Counselling psychologist Niamh Delmar describes the four main attachment styles and what they mean for your relationships.

Attachment theory is concerned with the influence of early bonds with caregivers and their impact on future relationships. You will likely have heard about them from the various videos on TikTok and Instagram, spewing out a plethora of amateur posts on its effects on dating and partners.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified the significance of early relationships with primary caregivers. Attachment bonds refer to the emotional connections and nonverbal signals between individuals and their attachment figures. Four attachment styles have been identified: secure, anxious, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Coping mechanisms, acquired as a child, transfer onto relationships. If you felt safe as a child and your needs were met, you most likely developed a secure attachment. Your primary caregiver engaged with you as an infant, soothed you and responded to your needs.

Attachment theory asserts this leads to an adult who can manage conflict, enjoy healthy relationships and intimacy. This person has a positive self- view, can communicate well, emotionally open up and seek solutions. Having this style helps to set boundaries and thrive in meaningful relationships.

According to this theory, if the care you received as a child was confusing and inconsistent, an insecure attachment develops. The primary caregiver was sometimes engaged and other times not. As an adult, this results in difficulties managing emotions and enjoying stable relationships. This partner may be needy, fearful or anxious in relationships.

There is a tendency to manipulate or avoid intimacy. An ambivalent or anxious preoccupied attachment style leads to a partner feeling anxious, clingy and feeling insecure in an adult relationship. It is difficult to trust and you may become obsessed with the other person. Jealousy, controlling behaviours, manipulation or needing constant reassurance may feature. When parents are unavailable and the child's needs unmet, self-soothing occurs and the child may be blocked emotionally.

Attachment theory states that an avoidant-dismissive attachment style develops. In adulthood, this person is wary of emotional connection and tends to avoid closeness. Intimacy feels uncomfortable and you come across as emotionally distant.

A disorganised/disoriented attachment style arises as a result of childhood trauma and fear. Relationships may be a source of both love and hate for this person and behaviours may be abusive.

How attachment theory can help

Understanding your attachment style can provide insight into your relationship difficulties, blocks and patterns. It helps to understand your needs and expectations in a relationship. It is possible to change and develop a more secure attachment style.

Building self-esteem is key, as you are the foundation from which relationships can flourish. Review all your relationships and identify any recurring themes. Take steps to build a more secure attachment style by monitoring how you communicate with others and be aware of your emotional responses.

Educate yourself on EQ (emotional intelligence) and practice handling conflict and communicating in a mature way. Emotional regulation is powerful in relationships. It helps us to know when not to act when emotionally triggered and facilitates us to pause between feelings and reactions.

Active constructive responding improves the quality of relationships and overcomes negative left-overs from early bonding deficits. Research has found that how we respond to our partners evolves from our attachment styles and has a long-term impact on relationships.

Showing enthusiasm for your partners’ enthusiasm about something is powerful. However, people may sabotage their partners’ good mood or good news. Somebody who is anxiously attached may feel not good enough or be fearful that they are not the centre of attention.

Adults with insecure attachments tend to negatively respond to their partners’ positive events. Active constructive responding involves active listening and respectful and solution-oriented dialogue. Both partners’ needs are considered and neither gets hurt. Good news is met with enthusiasm and validation.

If there is evidence of an insecure attachment style, it is essential to choose a partner wisely. Being in a relationship with someone who also has an insecure attachment style can lead to hurt and distress. It helps to be in a stable, loving and supportive bond.

Therapy can be of benefit to explore patterns and identify how past experiences may be negatively affecting the present. Trauma- informed therapy provides emotional safety to resolve childhood trauma. Relationship counselling can facilitate uncovering and shifting unhealthy dynamics.

Limitations of attachment theory

While many people find attachment theory insightful, and report that style and history changes relationships for the better, there are limitations.

So much happens in a person’s life story from being with their primary caregiver to becoming an adult. Personality, gender, social class, culture, psychological health and life events also shape how a person relates with others.

Categorising people into various styles does not encompass the myriad of biological, psychological and social contributing factors at play in relationships. A person may have had a secure bond with their mother but witnessed her being in a destructive relationship. Or someone may have had an insecure bond with their primary caregiver but recovered with other significant supportive bonds, positive life experiences and therapy.

Attachment theory also underestimates how much people can heal, despite insecure early bonds. Parents may get blamed for all the problems their children may have throughout their lives despite a multitude of other influences featuring. Even when children in the same family are bonded with and reared in the same way, they can be so different. Parenting is not "natural" or smooth for some, and yet supports are limited.

Another limitation is that attachment theory mainly focuses on the mother as a primary caregiver yet others may form positive bonds with a child simultaneously, such as a sibling, father or carer. It is evident attachments formed are significant and can be damaging, but it doesn’t not mean people are doomed.