Can People Who Want to Change Their Attachment Style Do So?

a cat snuggling on a human's shoulder. The cat's eyes are closed, and they look quite content.
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

I’ve written quite a few times on this website about attachment styles. As I’ve written in those previous posts, perhaps the biggest lesson of all in child development is that the first year of so of our life is a radically important time for us emotionally. While we continue to learn about trust and social relationships over the course of our life (and experience another notable period of turbulence at puberty), the bulk of how we learn to be in relationships takes root when we’re infants.

The way we come to feel supported or unsupported by our caregivers profoundly shapes the way we feel in all kinds of relationships, whether they’re friendships, romantic, or something in between. This baseline unconscious expectation we develop is called our attachment type.

In their book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller identify 3 basic attachment styles in adults:

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious
  3. Avoidant

Secure

Securely attached people find it fairly easy to connect with others and achieve fulfilling relationships. People with this attachment type typically don’t worry about being alone and are at peace with both intimacy and independence.

Anxious

People with anxious attachment crave closeness to others but often worry that others find them clingy and can feel quite insecure, fearful that their partners don’t reciprocate the strong feelings that they have. Anxious types can become extremely dependent on their partners, viewing themselves as incomplete without that bond.

Avoidant

Avoidant people value independence and autonomy above closeness, and though many want to be close to people, they have a way of keeping people at arm’s length. They don’t open up easily (or at all) to their partners and can come off as quite emotionally distant. They can easily feel smothered by too much intimacy.

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Some other research paradigms have gone on to subdivide avoidant attachment down further into two categories: dismissive avoidant and fearful avoidant, depending on the person’s internal motivations and emotional state.

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If you’re curious about what your attachment style is, you can take a quiz .

Yes, Your Attachment Style Can Change

In a former installment of this same series, I covered an interesting phenomenon: The fact that your attachment style can change.

Please read that post for more information about the studies covered in that article, but here are the big takeaways:

  • Thirty percent of people in a long-term study did experience a change in their attachment style. This meant that the majority didn’t, but a significant minority did.
  • A person’s overall susceptibility to change turned out to be an important predictor in whether or not their attachment style changed.
  • Major life traumas also had a tendency to disrupt secure attachment patterns.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style on Purpose?

Interesting stuff, but neither of those studies addressed something that a lot of people who wrote in wanted to know: Can you change your attachment style on purpose?

That is, if you are feeling anxious or avoidantly attached, is it possible over time to intentionally move towards secure attachment?

Today’s study answers that question with a resounding yes. The current study found that individuals who set this as their goal actually were successful in doing this over time.

How? Well, this study doesn’t answer that question. Still, it’s encouraging, the idea that it’s possible. I’ve found it to be anecdotally true (happening in my own life and in those of many folks around me) but cool to see it also found in research.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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