Define insecure attachment

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Insecure Attachment Style: Behaviors, Causes & How To Heal

What is insecure attachment?

An insecure attachment style is a way of approaching relationships with fear or uncertainty.

One of several attachment styles, this attachment style can make it difficult for people to make deep emotional and intimate connections with a partner, Chamin Ajjan, M. S., LCSW, A-CBT, tells mbg.

"An individual who has an insecure attachment to another typically feels anxious about the relationship and whether or not their own needs or desires can be met by the other person," holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., says. "They may expect the person to abandon them or hurt them in some way."

Insecure attachment is an umbrella term to describe all attachment styles that are not secure attachment style.

The three types of insecure attachment are anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant, which are also known in children as ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.


Insecure attachment involves someone who suffers from fear or uncertainty in relationships.


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Types of insecure attachment:

  1. Anxious attachment: Also called anxious-ambivalent attachment style, this is characterized by anxiety and insecurity1 in relationships. "These people can be preoccupied with worries and are clingy and in need of validation and reassurance," Ajjan says.
  2. Avoidant attachment: Also called anxious-avoidant attachment style, it is characterized by dismissive behaviors. These people avoid emotional closeness and intimacy and often struggle to ask for help. 
  3. Fearful-avoidant attachment: Also called disorganized attachment style2, this one is characterized by unpredictable and volatile behaviors. According to Ajjan, these people don't have strong coping strategies and struggle dealing with relationship problems. 

What causes insecure attachment?

Attachment styles are developed in childhood and formed by caregiver-child relationships.

"It's essentially how we were emotionally cared for—or not cared for—as children growing up," Lippman-Barile explains.

People with insecure attachment styles generally lacked consistency, reliability, support, and safety during childhood, Ajjan says.

(Here's our full guide to attachment theory and how each attachment style is formed.)


Oftentimes, attachment styles are developed in childhood and formed by caregiver-child relationships.


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Example behaviors:

In childhood

  • Clingy to caregiver
  • Actively avoiding caregiver
  • Frequently crying inconsolably
  • Hiding or repressing emotions
  • Becoming upset or panicked when a parent leaves them
  • Appearing independent while secretly wanting attention
  • Fear of exploration, especially in a new situation
  • Poor emotional regulation

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In adulthood

  • Low sense of self-worth and self-esteem
  • Struggles asking for help
  • Pushes others away
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Overly dependent or clingy toward a partner
  • Overly independent or resistant to intimacy with a partner
  • Constantly seeking reassurance in a relationship
  • Jealous and threatened by a partner's independence

How insecure attachment affects adulthood

"Typically, these attachment styles (if unresolved) play out in adulthood," Lippman-Barile says. "Being insecure as a child looks similar to being insecure as an adult in the sense that the anxiety and fear of being abandoned is still present."

For example, a child who is clingy toward their caregiver will generally be clingy toward a romantic partner later in life.

Likewise, a child who learns they can't rely on their caregiver may end up never willing to rely on a partner as an adult.

Regardless of the partner's behavior, a person with insecure attachment may never feel secure in the relationship, she explains.

Along with interfering with romantic relationships, Ajjan says an insecure attachment can also lead to poor emotional regulation, depression, anxiety, and low self-worth.


Struggling with insecure attachment as an adult often stems from insecurity as a child. Someone with insecure attachment oftentimes doesn’t feel secure in a relationship which can lead to significant issues with your partner.


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How to fix insecure attachment

In order to heal, it's important to understand your own attachment style.

It may be helpful to take a test to determine what type of insecure attachment style you have, whether anxious, avoidant, or fearful-avoidant.

"Knowing why it may have developed, and how, is helpful so you can start to work on these feelings and behaviors in your relationship," Lippman-Barile says.

Ajjan adds that therapy can help people unpack these underlying factors, learn new coping skills, become more mindful of their thoughts, feelings, and needs.

Investing in healthy and supportive relationships is also important, whether it's with friends, loved ones, mentors, or a partner.

"Working with your partner and communicating this is helpful as well so that you both are mindful of these patterns and have a strategy to work on them," Lippman-Barile says.

To develop a secure relationship, she says both partners will need to trust each other and feel secure as independent individuals.

