Understand your attachment style – understand your relationship

relationship coaching, Nicole Mathieson, attachment styles

Understand your attachment styles

Why do our most intimate relationships often make us feel the most insecure?

Why does he pull away at the times when you are in most desperate need of comfort and reassurance?

Why do we respond so emotionally to seemingly little things our partners do? Or, inversely, why do the things we do create epic emotional responses in our partners?

Relationships can be baffling.

But there is a way to understand why we react the way we do.

Listen to this post

In my client sessions, one of the first things we explore are attachment styles. These are learned reactions, behaviours and tendencies that we exhibit in our intimate relationships. When you understand your and your partner’s attachment style, it becomes a whole lot easier to navigate the relationship.

What are attachment styles and how can they help us?


Our attachment styles are formed in childhood through the bond we build with our primary care givers, such as our mothers or fathers.

A secure attachment is formed if the bond with our caregivers feels safe, our needs are provided for and there is love available. We learn that attachment and closeness are beneficial and feel good, making intimate and other relationships easier for us.

However, if our primary bond was not so ideal, we learn to distrust closeness and attachment, either:

  1. Switching into a hyper-alert state creating an anxious attachment style; or
  2. Switching our need for attachment off all together creating an avoidant attachment style.

These adaptations keep us safe in our early years but may create problems for us in our intimate relationships as adults.

How do we understand our own and our partner’s attachment styles so we can become more secure and bring the best out in each other?


Let’s have a look at the behaviours and tendencies of each attachment style.

Secure Attachment


A person who has a secure attachment style can:

Feel loved, give love and be intimate
Be apart from their partner and know that the relationship is still okay
Have and retain boundaries to take care of their own needs
Cope with tension and conflict.

The easiest way to come back to secure is if your partner is secure…Winning!! In this case, their secure style rubs off on you, helping you become more secure overtime. Studies say it takes approximately 2 – 4 years for this to happen.

If you are not one of the lucky ones blessed with a secure partner, don’t stress!

The good news is, while these adaptations make relationships trickier, they are just adaptations. We are all born with an innate yearning and ability for secure attachment and with the right conditions, we can all come back to feeling secure.


Anxious attachment
What’s going on?
In an anxiously attached person, experiences in their early life have taught them that, to feel safe, loving bonds need to be watched carefully.

Their attachment system is switched constantly into hyper-drive. They are vigilantly scanning and checking for safety.

All. The. time.

The anxious person finds it hard to relax and feel calm, safe and open in a relationship.

What makes it worse?
Anxiety can be triggered by moments such as:
– an unanswered text
– your partner on a business trip/ holiday
– a suspected glance at another woman/man
– your partner’s unrelated sadness or frustration
– having a partner who has an avoidant attachment style

At worst, the anxiety, constant doubt and worry can cause their partner to pull away – creating the very problem they were most afraid of in the first place.

Their focus
The main questions they are constantly seeking an answer to are: Are you there for me?
Are we okay?
Their super skills
An acute sensitivity to other’s feelings and experiences.
A keenness and availability for intimacy.

What helps?

  1. Understanding – from Self and partner.
    Many anxious attachers feel bad not only because they are always worried, but because they are giving themselves a hard time about being worried. It is important to understand this tendency came to you from your early experiences and is not going to go away with criticism and neglect, rather it needs comfort and safety from within.
  2. Reassurance
    When you are worried about your relationship, it might feel silly or difficult to articulate the worry in the form of a request for reassurance. Instead, I see many anxious attachers move into accusation or suspicion. This often has a corrosive affect and makes you feel less safe. It is okay to ask for reassurance. Ask for a hug and for the words you need, not because you are suspicious, but because you are healing a pattern learned long ago.
  3. Self-soothing
    As an anxious attacher the solution to your anxiety often seems to be outside of your control. It requires your partner to text you, say certain words or do something. We often forget our own capacity to soothe and manage our emotions. Learning techniques to self soothe will really help.
  4. Centring in self
    Anxious attachers are often centred outside of themselves, specifically in the world of their partners, often wondering “what are they doing, thinking, feeling?”. This is not helpful. What helps is coming back and grounding in your own experience. Ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Activate your senses and come back. This will help you locate your own needs so you can best get them met.


Avoidant Attachment


What’s going on?
Avoidant attachers are taught in their early life that intimate bonds are not safe and, therefore, not worth the effort. Their attachment systems are switched into the off position. The avoidant person finds getting close to people intimidating and will manoeuvre around situations in order to avoid getting too close. What makes it worse?
Avoidants are triggered by:
Neediness in others
The question of commitment
Closeness and intimacy
Having a partner who has an anxious attachment style Their focus
Avoidants are convinced they are safer on their own. Closeness scares them. Their motto is often “Don’t come too close. I am okay on my own.”

