Attachment theory

Secure Attachment Characteristics in an Adult (Secure as a child)
• Can tolerate difficulties in a relationship and utilize healthy coping skills to manage
these challenges.
• Feel comfortable with their emotions.
• Know how to draw boundaries.
• Express their emotions in a healthy manner.
• Feel secure and connected to their partners.
• Are able to recognize and leave unhealthy relationships.
• Have the resources to move through rejection because they can keep it in
perspective (not the end of the world).
• Coherent narrative about themselves: able to integrate past, present and future.
• Socially engaged.
• Ability to be close to others expands.
Dismissing Attachment Characteristics in an Adult (Avoidant as a child)
• Fear of closeness, vulnerability with another, or emotional intimacy.
• May feel uncomfortable with affection and love.
• Protect themselves due to fear of being hurt.
• Hard to attune to others and intuitively notice when others need support. (This can
express itself as selfishness or aloofness.)
• Isolate when life feels difficult, difficulty reaching out for support.
• Can have a highly independent lifestyle.
• Struggle to be emotionally close with others, dismiss the emotions of others.
• Often rationalize their emotions and can be disconnected from the emotional signals
in their bodies.
• Difficulty recalling childhood experiences.
• Little personal detail to illustrate a childhood memory, rather use general themes.
• Little sense that the past, or others, play a role in how they evolve in life.
• Deny feelings to avoid confrontation.
• Minimize the importance of interpersonal relationships and the communication of
• What is relevant is to get stuff done and keep things under control.
Love & Belonging, Fiona Brandon MFT, May 2021
• Work on slowly expanding tolerance for closeness.
• Increase self-awareness (including sensations in the body) and ability to see
nonverbal signals from others without the need to fix or control.
• Risk more self-reflection.
• Awareness that inborn attachment system is still intact.
Preoccupied Attachment Characteristics in an adult (Ambivalent as a child)
• Nervous and insecure about relationships.
• Place their relationships at the center of their lives but live in constant fear of
abandonment and rejection.
• Hard to trust the other loves them.
• Hard to trust that loved ones are committed to the relationship and will stay.
• Become clingy and possessive.
• Overly attuned to partner which can cause them to push partner away (wondering
what the other person is thinking, where they are or why they haven’t texted today).
• Sense of desperation and urgency for connection. (This overwhelming need can
push others away which reinforces the belief that others are not dependable.)
• Loved one should be able to “just know” what they need without asking.
• Need constant reassurance and communication to feel peace within themselves.
• Can lose sense of self in relationship by trying to merge with partner (putting needs
of other before their needs, giving up activities that are important to them if they do
not interest partner.)
• Learn self-soothing techniques and positive self-talk to calm anxiety, doubt and
• Learn that difference in opinion is not a threat to connection.
• Learn to tolerate experiences of separation from loved one.
• Learn to tolerate setting boundaries with partner/friend/co-worker.
• Learn to tolerate misattunement from partner/friend/co-worker.
• Learn to tolerate quirks and harmless bad habits of partner/friend/co-worker.
Disorganized Attachment Characteristics in an Adult (Disorganized as a child)
• Longing to be close while at the same time pushing others away to avoid any
feelings of intimacy.
• No coherent integration of past, present and future due to traumatic childhood
• Easily dysregulated.
• Difficult to maintain emotional balance and connection to others.
• Emotions change suddenly.
• Perceptions colored by changes in attitude.
• Change is difficult, inflexibility.
Love & Belonging, Fiona Brandon MFT, May 2021
• Pattern of dissociating.
• Get support from others to help contain big feelings that emerge.
• Construct a self-narrative that is more flexible.
• Gradually face what feels like unbearable feelings.
• Acknowledge that caregiver was scary and abusive.
General remedies for all attachment styles
• Learn what triggers your automatic reactive relational survival patterns.
• Self-awareness of automatic relational reactions (Do you get quiet and numb when
hurt? Do you get verbally angry and blame? Do you storm off?)
• Learn to voice to yourself in the moment “I am getting triggered” and self-soothe or
remove yourself to self-soothe.
• Learn how you trigger your partner/friend/co-worker.
• Remembering all the ways in which partner/friend/co-worker are helpful, attuned,
present, etc.

  • This list of characteristics is drawn from the work of Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, Dan
    Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out, and Janina Fisher’s book Transforming the
    Living Legacy of Trauma.