Though people can't change the way they were raised, it's possible to develop healthy coping strategies in adulthood.

Being aware of a person's attachment styles may be the first step in that process.


You have to understand your own attachment style to fix insecure attachment issues. It's also important to focus on communication and trust in your relationships. Therapy can be a great tool for identifying the root cause of your issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most common signs of insecure attachment?

As an adult, someone struggling with insecure attachment may oftentimes push others away, suffer from low self-esteem, be overly dependent on others, and constantly seek reassurance from people.

How do you love someone who struggles with insecure attachment?

If your partner struggles with insecure attachment, the best thing you can do is be patient and let them know how you feel. Try to exert positive behaviors even in times of difficulty and provide them with as much emotional support as possible. Therapy can also be helpful in dealing with insecure attachment issues.

What causes insecure attachment?

Insecure attachment oftentimes stems from childhood and is formed from caregiver-child relationships. Adults who deal with insecure attachment often lacked consistency, support, and reliability during childhood.

The takeaway

If you find yourself approaching relationships with fear or anxiety, you may be dealing with insecure attachment, a form of attachment that stems from an unstable childhood. 

In order to develop more secure relationships, you need to understand your own attachment style.

The tips above, like therapy, are great ways to help unpack some of these underlying issues and learn to practice secure attachment.

What is the type of attachment - Burning hut

In the 50-60s of the last century, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth studied the relationship of infants with the closest adults in the first year of life. This is how attachment theory was born. According to her, children have several types of behavior towards their parents. In adulthood, these types of behavior are reflected in relationships with partners. Together with a psychologist, we understand what types of attachment are and what they are, as well as when they form and whether they can change. nine0003

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When did attachment theory appear and what does it say

British psychoanalyst John Bowlby is considered to be the founder of attachment theory. In the 1950s, he tried to understand the emotions experienced by babies who are separated from their mother. Bowlby noticed that children will behave differently to prevent separation from a parent: crying, screaming, clinging to him. Prior to Bowlby's research, psychoanalysts believed that this was the manifestation of the immature psyche's defense mechanisms that act to suppress emotional pain. But Bowlby suggested that such behavior may serve an evolutionary function. nine0003

His theory was that children's tendency to become emotionally attached to their caregivers, to seek them out when they were lost, and to worry about being separated from them, allowed children to survive. It was attachment that provided support, protection and care for a person who is too small to take care of himself.

A little later, Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian psychologist, expanded on Bowlby's theory of attachment and identified individual differences in how infants coped with separation from their parents. At 19In 69, she conducted the famous psychological experiment "Strange Situation". There were mothers with babies from 12 to 18 months and unfamiliar adults in the room. At first mothers and children played on the floor, but at some point their mothers got up and left the room without a child. After a while they returned to them.

Here are the results:

  • Bowlby's normative theory assumed a certain model of the child's behavior in such a "strange" situation: when the mother leaves him, he cries, gets upset, looks for her, and when she returns, the child quickly calms down. In Ainsworth's experiment, children did behave this way, but not more than 60% of them. nine0003

  • Another 20% of children were also frightened and upset when they lost sight of their mother, but could no longer easily calm down when she returned. Researchers have sometimes observed in children a desire to "punish" their mothers for leaving. Therefore, they cried for a long time and demanded to be calmed down.

  • Approximately 20% of the children from the experiment were not at all particularly upset by separation from their mother and after reunion tried to avoid contact with her and were more interested in toys. nine0003

  • There were also very few children who behaved inconsistently: they could feel fear or even aggression towards the mother when she returned.

As a result, the researchers identified four types of attachments: secure, anxious-resistant, avoidant and disorganized.

Also Eismont's work has shown that these individual differences are related to how parents interact with the child in the first years of life. For example, securely attached children tend to be actively responsive to their needs. In children with an anxious type, relatives often do not provide proper care, do not show attention. nine0003

Natalia Litvinova

Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist and Supervisor, Systemic Family Therapist, Member of the Society of Family Counselors and Psychotherapists

Formation of the type of attachment is influenced by the child's relationship with both parents. At the same time, to the extent that the second parent, more often the father, is included in the process of raising and caring for the child, to the extent that he influences the formation of the type of attachment. If he interacts with the child at a minimum, then the type will depend more on the relationship with the mother. nine0003

Grandparents can be figures of attachment if the child lives with them most of the time. But if he is still with his parents, then this is primarily about them.