The main question they are asking themselves is “Do I really need this?”.

The answer is yes. While their attachment system is turned off and they can convince themselves that life is easier without this source of trepidation in their lives, the truth is, deep down they really do need this.

Their super skills
Self-reliance – they are great on their own.
They can be deeply centred in themselves and able to reflect on themselves What helps?
  1. Understanding – from Self and partner.
    Many avoidants are annoyed by their own tendency and feel bad because they can feel themselves pushing away the thing they want. It is important to understand this tendency came to you from your early experiences and is not going to go away with criticism and neglect, rather it needs comfort and safety from within.
  2. Give warnings
    Avoidants are so great at being alone with themselves and their activities they can often get deeply engrossed in what they are doing. The initiation of a conversation or request from their partner while they are in this deep state can feel like a rude intrusion. Instead of saying “C’mon let’s go now” an avoidant attacher will respond better if you say, “I was thinking we might leave in about 10 minutes, would that suit you?”
  3. Identify needs
    It is important for avoidant attachers to get clear on what they need to feel safe. Then ask for it in a loving way. Remembering that this is not you, this is a learned adaptation to your natural style. It is okay to ask for space in a relationship, but you do not want to keep pushing your partner away without clear communication and a discussion about what works for both of you.
  4. Advantages of connection
    Avoidants have had it in their frame of reference from a very early age that connection has disadvantages and is not worth the trouble. They will have had many experiences to prove the truth in this belief. It is time to start noticing and focussing on the opposite. Notice the advantages of connection; the feeling, the safety, the fun times and the team work. Notch them up as evidence that disproves the validity of your past belief. Take a moment to pause and breathe in the beneficial feeling of attachment, done well.

There is one more attachment style I will briefly cover here.

Disorganised attachment


What’s going on?

Disorganised attachment is a combination of anxious and avoidant. In this case, the attachment system is being flicked from hyper-drive (anxious attachment style) to off (avoidant attachment style). The person will either be in full anxious mode or completely disengaged from their attachment needs.

Disorganised is often the result of a traumatic or violent upbringing.

The above descriptions of both anxious and avoidant will be relevant for this attachment style.

What helps?

If you or your partner are a disorganised attacher, what you need, especially when triggered, is a safe space. Ideally, your partner would be able to offer you a calm, safe environment, with loving words of comfort and support such as “It’s okay, you are safe, I am here for you.”

If your partner is also triggered, then find a ritual, space or sensory stimulation that creates the feeling of safety for you. Take your time to work out what this would be in moments when you are not triggered.


Listen to this post here

I hope learning about attachment styles helps you and your partner feel more understanding of your responses and needs. I also hope this post gives you hope for a secure and healthy future.

If you need support as you work through bringing out the best in you and your partner, book a session. 

If you are struggling to identify your attachment style or would like some help in knowing how to move towards secure, send me an email so I can support you.


  1. SVish on April 27, 2019 at 5:58 am

    Hi There,
    Are there more tips on how to deal and heal with a disorganized pattern? I think I know where my traumas come from (mom passed away – child birth when I was 7); dad was not present, he was mentally, emotionally, physically abusive and manipulative. I have anger issues, and I act like a bitch* but I have learned to express my frustrations calmly first – so I’ve come a long way, but my relationship involved an avoidant partner, so we are now broken up. I’m afraid of repeating my patterns (abandonment, fear of being alone, distrust in men etc).

    How do you learn to love and trust another person without falling into a disorganized pattern of attachment?

    • Nicole on April 29, 2019 at 12:52 pm

      Hi Svish,
      Good on you for being aware of your own patterns and behaviours. I have a few books that I recommend and definitely if you are ready to really dive in, I recommend having a session.
      A great first step is signing up for my free Love list which is all the books and resources that I recommend to help you. You can sign up here: https://nicolemathieson.com/
      Take care

  2. […] it is a part of the human condition (ie: we all feel this deep down) and it harks back to the attachment situation in your early childhood […]

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Nicole Mathieson

Hi, I'm Nicole Mathieson, a relationship and body image coach, couple therapist and author.

My relationships blog helps couples learn practical ways to cultivate a deeper understanding of one another, find safety and connection in relationships, navigate difficult conversations and repair after conflict.