A Brief Guide to Attachment Patterns

Ahead of our upcoming workshop *Mothers and Daughters: A complex couple rooted in love and pain* with Victoria Settle (Bowlby Centre) on Friday 7th June 2024 (on Zoom, with catch-up available), we’ve produced this brief guide to attachment theory and the four attachment patters. This article was written by Victoria Settle, and edited by Shelley Holland.


Attachment theory is about examining the nature of a child’s tie to his or her parents. When working in a therapeutic context an understanding of someone’s default attachment pattern can help us to understand the ways in which someone is seeking to get their needs met in their adult relationships.

In 1950 John Bowlby was commissioned to write a report for the WHO (World Health Organisation) on the impact on children of the forced separations during World War 2 between them and their parents.

Bowlby demonstrated what most people already instinctively knew:

That these separations were distressing and traumatic for both parents and children alike.

Specifically, when we think about attachment, we are looking at our patterns of seeking care from someone when we are in distress and our patterns of giving care to someone who is in distress.

We understand that these patterns are laid down in infancy because of the lengthy period in which we remain vulnerable as a species. If we don’t find an effective way to seek care and evoke our parents’ desire to give us that care, then we are not going to survive. It is therefore in the interests of the survival of our species that we form good attachments and thus good ways of seeking and giving care.

Secure Attachment

In healthy primary attachments (usually with our parents) this care exchange generally goes well and this is what is described as a secure attachment.

Features that promote secure attachment include:

  1. Physical proximity
  2. Emotional availability and engagement
  3. Capacity to attune to needs
  4. Understanding what is in our minds
  5. Being a safe haven when we are in distress
  6. Being a secure base when we are ready to explore
  7. Validating/allowing feelings and experiences
  8. Not retaliating or withdrawing in the face of conflict


We learn that we can clearly and easily ask for help, and we are confident that help will be given. We receive it in an uncomplicated way and we respond to other people who need something from us in a similarly uncomplicated way.

In problematic early relationships, when these attachment needs are not met well, we learn that our needs are bad or wrong and that our needs will not be met. We have two obvious options.

Option One: Avoidant attachment pattern

We might try to get rid of our needs by denying or downplaying them. This is what is described as an avoidant attachment pattern.

Attachment related experiences are relayed in a low-key manner because the emotions are being held at bay. These clients need to be helped to get in touch with their emotional world because their feelings have been closed down and minimised.

Typical presentations would be:

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, I can’t see how talking is going to help”.

“I don’t want to wallow in my grief”.

“If I talk about it, it will just make it worse”.

“It’s not that bad”.

“I’m fine really”.

“My wife wanted me to speak to someone, I don’t see the point”.

 Typically, this group of clients struggle to fill the space for themselves at all. Access to their emotional world is limited.

Option two: Preoccupied/anxious attachment pattern

The other option is to fight to have our needs met and to escalate how we feel to make sure we are being taken seriously and this is described as a preoccupied attachment style – and presents in a more hyper or urgent way with clients feeling overwhelmed or constantly going round in circles in their head – without resolution.

These clients find it hard to take in what help is being offered because they are so busy fighting to get their needs met without expecting that they will.

Typical presentations would be:

 “No-one understands me!”

“This is a disaster!”

“How can I possibly keep going after what he did to me?”

“You’ll never be able to help me, I’m a lost cause…”

Access to their emotional world is overwhelming. They might ruminate a lot, and experience their thoughts going round in circles, with a feeling of being unable to let go of their experiences. Ruminating. Unlike the avoidant pattern of being able to let go of things with ease.

Mary Main later described a 4th attachment pattern which she came to link with severe abuse or trauma:

Disorganised attachment

This 4th attachment style (the first three being secure, insecure avoidant and insecure preoccupied) is formed in response to a parental figure who was abusive and therefore traumatic to be in relationship with. The key feature of this is that the attachment experience is, at heart, frightening.

This attachment pattern is embedded in an impossible double bind. We are biologically determined to run towards our mother or father if we are in distress but if they are the ones causing the distress then we need to both run away from them and towards them at the same time.

There is no way out of this attachment dilemma without great confusion, hence the term disorganisation as a description of the attachment pattern. The more traumatising the parent, the greater the distress, the more we need to run both from and to them.

Typical presentations are dissociation, extreme mistrust, bizarre thinking, intense transferential responses, extreme enactments, high emotional intensity.

In summary

This is a very quick trot through the essentials of attachment theory, although there is one more key element to mention – which is that secure attachment enables good reflective functioning.

This is why we struggle to be reflective – because we are not securely, safely attached and therefore free to be explorative in relationship.

When we are insecurely attached, our primary need remains trying to establish relational safety and there is no room for play or exploration. With attachment-based therapy therefore, our first goal is to establish a secure enough attachment that exploration can take place.

This is analogous to the working alliance in person centred counselling or to some degree, the positive transference in the psychoanalytic model.

It’s important to note that this is often a fluctuating state – and tracking when we feel secure and open as opposed to insecure and defensive is an ongoing process. In essence we can be secure in one relationship, and insecure and defensive in another, and being aware of these fluctuations can be key to self-acceptance and healing.

An often-asked question is ‘if attachment patterns are established within the first year of life’ (as researchers have found) does this mean that our attachment pattern is fixed? The answer is both yes and no!

We can learn to be secure in key relationships, what is called ‘earned secure attachment’ and this is often the goal of therapy. However, at times of huge psychological distress (a break-up, a bereavement, a redundancy, ill-health, etc) it would not be unusual for us to revert to our default attachment pattern. This is not a failing; just something that someone with earned secure attachment can be reflective and self-compassionate about.

Let’s end with a direct quote from Bowlby himself:

We’re only as needy as our unmet needs. (Bowlby)


Picture credits: Unsplash/Artur Voznenko, Raimond Klavins & JR Korpa


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