Maybe you’ve reached the foregone conclusion over a box of donuts or a Netflix binge (or both), after yet another breakup amid what feels like an endless string of them: “I suck at relationships.” You may very well struggle with romantic relationships, but part of the reason could lie beyond your control. According to attachment theory, emotional attachments forged between you and your primary caregivers in childhood shape your emotional attachments — including romantic relationships — in adulthood. But does that mean you’re doomed to the attachment style you developed in childhood for the rest of your life? In other words, can you change your attachment style?
But first, a crash course on attachment theory, whose roots stretch back to research conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In the 1930s, Bowlby became interested in how kids’ loss or separation from their mothers affected their personality development. But it was his colleague, Ainsworth, who formalized the concept of attachment styles through a controversial technique, published in 1969, that evaluates infants’ reactions when they reunite with their mothers after being left briefly with a stranger. Infants with secure attachment burst into tears when their mothers leave, but stop crying and approach their mothers when they come back. Those with avoidant attachment ignore their mothers’ return, while those with anxious attachment remained inconsolable even after their mothers have re-emerged. Babies with disorganized attachment wander, freeze, or display other disoriented behaviors.
If your primary caregivers were supportive, responsive, and sensitive, you were more likely to develop secure attachment, Omri Gillath, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, explains in a TEDx talk. You likely saw your caregivers as a “secure base” from which you could scope out your environment; likewise, you feel secure in your romantic relationships, allowing yourself and your partner independence, per Psychology Today. A recent report of kids in the US found that most — about 60% — form secure attachments with their parents.
The remaining 40 % do not. If your caregivers were cold and rejecting, you probably developed an avoidant attachment style, Gillath tells Mic, which makes you more likely to distance yourself from your partner. But if your caregivers were present sometimes and not others, or tried to force their ways onto you, chances are that you formed an anxious attachment style, which could make you act clingy and insecure with your partner, potentially driving them away from you. Abusive caregivers often foster a disorganized attachment style, which could show up as confusing, unpredictable behavior in romantic relationships.
People with other than secure attachment styles “don’t expect things to go well in an emotionally intimate relationship,” says Laura Brown, a Seattle-based psychologist and author of Not the Price of Admission: Healthy Relationships After Childhood Trauma. They, theoretically, expect their partners to respond to them as their parents did; for instance, if you’re anxiously attached, you might expect your partners to act ambivalent toward you, making you act insecure and needy. Gillath’s research has also shown that you could have a genetic predisposition to a certain attachment style.
This can all sound daunting — does our early childhood really dictate the fate of all our future relationships?
The good news is, if you’re not securely attached, you can take steps toward what’s known as earned security, or developing a secure attachment style despite fraught relationships with your caregivers, or your genetics. You’ve probably heard that dating a securely attached partner can help. If you’re anxiously attached, seeing your partner consistently being sensitive, supportive, and attentive to your needs can reassure you that no, they’re not going to leave you, providing the “secure base” you need to respect each other’s independence, Gillath explains. I’ve experienced this firsthand as someone who developed anxious attachment growing up, but is now in a long-term relationship with a securely attached partner.
If you worry about bringing your childhood baggage into your relationships — romantic or otherwise — here’s how to achieve a secure attachment style, regardless of your relationship status.
If you have the means, seek therapy
Brown suggests seeing a therapist with expertise in complex childhood trauma or complex developmental trauma, who will likely have a thorough grasp on attachment theory. You could also join a group focused on dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills, used to manage emotions and improve relationships, or buy the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Workbook, which includes exercises to build these skills. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), developed by clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, also zeroes in on reshaping attachment, Gillath adds.
But research by Gillath and colleagues suggests that the type of therapy may not matter. In a 2017 study of college students, they found that therapy, regardless of the form it took, was associated with changes in attachment, as well as reduced depression. If you and your therapist connect, they can build a secure environment for you, Gillath explains. They can provide the “secure base” you might have lacked as a kid, as well as model what secure attachment looks like.
Learn how to judge trustworthiness
People who have a style other than secure attachment are notoriously bad at assessing trustworthiness, Brown says. “They either over-trust or under-trust.” Caregivers who constantly gaslit you, or blamed you for their own wrongdoings (with accusations like “Look what you made me do!”) have probably seriously impaired your ability to get an accurate read of people. By learning to assess a person’s trustworthiness, you “take back the power stripped from you when you were little” to judge whether someone was worthy of your trust, Brown says.
