Anxious, avoidant, disorganized or secure?
Those are the four "attachment styles" used to describe the ways we form and maintain relationships with our parents, partners and friends.
Attachment style theory was first developed in the 1960s, and has been studied by psychologists since. But today, you may have heard about it online, through viral videos, social media posts or simple "quizzes" that take just five minutes and claim to improve your real-life relationships. Google searches for "attachment styles" have also steadily increased over the past two decades — but what does it all mean, and why has the concept become such a trend?
There is nothing new about people being fascinated about what makes us tick and what makes us who we are, and the study of kind of self and personality," said Alexandra Solomon, who teaches relationship psychology at Northwestern University. Her upcoming book "Love Every Day" explores self-awareness practices to foster better relationship practices.
Solomon says people are drawn to the concept of attachment styles in the same way we're drawn to horoscopes or other personality tests — because we think they can help us make more sense of our behaviors.
People who have secure attachments, for example, are more likely to be direct and responsive, while people who are avoidant are more likely to be distant and independent.
"It's a bit more relational than, say, a personality descriptor — like introversion or extroversion," said Solomon. "This one is really truly about 'How do I manage the space between myself and the people around me?'"
When attachment style theory was first developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, it was focused on observing children's relationships with their parents — and the overarching concepts of the theory are still used today in child psychology, family law and even legal custody cases.
Beyond its real-life uses, however, discussions about attachment styles have gone viral on platforms like TikTok, garnering more than 51 million views across dozens of videos, and focusing more on labeling romantic relationships.
Solomon says that too often, people interested in learning about attachment styles use it as an unchanging label — rather than a means to develop better relationship habits.
"My favorite attachment research shows that people's attachment tendencies can shift through a really wonderful therapy relationship," said Solomon. "Intimate partnerships are [also] powerful enough to shift our attachment tendencies — people can learn security or learn secure attachment through loving and being loved through cultivating a healthy, romantic relationship."
So, if you take one of those five-minute quizzes and learn you have an avoidant or anxious attachment style, know that it's not set in stone. Instead, it might be a tool to help us become more trusting and secure.
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