Attachment Theory

Attachment styles have four characteristics:

  • Proximity maintenance - desire to be near.
  • Safe haven - safety when there is fear of threat
  • Secure base - for exploration
  • Separation distress - anxiety in absence of attachment figure.

The safe haven and secure base are worth investing in and caring for in attachment-based relationships. (Proximity maintenance and separation distress are feeling triggered by an event).

Attachment can be understood as two axis, anxiety and avoidance (Mikulincer & Shaver)

Low High Positive intent
Anxiety Less fearful/preoccupied Fear of being rejected, neglected, abandoned or seperated Connection
Avoidance More likely to approach and engage Uncomfortable beign close, intimate or reliant Autonomy

Combined, they lead to the four attachment styles:

Low Avoidance High Avoidance
Low Anxiety Secure Dismissive / Avoidant / Autonomy
High Anxiety Preoccupied / Ambivalent / Connection Fearful / Disorganized

However, by understanding the underlying two axis, more nuance becomes possible, as well as shared characteristics (i.e. both dismissive and fearful attachment styles are high avoidance, both preoccupied and fearful are high anxiety). Also, while your primary, default attachment style might be stable, it is helpful to use the axis as navigation - certain situation and context might trigger different coping strategies and therefore attachment styles.

Instead of a negative frame, we can also name the human need driving the (mal)adaptive attachment strategy. Behind high anxiety (preoccupied) is a need for connection, but too much of this and it leads to fusion. Behind high avoidance (dismissive) is a need for autonomy, but too much of this and you end in isolation with rigid boundaries.

A common pattern in relationships is a distancer-persuer dance, where the persuer is more anxious/preoccupied, while the distancer is more avoidant/dismissive.

See also boundaries are connection and protection.