Brown’s Not the Price of Admission includes a checklist for those whose trustworthiness radar needs fine-tuning. The checklist notes that trustworthy people say what they do and do what they say, as well as take responsibility for their actions. They’re also relatively consistent, repair their screw-ups, and never use violence or coercion — that is, they don’t guilt, shame, or threaten you into doing anything. In addition, they have “good mastery of their own emotions,” Brown says. If they’re upset, instead of shutting down and muttering, “I’m fine,” they explicitly state they’re upset and need a time-out because they want to act responsibly. Brown suggests starting by trying the checklist out on your favorite TV characters, and then practicing on an actual person.
Brown also suggests reading The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker, a survival of childhood trauma and an expert in threat assessment. In addition, she recommends Blind Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell, which explores the reasons people remain oblivious to betrayal (e.g.: someone who ignores the signs of a partner cheating on them).
If you don’t have a secure attachment style, you’re often too preoccupied with your own insecurity to attend to others’ needs. It sounds harsh, but it’s because if you’re anxious, you may constantly worry about your partner leaving, for instance. And if you’re avoidant, you may stress about depending too much on your partner, or your partner depending too much on you. Having secure attachment, on the other hand, can basically free up mental bandwidth for other pursuits, including helping others, Gillath explains.
Anxiously attached people tend to volunteer mainly to feel better about themselves, but once they began volunteering, they became more securely attached (and their motivations more altruistic).
Indeed, Gillath and his team have shown that securely attached people are more likely to show prosocial behaviors, like volunteering — but engaging in community service may also promote secure attachment, even if your reasons aren’t purely altruistic. Gillath’s team found that anxiously attached people tended to volunteer mainly to feel better about themselves, but once they began volunteering, they became more securely attached (and their motivations more altruistic). In other words, volunteer with a local organization, even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” Gillath says.
Volunteering may also promote other characteristics, such as tolerance and forgiveness, which have been associated with secure attachment. If you’re anxious, you may get into a fight over a partner’s transgressions and end the relationship, and if you’re avoidant, you might disengage and, again, break up, Gillath says. But “secure people are more likely to forgive and forget.”
Appreciate the imperfect humanity in others
Anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment tend to result in strong, incongruous reactions, Brown says. Say your partner points out that you forgot to replace the toilet paper. If you’re securely attached, you might simply respond, “I’m sorry. I was distracted." Otherwise, you might flip out and accuse your partner of being controlling. People with other than secure attachment “can’t tolerate imperfection or humanity in their partners because they’re terrified the other shoe is about to drop,” Brown explains. They often catastrophize minor incidents.
Rather than believing the negative thoughts that spring to mind when someone disappoints you, regardless of their relationship to you, try to challenge them. If your friend forgets your coffee date, it doesn’t necessarily mean they hate you, or that they don’t care about you; if your coworker breaks the phone charger they borrowed, that doesn’t mean they don’t respect your belongings. “With every bobble that happens in life, you can talk yourself through it,” Brown says. “Does it really mean all the terrible things, or does this mean that most humans are humans?”
If you have a romantic partner, identify your absolute boundaries (for some, that might include infidelity or abuse, for instance), make them clear to each other, and don’t negotiate them. At the same time, though, “know you’re going to be human beings who will screw up in every other possible way because we will, because we do, because we are human,” Brown says.
Gillath’s research has also suggested that secure attachment is associated with gratitude. Those with other attachment styles are less likely to show gratitude, Gillath says, which makes sense, since they probably focus more on the negatives in a relationship and how it could go awry. He recommends keeping a gratitude journal, which studies suggest could also enhance overall health and well-being.
Even if your caregiver didn’t bond with you the way you wanted them to, you can still take a proactive approach to strengthening your relationships as an adult. You can do the intense inner work to understand what you deserved back when you were a kid, grieve what you didn’t receive, and learn not to expect your partner to respond to you the way your caregiver did, Brown says. “Don’t wait for the partner to come along and heal you …. Do the prep work.”