Everyone’s talking about attachment theory. Here are the quick facts, whether you’re dating or parenting.

To understand why you act the way you do in your romantic relationships, look back at your childhood and your relationship with your parents. Or so goes the idea behind a new interpretation of an old concept: attachment theory.

It’s a philosophy that’s been circulating in parenting circles for decades. But the pandemic – and social media – propelled attachment theory back into the collective consciousness as TikToks, Instagram posts, explainers and podcasts use it as a framework to understand patterns in adult romantic relationships.

At its core, attachment theory proposes that humans are born with an instinctive need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver. New research has applied that idea to understand more about behavior patterns in adult relationships.

Attachment theory originated in the 1950s, pioneered by British psychologist John Bowlby. His research led him to propose – contrary to popular belief at the time – that a secure relationship with a caregiver was a vital factor in infant development. Later, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded the theory. In the 1990s, it became the basis for a popular parenting philosophy championed by celebrity pediatricians like Dr. William Sears.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory says humans fall along a spectrum of three main attachment styles depending on their comfort with intimacy and closeness, and their sensitivity to disruption in that intimacy. As

Secure: The person feels comfortable with intimacy and does not constantly fear its loss. They may easily trust and communicate with others and manage conflict well.

Anxious: The person worries about their partner loving them back, fears rejection or abandonment and depends on their partner for validation. They may appear clingy, sensitive to criticism and need approval from others.

Avoidant: This person tends to avoid closeness and fears intimacy will mean a loss of independence. They may appear distant or dismissive and struggle to express feelings.

A fourth style, often called disorganized or anxious-avoidant, includes anxious and avoidant elements and tends to involve unpredictable or confusing behavior. It has been associated with mental health conditions including mood and personality disorders, and substance use disorder.

Popular again

Over the past year or so, attachment theory gained traction thanks to social media. On TikTok, #attachmentstyle and #attachmentstyles have nearly 840 million total views.

Driving much of the online discussion around attachment theory and adult relationships is the resurgence of a book written back in 2010 that gained popularity on social media and hit bestseller lists. “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love,” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller posits that a person’s emotional and behavioral patterns in their adult relationships mimic those they had as a child with their caregivers.

Levine was recently interviewed on NPR’s popular Invisibilia podcast.

Why now? Levine told CNBC he believes the renewed interest in his book and in attachment theory stems from the pandemic. Periods of increased threats or danger can shift people’s attention toward their closest relationships and how to hold onto them.

Good, bad or permanent?

A growing body of research shows that attachment styles follow people into adulthood. While the secure attachment style is associated with healthier relationships and better outcomes in children and adults, experts contend there are not “good” and “bad” attachment types.

And labeling yourself or your partner as a certain attachment style – without the help of a therapist – can lead to over-simplifying behavioral patterns that, in reality, have complex causes.

As Levine told NPR, people can work with therapists toward changing or modifying their own attachment style to improve the health of their relationships.

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers |

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.