Attachment Style Isn’t Destiny

Our past experiences do shape our relationships. But we’re not doomed to repeat unhealthy patterns forever.

A painting of a man nuzzling a woman, who has her arm around him but is looking away
Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty

The panic set in at the same point every semester: Whenever Ximena Arriaga, a psychology professor at Purdue University, got to attachment theory in her course on close relationships, the classroom grew tense. When she described how people who are anxiously attached can sometimes be demanding and vigilant—and that can drive their partners away—certain students looked disturbed. “I could just see in their face: I’m so screwed,” Arriaga told me. When she explained how avoidantly attached people might feel overwhelmed by emotional intimacy, other students seemed so uncomfortable that they physically shrank back. Some would approach her after class and ask: “Is there any hope for me?”

These students were likely misinterpreting attachment theory in a way that experts told me they see all the time. The theory posits that there are three main attachment styles: securely attached people are trusting, and believe that others are generally worthy of trust; anxiously attached people long for closeness but are paranoid that others will hurt them, and are thus preoccupied with validation; avoidantly attached people, driven by the same fear of abandonment, keep others at arm’s length. (More recently, some researchers have argued there is a fourth style: “disorganized,” a combination of anxious and avoidant.) The common misconception is that one’s style is set in stone during childhood, determined by connections with early caregivers, and doomed to play out in every relationship thereafter.

The reality of the theory is more complex than that. Your attachment style is not so much a fixed category you fall into, like an astrology sign, but rather a tendency that can vary among different relationships and, in turn, is continuously shaped by those relationships. Perhaps most important, you can take steps to change it. So Arriaga could give her concerned students good news: Attachment style isn’t destiny.

You can’t really blame people for misunderstanding attachment theory, given how significantly it’s evolved since its conception. In the 1950s, the psychologist John Bowlby proposed the term attachment to describe the bond between infants and their mothers (fathers weren’t considered particularly relevant at the time). His big idea—that the quality of a mother’s care would essentially predict her infant’s future well-being—built on another famous line of research that started the same decade: Harry Harlow’s monkey studies.

In a series of experiments, Harlow, a University of Wisconsin psychologist, separated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers and placed them in cages. In one study, each monkey was alone with two “surrogate mothers”: one made of wire, which dispensed milk, and the other made of terry cloth, which did not. The monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the milkless but softer cloth monkey, cuddling up to it and running to it when frightened. In another study, when the baby rhesuses were deprived of any mother at all—real or fake—they seemed to lose their ability to socialize. Some stopped eating and eventually died. The ethics were dubious, but the takeaway was considered monumental: Children depend on their mothers not just for nourishment but for comfort—for an emotional bond seemingly so crucial that it was almost magical. Bowlby called that bond “attachment,” and he believed that it formed a blueprint for all subsequent relationships. The effects of a mother’s nurturing—or the consequences of her failures—were forever.

But Harlow’s later research complicated that idea. When he put baby monkeys together—still with no surrogate or real mother—they fared much better than when they were in total isolation. And even those who’d been completely isolated for the first six months of life “achieved essentially complete social recovery” when placed with other monkeys. Michael Lewis, who directs the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers University’s medical school, told me that researchers have realized something similar about human attachment: a mother-infant bond, or lack thereof, doesn’t solely determine the health of the child’s future relationships. Children are influenced by not just their parents but a whole world of other connections: peers, siblings, grandparents, neighbors, teachers. And early experiences aren’t the only ones that are important. Researchers have found little correlation between childhood and adult attachment styles.

That doesn’t mean that attachment theory is bunk. Adults really do tend toward an attachment style—but it’s multiply determined, which means that if you had a difficult childhood, you’re not doomed. And although early theorists conceived of distinct attachment-style groups, researchers have since found that people fall not into an attachment bucket, but rather along a spectrum. Most people aren’t too far apart on it. William Chopik, a psychologist at Michigan State University, put it this way: “Maybe you’re a little bit more avoidant than me, or you’re more secure than your other friends. There is a sense in which we’re differing by, like, decimal points.”

Some researchers have started referring to attachment “orientation,” rather than “style,” seemingly to avoid implying that it’s a static personality trait. Amir Levine, a neuroscientist, Columbia University psychiatrist, and co-author of Attached, told me you can think of an attachment orientation as a working model of the world: a set of beliefs that are constantly put to the test. Those beliefs stem largely from the interactions you’ve already had—but your subsequent interactions keep shaping your expectations, which means that your working model can keep evolving.

In fact, it’s likely to. On average, people tend to grow toward security as they get older. That might be because we accumulate more evidence that the people in our lives aren’t going anywhere. “When you’re married to someone for 40 years,” Chopik told me, “hopefully you stop freaking out about whether or not they’re going to be there the next day.” There’s also a “natural mellowing out that happens with age”—people tend to get better at social interactions, and more comfortable in their own skin.

Attachment style doesn’t just change over the arc of your life. It can also vary from moment to moment (people tend toward insecurity when they’re stressed) and across different relationships. Marisa Franco, a University of Maryland psychologist and the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—And Keep—Friends, told me that it’s not uncommon, for instance, to have a more secure attachment with a partner than with friends. Unlike a romantic relationship, which might follow a more predictable structure—meeting, moving in together, perhaps getting married—and typically involves a more formal commitment, friendships can be full of ambiguity, which can lead us to fall back on old working models. Within a relationship category, too, your attachment style can differ; you might have a secure relationship with one warm, reassuring friend, and a less secure one with someone distant and flaky.

For that reason, several researchers told me, if you want to work toward security, you might need to change who you’re spending time with. People on the anxious side might flourish with someone who’s particularly reassuring and present; people on the avoidant side might need someone who can give them space while still being supportive.

But Arriaga offered a caveat: Her research has shown that although reassurance can help anxiously inclined people in the short term, relying on it isn’t always good for them. They can also benefit from pursuing a sense of self-efficacy—working on feeling more inherently worthy, and less dependent on others to tell them they are. In one study, for instance, she found that new parents who felt competent in their novel role displayed lasting increases in security. Other studies suggest that pursuing and succeeding in goals can do the same.

Attachment orientation is complex; it’s an ongoing interaction between the external world and your internal one, between your circumstances and your interpretation of them. Separating the two can be hard. For instance, when people struggle with anxious attachment, Franco pointed out, they’re apt to notice signs of rejection while overlooking signs of acceptance. But knowing that your working model might not match reality, that it can change, and wanting to change it does make a difference. One of Chopik’s studies found that just wanting to become more secure was associated with more actual change in that direction over a four-month period, compared with subjects who didn’t express a desire for change.

This is what Arriaga wanted to impart on her students: You may not pull yourself up from being the least to the most secure person in the class. You certainly can’t undo the experiences you’ve already had—the ones that might’ve led you to grasp too hard for connection or push it away. But you will have new experiences; you’ll likely meet people you can count on, and hopefully you’ll start to believe that you can count on yourself too. So when they ask her if there’s hope, her answer is: “Of course.”