How Insecure Attachment Styles (Developed In Childhood) Can Damage Adult Relationships

Updated August 18, 2021


Have you ever wondered about the traits and behaviors that shaped your personality before becoming aware and old enough to take charge? Many people ask these questions in life as they come of age and realize their upbringing on their adult behavior.

One of the most widely researched topics in this area has to do with attachment styles.

In this article, we answer the question, "What is insecure attachment? We also talk about secure vs. insecure attachment, provide the insecure attachment definition. Finally, we look at how the development of insecure attachment styles can negatively impact adults who developed this attachment style as children. Let's start with an overview of attachment styles.


Attachment Styles - An Overview

The concept of attachment styles and how they develop - isn't a new topic. The psychology community has studied attachment styles' theory and their effects on human behavior since the early 1970s. According to an ongoing research study performed by Mary Ainsworth in the early 70s, we develop three primary attachment styles in early childhood.

According to the popular Ainsworth psychiatry study, the three primary attachment styles are secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, and insecure attachment. Each attachment type has its own set of criteria and rules. All the theories mentioned here relate to the attachment between an infant and a primary caregiver. (In this case, the mother.)

Secure Attachment

Securely attached people feel confident that the people who mean the most in their lives will be available for them. This means they know they can count on their primary caregivers to meet their food, shelter, and safety needs. The secure attachment style formed in infancy can transfer over into adulthood relationships. Conversely, insecurely attached people don't feel like the people who matter most will be there to protect, comfort, or console them.

According to psychology research conducted by Ainsworth, Main, and Cassidy, children who are securely attached feel safe to explore the world as they use their parents as a base and then seek their parents in times of distress. Whereas insecure people tend to be the loners and outcasts of the world who don't believe their needs will ever be met. It is important to understand that developing attachment styles isn't a choice. Attachment styles develop in infancy and early childhood as involuntary biological behaviors that help us stay safe.


The secure attachment style represents a normal bonding experience between caregivers and infants that sets the foundation for how the infant will respond to their world as they become adolescents, teens, and adults.

Infants develop a secure attachment style when their needs are met quickly - regularly. They secure the attachment with the primary caregiver when infants learn over time. The caregiver will meet their needs. As a result, these infants are more securely attached, and they are easier to soothe (when the attachment figure is around.)

Insecure Attachment Defined

What is an insecure attachment? Regarding the insecure attachment definition, insecure attachment styles have attachment styles that develop because of feeling unsafe or protected in early childhood. Because of neglect or inadequate support in infancy, insecurely attached people developed an independent coping style to carry over into how they behave in adulthood.

According to the Ainsworth attachment study, people who develop insecure attachment styles "are likely to have a caregiver who is "insensitive or rejecting of their needs." The study states that people with insecure attachment styles may have developed this coping style for the attachment figure being unavailable or withdrawing from infants at critical times in their lives. In the next section, we go into further details on the results of the study.

Ainsworth Theory Of Attachment Study

The Ainsworth study researched the following factors when considering the development of attachment styles in infancy. The study paid close attention to whether an infant showed certain symptoms that would show distress when their primary caregiver would leave and then return for some time. It labeled infants who showed signs of distress as "secure" as the bond with the primary caregiver appeared strong enough to cause distress in the infant upon departure and reintroducing the caregiver figure.

Conversely, insecurely attached infants who showed no sign of distress began to develop this behavior over time as their needs remained unmet - the second part of the study related to the infant's response to strangers. Securely attached infants showed a negative response to strangers - unless their primary caregiver was present, at which time they showed a friendly response. This behavior further supports the theory of secure attachment to the caregiver.

In the strange situation test for insecurely attached infants, the infants showed similar disinterest in the stranger whether (or not) the caregiver was present. This further supports the theory that insecurely attached infants develop an apparent indifference to their caregivers after a certain period of their needs not being met.

Insecure Attachments In Adults

Insecure adults often display the same behaviors as insecurely attached infants. They can easily break away from relationships and other situations that would cause securely attached people to have emotional distress. We often misunderstand adults with an insecure attachment style, as they are more easily able to disconnect from people and circumstances. When you look closer, you'll realize that insecurely attached people inadvertently learned that they have to take care of themselves because no one has their back.


Adults who have insecure attachment styles often have trouble connecting with others in relationships because of their easy tendency to disconnect. Adults with insecure attachment styles may find it easier to resolve conflicts in intimate relationships by removing themselves from the situation - instead of working it out. Their attachment insecurity has taught them to believe that their voice isn't likely to be heard, anyway. This results from the insecure attachment style developed in early childhood, which has now carried over into adulthood.

Insecurely attached adults don't only feel insecurely attached from their partners in intimate relationships. They may go through life with a certain detachment level that can cause other people to question their motives or the insecurely attached person to have mental health issues like depression and anxiety due to their inability to seek comfort from others.

Secure Vs. Insecure Attachment

As you may have guessed by now when it comes to determining what kind of attachment style an individual has - the primary caregiver and their attentiveness (or lack thereof) to the child's needs have a serious impact on the style the child develops.

Attachment styles link closely to the development of a child's self-image. Infants and children who have caregivers who were attentive and met their needs are less likely to develop an insecure attachment style. Securely attached people will develop a more positive self-image as the attentiveness they received as infants correlates directly with self-worth (in their minds). On the other hand, infants who have caregivers who aren't attentive to their needs are more likely to develop insecure attachment styles as they equate the lack of care and attention they failed to receive - directly with their self-worth.

This positive or negative self-image developed in the form of attachment styles in early childhood. It can carry over into adulthood and play a major role in your adult behavior. Insecure attachment in adults may show up in the form of inability to sustain relationships or employment, mental health-related issues, and other addictive behaviors like alcoholism or substance abuse. These issues are more likely to develop in adults that have an insecure attachment style.

People with secure attachment styles may also develop issues later in life when their outer circumstances don't meet their expectations or become traumatized by an intimate relationship or other events. Whether your attachment style is secure, insecure, or even ambivalent, it is important to seek the proper guidance and support if you're experiencing mental health symptoms and related negative circumstances in your life.

Final Thoughts On Attachment Styles And Relationships

People with either attachment style can develop issues in intimate and family relationships because of their selective style. When these issues turn into major challenges, consulting a licensed professional for guidance is the best thing to do. The advent of online therapy has made it easy for people suffering from mental health-related issues like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder (BPD) to gain access to affordable (and productive therapy online).

During online therapy, people with issues related to their attachment styles can learn new coping skills and strategies to help them achieve better relationships and outcomes. Getting started with online therapy is easy and doesn't even require a set therapy time as online platforms like provide access to real-time 24-hour therapy. Clients can log in online and have confidential therapy sessions via desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Your first consultation is free. If you're ready to learn how to have better relationships and communication skills for your attachment style - contact a BetterHelp therapist online.

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