Parents are key figures for a child. It is in contact with them, in the way they treat him, react to the manifestation of his emotions, and attachment is formed. With its help, the child understands whether everything is right with him or whether he is doing something wrong.

For example, if a child, when he screams, cries or gets angry, is constantly told “I don’t want to see or hear you”, “Come to your senses”, “Sit in the room until you calm down”, then he perceives this as if from he is refused. But a child cannot survive without parents. Then he understands: in order to be accepted, you need to remove, suppress the emotions that cause such a reaction from adults. But it is impossible to suppress only negative emotions - this is how an avoidant type of attachment is eventually formed. nine0003

How child attachment theory relates to adult romantic relationships

Later, in the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver applied Ainsworth and Bowlby's attachment theory to adult romantic relationships. This is how the types of adult attachments that we know today appeared.

Hazan and Shaver noted that relationships between infants and their caregivers and relationships between adult romantic partners have common features:

  • both feel safe when the other is near,

  • both make close, intimate, bodily contact,

  • both feel insecure when the other is unavailable ,

  • both show mutual admiration.

Thus, adults have four types of attachment that they realize during romantic relationships:

Reliable type of attachment

  • Formed when adults pay attention to the needs of the child, respond to his requests for help. When a child is sure that loved ones will always be there.

  • A person with this type can trust others, love and accept love. He can approach other people with relative ease.

  • With this type, a person is not afraid of intimacy and does not panic when his partner needs time to be alone. He does not experience constant fear of being abandoned or betrayed. nine0003

  • With this type, a person is not afraid to feel affection for a partner. But at the same time, he does not become completely dependent on his beloved.

  • According to a 1980s attachment study by Hazan and Shaver, about 56% of adults were securely attached.

All other types of attachment are considered unreliable. They arise if in childhood the child was attached to a person whose attitude was unpredictable, dismissive or even cruel. nine0003

Anxious type of attachment

  • Insecure type of attachment, which is characterized by constant fear of being abandoned.

  • This type occurs if the close people around the child were not responsive, did not respond to requests for help, did not satisfy his needs.

  • Anxiously attached people tend to be insecure about their relationships. They worry that their partner will leave them, and they want confirmation that this will not happen. nine0003

  • Anxious attachment may be associated with compulsive behavior. For example, a person begins to worry if a partner does not respond quickly enough to a message or says “I love you” less often.

  • Anxious people tend to idealize others and question their worth as a romantic partner. Therefore, they seek and even require approval from the other person.

Avoidant (or avoidant-rejecting) type of attachment

  • An insecure type of attachment, which is characterized by fear of intimacy with other people.

  • Such attachment arises if the object of the child's attachment at an early age behaves coldly, disdainfully towards the child's requests.

  • Avoidant people tend to have difficulty connecting with and trusting others.

  • They prefer to be independent and rely on themselves. nine0003

  • They usually maintain some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable to them.

  • They think that they are worthy of love, but those around them are unreliable and not trustworthy.

Anxious-avoidant (or disorganized or ambivalent)

  • This type of attachment can occur if parents instilled a sense of fear, because of which an understanding of personal boundaries was not formed. Or the child has experienced psychological, physical, or even sexualized abuse. nine0003

  • This type of attachment is a combination of anxious and avoidant types.

  • On the one hand, a person is afraid to enter into close relationships. On the other hand, it feels the need to be loved, craves affection.

Natalya Litvinova

It is wrong to think that only people with reliable attachment can be happy in relationships. Rather, we can say that many things they will live easier. nine0003

Imagine a couple where one partner is anxious and the other is avoidant. And now the avoidant partner forgot to do something important. Then the anxious partner will perceive this situation as an attitude towards himself: “Since he did this, then I am not important to him, he does not care about my requests.” If this situation happened to a reliable partner, then he could get angry, upset, or simply think that the partner is not having the best day. But he would not take this situation on himself, because he is sure that he deserves love. In a person with anxious attachment, certain actions of a partner can cause anxiety and thoughts that he is unworthy of love. nine0003

Why attachment theory has been criticized

Now attachment theory is popular. Psychologist Sue Johnson bases her approach to emotionally focused psychotherapy on this theory.

