Attachment styles: How knowing ourselves can lead to better, more lasting relationships

Produced and written by Andrea Brody

Psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and author Amir Levine explains the essence of the human bond, saying that “from the moment we're born until we die, [the] human condition is such that we need to be bonded to others, in a very, very meaningful way.” Graphics by Gabby Quarante

In the mid-20th century, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the first to affirm the significance and essential role of early attachment in normal human development. They observed that attachment bonds, initially rooted in the child’s need for safety, security, and protection, were fundamental in infancy and childhood. 

“It's a safety mechanism,” explains psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine. “We feel safe by our connections to others.”

Though Bowley was mainly focused on the infant-caregiver relationship, he also believed that attachment characterized human experience from "the cradle to the grave."  

In the 1980s, researchers further explored the idea that attachment patterns nurtured in childhood continued to evolve throughout adulthood, and that these attachment styles play an integral role in forming and maintaining various relationships, including friendships, romantic partnerships, and parenthood.

Today, anyone in a relationship (or working on one) will probably recognize  the three primary attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or secure. These categories seem to be everywhere, from TikTok to self-help books to dating profiles. 

Levine, associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, is co-author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, in which he explains the origins and science behind attachment theory and how human bonding is a necessary element “from the moment we are born until we die.” 

“The anxious attachment is the canary [in the coal mine] of humans, because they're very good at detecting danger,” he says. “They also are very good at telling if people are bluffing in poker.” 

Avoidants, meanwhile, are very good at functioning independently. 

“It's almost like they're getting ready for that day that people will disappear on them,” Levine says. “They constantly are telling themselves that they have to count only on themselves and they have to be self-sufficient.”

People with secure attachment styles, he says, tend to see a lot of success with relationships. 

“The secures of this world are naturally really, really good in relationships. And if you surround yourself with secure people, they will teach you how to become more secure.”

Levine says knowing how we bond to each other can influence the way we behave, which in turn can alter the way others perceive us. A better understanding of our common strengths and weaknesses can actually lead to more satisfactory and lasting relationships.

“If we feel secure, we don't think about our partner all the time; we think about how we're going to create, what hobbies we're going to have, friendships, parenting, work,” he says. “And that's the real thing about attachment: It really gives us the freedom to become more independent, by finding the right person to depend on.” 

“I always like to say there's no Xanax or Klonopin in the world that can work as effectively as a secure bond,” says psychiatrist and author Amir Levine. 

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  • Amir Levine - Author; Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, head of the Levine Lab for Developmental Neuroscience, Columbia University.


Andrea Brody