganized attachment

Adults with disorganized attachment have the following:

  • Poor coping skills
  • Unpredictable behavior
  • Conflicting desires for intimacy and distance
  • Fears of abandonment and rejection that may cause them to act out when they’re feeling insecure in a relationship
  • Mercurial emotions in their interactions with their partner
  • An inability to regulate or understand their emotions
  • Self-sabotaging behaviors
  • A history of volatile, chaotic relationships

Can you change your attachment style?

Before you call your mother to talk about your childhood, you might want to pause and consider that your attachment style isn’t the only factor in your behavior and habits in romantic relationships. Since early childhood is light years behind you, the odds are other influences have influenced your attitudes and behaviors. Attachment theory is an excellent place to find patterns, but other factors contribute to your relationship history.

Luckily, your attachment style can change. It’s possible for someone who had an insecure attachment style as a child to become securely attached as an adult when they work on healing or find a partner who makes them feel secure. Research suggests happily married couples share a secure attachment style, but those with insecure attachment styles can grow and find healthy, long-lasting relationships. Sometimes this is through therapy, personal growth or finding a partner who shows them dedication, unconditional love and value.

Whenever you’ve discovered you have an insecure attachment style, the best way forward is to educate yourself about your past relationship patterns. If needed, seek the help of a mental health professional to work on your growth.


Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.