However, there are also critics of attachment theory. At the end of the 20th century, they wrote about the negative impact of theory on the idea of ​​a “good mother”. Feminist researchers believed that such an approach, firstly, largely leaves all responsibility for the psychological development of the child on the mother. Secondly, it negatively affects the self-esteem of women whose children were born prematurely and spent the first months of life in hospitals, or women who were forced to go to work early. nine0003

In the mid-60s, a study even appeared that showed that the main object of affection can not only be multiple, but also not coincide with the main person caring for the child. So, children who spent all the time with their mothers could become more attached to their fathers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers or grandmothers.

The theory is also criticized for the idea that the type of attachment is acquired once and for all life. In this case, it turns out that early experience is more important than everything else that happens to a person in the next years of life. nine0003

One of the most common criticisms of attachment theory is that in non-Western societies the idea of ​​a close bond between a child and a single caregiver is generally absent. For example, in Papua New Guinea or Uganda, child-rearing responsibilities are evenly distributed among a wide group of people.

Can several types intersect in one person at once? But a person can show different strategies in relationships with different partners. nine0003

Let's imagine a situation in which a person with an avoidant type of attachment was in a relationship with an anxious partner. Then, for some reason, this couple broke up. And a partner with an avoidant type entered into a relationship with a new person who has an even more avoidant type (because there are different degrees of anxiety, avoidance). And in these respects, he becomes more anxious. Therefore, he begins to manifest a strategy of a different, previously uncharacteristic type. For example, he criticizes a little or makes timid claims. But despite this, his type will not change, and anxious manifestations will still be milder than those of a person with an anxious type of attachment. nine0003

Can the type of attachment change?

Natalia Litvinova

If a reliable type is already formed, then it can turn into an unreliable one only if some traumatic event occurs in childhood, for example, the death of parents.

And unreliable types can become more reliable. The type of attachment is formed in parent-child relationships, when mom and dad are the most important people for the child. But then a person grows up, enters into a relationship, and then attachment to a partner becomes more important than attachment to parents. And already in these new relationships, the type of attachment may change. nine0003

If a pair of an alarming and reliable type is formed, then the alarming one can approach a more reliable one due to communication with its partner. When a partner is understanding, sympathetic, supportive, then the type of attachment can change. If earlier a person with an anxious type of attachment was repulsed, criticized, and in these relationships the partner accepts him, understands his problems and responds to his requests, then attachment can become more reliable.

It is also possible to correct the type of attachment with the help of psychotherapy. nine0003

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What is attachment and what types of attachment are there

Our relationships with other people in psychology can be interpreted through different theories. One of them is the theory of attachment, within which there are 4 different styles (or types) of attachment. nine0003

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Psychological problems

Psychological trauma

The type (or style) of a person's attachment is his special way of forming relationships with others. According to the theory of attachment, developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment style is formed and developed in early childhood in response to our relationships with parents or caregivers. Our adult attachment style is thought to reflect the specific relationships we had with significant adults during infancy and childhood. nine0003

Do not self-medicate! In our articles, we collect the latest scientific data and the opinions of authoritative health experts. But remember: only a doctor can diagnose and prescribe treatment.

Attachment type explains why we overreact to certain topics or behaviors of people, and also explains our way of interacting with them.

There are four main attachment styles in adults: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant. The last three are considered forms of insecure attachment. nine0003

Types of Attachment

1. Secure

This is our ability to form secure, loving relationships with other people. A person with a reliable type of attachment trusts others and is trusted himself, loves and knows how to accept love, easily approaches others. He is not afraid of intimacy and does not panic when a partner needs his own time and space. A person with a secure attachment can be dependent on another without falling into complete dependence. nine0003

According to a 1980s study by social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver, only about 56% of adults are securely attached.

All other types of attachment are insecure.

2. Anxious

Anxious attachment style is a form of insecure attachment style marked by a deep fear of abandonment. Anxiously attached people tend to be very insecure about their relationship, often worrying that their partner will leave them, and therefore always crave acceptance. Anxious attachment is associated with obsessive behavior. For example, you are very worried when your partner does not answer you quickly enough, and you constantly feel that he does not care enough about you. nine0003

According to a study by Hazan and Shaver, about 19% of adults have an anxious attachment type.

