Most psychological measures and scales tend to make us think in black-and-white terms, but I like how this adaptation takes the attachment style grid and transforms it into a spectrum for adult attachment.
A spectrum allows space for everyone and each of our unique experiences: experiencing more or less relationship-related anxiety, with a greater or lesser likelihood to manage the difficult parts of being in relationship by avoiding the intimate parts of relationships altogether. Instead of having to locate ourselves in 1 of 4 spaces of a quadrant, a spectrum allows for a thousand different individual variations.
Secure Attachment Style
The upper left quadrant is labeled secure, this corresponds to it being located between low avoidance and low anxiety. Low avoidance and low anxiety define a secure attachment style.
Preoccupied Attachment Style
The upper right quadrant is labeled preoccupied, this corresponds to it being located between low avoidance and high anxiety. Being drawn into relationships and desiring intimacy, but having a lot of anxiety about them is characteristic of a preoccupied attachment style.
Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
The lower right quadrant of the circle is labeled fearful-avoidant, this corresponds to it being between high anxiety and high avoidance. Having a lot of anxiety about relationships and tending to avoid relationships because of the high anxiety are markers of a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
A person with a fearful avoidant attachment style generally deeply desires intimacy and closeness, high levels of fear motivate them to remain avoidant of relationships.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
The lower-left quadrant of the circle is labeled dismissing-avoidant, this corresponds to its placement on the circle between low anxiety and high avoidance. Having low anxiety about relationships and a general avoidance of close relationships is a marker of the dismissing-avoidant attachment style.
Individuals with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may tend to have better self-esteem than those with fearful-avoidant attachment style, as the dismissive-avoidant is motivated by a “why bother, why risk” avoidance of intimacy.
Healing Our Attachment Style
Good news: Attachment styles are not permanent! Heathy relationships that weather seasons of rupture and repair (like partnerships with a kind and committed partner or long-term work with a relationally oriented therapist) can help us create an “earned secure attachment.”
An earned secure attachment is a secure attachment with one particular person, even though our default attachment style might be insecure. Earned secure attachments – often with therapists but sometimes with caregivers, partners, or peers – can help us learn the feeling of secure attachment and grow the capacity to move towards it in other relationships.
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The 12th or 15th time I explained why I left “disorganized attachment” off my attachment spectrum doodle, this visual jumped out at me: See, disorganized attachment can’t be plotted in a basic image because, by definition, it *moves,* like I illustrated in this animated GIF below:
People with a disorganized attachment style often grew up in homes where their caregiver gave mixed signals: one moment pushing them away, the next moment drawing them close only to push them away again. As teens and adults, people with disorganized attachment may repeat this cycle of trying to draw close, panicking, fleeing, then trying to draw near again, often in dramatic or erratic ways.
That’s the key, btw: ALL OF US HUMANS struggle with the desire to be independent vs deeply-connected, and experience anxiety as we navigate that conflict. It’s when that tension results in continuous dramatic or erratic shifts in our capacity to be present in relationships, and causes distress or pain in ourselves or people we care about, that disorganized attachment might be at play.
Treatment for Disorganized Attachment
While most attachment styles can move toward secure attachment through stable, long-term relationships with safe peers and partners, individuals struggling with disorganized attachment may need a therapist who specializes in attachment work to begin creating the foundation for secure attachment that can then be practiced in peer and partner relationships.
Recovery for disorganized attachment also typically involves processing past trauma in order to be emotionally and mindfully present in relationships.