Attachment Style: How our Childhood Affects our Relationships

There are endless jokes about lesbian relationship styles, from U-Hauling to lesbian codependency to “useless lesbians” who can’t figure out when they’re being asked out. We’ve all gotten a laugh out of these stereotypes, but only because we’ve all seen these toxic relationship dynamics in action, and sometimes it’s easier to laugh than to sob.

Relationships are hard in general, and they can be even harder for us not only because of the broader social stigmas against lesbians and bisexual women, but also because of the issues that many of us have with our families. Childhood issues that we thought were left behind can actually affect the way we have relationships as adults. If you find yourself falling into the same patterns over and over again in your relationships, you can gain some insight by looking back to how you were raised.

Generally speaking, the way we relate to our romantic partners is shaped by the way our caregivers related to us when we were children. The way our parents or caregivers treated us shaped our identities and our expectations for others, as well as how we handle stress. All of this impacts how we relate to our romantic partners and handle conflicts with them. Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the psychologists who first studied this phenomenon, named it “attachment theory.” Psychologists refer to this way we relate to others as our “attachment style.”

Learning about your own attachment style can help you understand why you keep coming up against the same problems in relationships, as well as how to fix them. There are three main types of attachment style: secure, anxious, or avoidant.

Secure Attachment Style

About 60 percent of people have what is called a secure attachment style. People whose caregivers were consistent and responded to their needs, offering a safe “home-base” for them, often grow up to have a secure attachment style. Securely attached people have a strong sense of self and positive relationships. They are able to grow close to their partners without losing their sense of independence or identity. They are comfortable relying on their partners and being relied upon, and they do not have a fear of abandonment or intimacy. Securely attached people are also less likely to get defensive during an argument. Research on lesbians and attachment style has shown that women who are more comfortable in their lesbian identities are more likely to have a secure attachment style.

Anxious Attachment Style

Those whose parents were more inconsistent are likely to develop an anxious attachment style. They have learned that their caregivers are unreliable, so they grow up to be worried that others will fail to be there for them. About 20 percent of people have anxious attachment. Anxiously attached people often find that others do not want to grow as close as they would like, and they often worry that their partners don’t really love them or that they will leave them. If you find yourself constantly alert to changes in your girlfriend or wife’s mood or signs that she is growing distant, you may be anxiously attached.

Avoidant Attachment Style

People whose caregivers were distant or unresponsive learn to fend for themselves and resist getting close to others, what psychologists call an avoidant attachment style. Avoidantly attached people don’t easily become emotionally invested in their relationships and avoid intimacy. They are uncomfortable growing close to others, and find it difficult to trust or depend on someone else. Roughly 20 percent of people have an avoidant attachment style, though research has shown that lesbians are more likely to be avoidantly attached than gay men are, and we are more tolerant of avoidant behaviors in our partners. Researchers believe that this is due to how social stigmas placed on lesbian women in a patriarchal society means that many lesbians have to develop a strong sense of independence. Those who feel uncomfortable with or ashamed of their lesbianism are also more likely to be avoidantly attached.

Navigating your attachment style

Knowing your attachment style (or your partner’s) can help you navigate the tough times in your relationship. This quiz can help you identify your attachment style. Once you know the pairing of your attachment style + your girlfriend or wife’s, it can help you identify common problems you may run into, as well as identify their solutions.

Secure + Anyone

Pairings in which at least one partner has a secure attachment style report the most relationship satisfaction. A secure partner can help balance out an anxious or avoidant partner’s feelings and make it easier to resolve conflict. This does not mean that securely attached people are perfect and never fight, but a securely attached person is less likely to get defensive during an argument. When you find yourself having conflict, you can try these tips for maintaining and deepening the intimacy in your relationship.

Anxious + Anxious

Anxiously attached people often pick up on every little change in their partner and often jump to conclusions and assume the worst-case scenario. One simple thing that those with anxious attachment can try is to quit “mind-reading.” Ask what your girlfriend is feeling, rather than assuming what she’s feeling. If you find your mind racing with worst-case scenario thoughts, try practicing mindfulness. Recognize the emotions that you are having while keeping in mind that they are not who you are and they will pass. Also, it is okay to pull back and take a break from a situation if you find yourself getting too worked up.

Avoidant + Avoidant

Research has shown that those who avoid intimacy benefit from intimacy-building activities. When an avoidantly attached person listens to their partner and makes them feel loved, it helps them feel more positive about their relationships. Intimacy is hard if you are avoidantly attached, so you have to overcome that through practice. Even simple things such as taking turns answering thoughtful questions can help strengthen an avoidant person’s sense of intimacy. Take turns answering these 36 questions if you want some practice.

Anxious + Avoidant

Anxious and avoidant people often find themselves attracted to one another because they reinforce each others’ beliefs. The more the avoidant person pulls away from intimacy, the more the anxious partner seeks it out. In addition to the above advice on how to navigate being anxious or avoidant, an anxious + avoidant couple can help arguments go more smoothly by setting “time-outs,” allowing them to cool off. Set a specific amount of time (20-30 minutes) to take a break during a fight. The time-out allows the avoidant person to get the space that they need, while setting a time-limit helps the anxious person know that the alone-time will end and they are not being abandoned.

Changing your attachment style

If you are unhappy with your attachment style, don’t worry. Even though attachment is shaped by our early experiences, attachment style is not something that is set for life. Going to therapy can help anxious or avoidant people develop secure attachment through building a positive relationship with their therapist. Research has shown that those who are more comfortable with their lesbianism are also more likely to be securely attached. Therapy can also help with any feelings of internalized homophobia or shame that may make it hard to grow close to others. Knowing your attachment style is the first step to changing it and gaining the tools that help you achieve the intimacy that you desire.