3. Avoidant (detached)

Avoidant attachment style is a form of insecure attachment style characterized by fear of intimacy. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to have a hard time getting close to or trusting others in relationships, and the relationship itself can leave them feeling suffocated. They usually keep some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable in their relationships, preferring to be independent and self-reliant. nine0003

According to Hazan and Shaver, about 25% of adults have avoidant attachment.

4. Anxious-avoidant

Anxious-avoidant attachment style is a combination of anxious and avoidant styles. People with this attachment are both desperate for love and want to avoid it at all costs. They do not want to develop close romantic relationships, but at the same time they have a strong need to feel loved by others.

Anxious-avoidant attachment, also known as disorganized attachment, is relatively rare and not well understood. But it is known to be associated with significant psychological and behavioral risks, including overactive sexual behavior, an increased risk of relationship violence, and difficulty with emotion regulation in general.

How Attachment Styles Are Developed

Attachment styles are usually formed in infancy through our relationships with our first caregivers. Researchers believe that attachment style develops during our first year of life between 7 and 11 months of age. nine0003

Humans are born helpless, so from birth we are programmed to seek out and attach ourselves to a reliable guardian for protection. The quality of that first connection—loving and stable, fickle or even absent—actually shapes the developing brain, influencing us throughout our lives in how we deal with losses and how we behave in relationships.

What circumstances lead to each of the four types of attachment?

Secure attachment - guardians are sensitive to the needs of their child and listen to them.

Anxious Attachment - h Apparent adults are inconsistent, unpredictable, sometimes overly involved and intermittently withdrawn.

Avoidant attachment - adults are unresponsive, often dismissive and withdrawn. They are constantly emotionally disconnected from their child, as a result of which he believes that his needs will not be met.

Anxious-avoidant attachment - the adult frightens or traumatizes the infant, which causes the child to experience a deep sense of fear and distrust of others, despite the desire for close relationships. The child develops a poor understanding of boundaries and does not understand what a healthy relationship is.

Significant adults are not the only ones who shape our attachment style, however. It can also be influenced by other significant relationships throughout life. A person may have a secure attachment as a child, but betrayal and infidelity as an adult can lead to the development of an insecure attachment. nine0003

How to identify your attachment style

Read the statements and choose the closest one:

  1. It is relatively easy for me to get close to others and I am comfortable depending on them and making them depend on me. I don't often worry about getting dumped or getting too close to me.
  2. I have found that others do not want to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or doesn't want to stay with me. There is a desire to completely merge with another person, and this sometimes scares people away. nine0021
  3. I feel somewhat uncomfortable around others, it is difficult to fully trust them, it is difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I get nervous when someone gets too close, and often partners want me to be more intimate and open with them than I'm comfortable with.

Choose the statement that suits you best and return to the beginning of the text - to the description of attachment styles. The numbers 1,2, and 3 here are the same as the description of attachment styles above. The fourth type is not included in this test, as it is considered to be quite rare and not fully understood. nine0003

It is important to note that in different situations a person may show a different style of attachment. It is important to understand which one is more common than the others.

Can attachment style change?

Yes, a person can change their attachment style, but it takes a lot of work, patience, and a clear vision of your goals.

Here's how.

1. Define your relationship patterns

Think about your relationship with your parents as a child. nine0003

  • How did they treat you as a child?
  • How did you react to them?
  • Whom did you turn to for comfort when faced with a problem?
  • Were your parents reliable to you?

Assess your current and past attachment styles and determine if there are any patterns in your choice of partners.

2. Work on your self-esteem

Low self-esteem is a common feature of all insecure attachment styles. Learn to accept, appreciate, love and take care of yourself first. If you cannot understand what self-love is because you were neglected, insulted and rejected as a child, at least start with a tolerant and neutral attitude towards yourself. You are human, and every human deserves to be appreciated. nine0003

3. Identify your real needs

People with insecure attachment styles tend to form insecure relationships because of a deep-seated fear that their relationship will not work out.

Learn more