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Understanding Adult Attachment Styles – Illustrated Guide

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.

Image depicting the adult attachment spectrum created by Image may not be published, presented, or duplicated without permission

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.

Print a PDF Copy of this Attachment Spectrum

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Adult Attachment Styles

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Disorganized Attachment

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:

Disorganized Attachment GIF

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.

Download the Disorganized Attachment GIF & Video lllustration

Disorganized attachment image.

Includes a zip file containing Disorganized Attachment animation in GIF and MP4 formats, for presentations or direct sharing.


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Image descriptions for screen readers:

A hand-drawn banner titles the image: “adult attachment styles”

A large circle is divided up into eight slices like a pie, each is a different color of a rainbow spectrum. The top of the circle is labeled low avoidance, and the bottom of the circle is labeled high avoidance. The right side of the image is labeled high anxiety, and the left side of the image is rated low anxiety. See article text for breakdown of adult attachment styles within these quadrants.

The illustration of disorganized attachment sits atop the image described above. The attachment styles banner is replaced with an identical banner labeled “disorganized attachment.” This image is animated. The circle from the previous image is static in the background, with color saturation lowered to indicate it is not the focus of the image. Atop the circle is a small dark gray circle, about 1/25 the size of the large labeled circle.

As the animation plays, the dark gray circle bounces randomly around the different attachment file quadrants. The small circle bounces into every quadrant erratically, sometimes moving very quickly, sometimes hovering, and sometimes moving more slowly. The movement of this darker gray circle represents how a person with disorganized attachment can shift abruptly between attachment style presentations.

For more resources on attachment and attachment theory, check out my “If attachment styles were ghosts” comic, and my lighthearted attachment theory psychology valentines.

Click to View a Video Illustration

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