Boundary setting is a keystone to a healthy relationship- do you struggle to set boundaries or follow boundaries set by others?
Maybe you act clingy towards your partner. Maybe you spend too much time alone. You might constantly seek validation and approval, or you might tend to remain aloof and not dependent on anyone — even your partner.
These behaviors all stem from people’s individual attachment style. Identifying your own attachment style may help you figure out (and solve) your problems with setting boundaries.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment is how you securely connect with others, and the degree to which you feel safe in your relationships. You can think of it as how you interact and connect with the people around you, especially those you love.
Attachment is the level of closeness you feel with others: it’s how you show love, care, and affection. But it is also how you interpret or understand others’ affection towards you. The degree to which you feel comfortable in vulnerability is strongly determined by attachment.
Have you ever felt fear or anxiety over your partner leaving you, or how your friends and family truly feel about you? Have you ever struggled to balance time with yourself versus with others? Are you unsure of how to determine how close to get to others? These are likely influenced by your attachment style.
What are attachment styles?
Attachment styles are the pattern of behavior or traits you develop when dealing with people — especially those with whom you have a strong emotional connection.
Basically, your attachment style is what shapes and influences your behaviors when it comes to relationships. That includes setting and following boundaries.
Although we call them styles, they’re actually more like “attachment states” simply because you can’t change them according to your whim — like how you can with your fashion style. Unless you dig deep, identify, and actively work on your attachment style, it will remain how it is, likely for the rest of your life.
The Attachment Theory
The concept of attachment styles was first developed by psychiatrist John Bowlby back in the 1950s when he came up with what we now call the attachment theory.
Everyone forms their attachment styles early on — during their first five years as a child, in fact. Which attachment style you develop depends on your primary or earliest caregivers. This means your parents, your aunts or uncles, your grandparents, or other guardians.
Your earliest relationships set the stage for the relationships you later have in life. It impacts what you view as safe, what you think is possible, how you connect with others, how you trust others, and much more.
Whether you feel safe, loved, and fully secure in your adult relationships depends on whether you were able to feel the same way as a child.
Identifying Your Attachment Style
There are two main attachment styles based on the attachment theory: secure and insecure. However, the second one can be further divided into three types: anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. This gives us four separate attachment styles.
Out of these four, the secure attachment style is the healthiest and most stable.
The remaining three insecure attachment types are often rooted in poor relationships, some form of insecurity, or even childhood trauma. In turn, these usually result in negative patterns of behavior when you get into relationships as an adult.
A secure attachment style is born from a safe, visibly loving, and of course, secure relationship with your earliest caregivers.
You don’t need to grow up in a perfect environment to form a secure attachment. What’s important is you can trust your parents or guardians to tend to your needs — both physical and emotional.
Which attachment style you develop depends on your primary or earliest caregivers.
As a child, you didn’t have any anxieties or worries that you’ll be left to fend for yourself. You felt secure in your relationships with your parents or caregivers, and knew they truly loved you, supported you, and would come back for you even if they left.
Additionally, you were given both freedom and safe, firm limits.
What does having a secure attachment style look like as a grown adult?
- You maintain a sense of independence.
- You learn to appreciate your own self-worth.
- You have a positive view of yourself or have self-esteem and self-confidence.
- You have high closeness desires while still feeling comfortable alone.
- You can maintain a healthy balance of “me time” and “connected time” with your partner.
- You are not afraid of intimacy.
- You have low avoidance or feel comfortable being with others.
- You can reliably self-reflect and manage your emotions.
- You can trust others and give your trust in return.
- You feel confident in starting new relationships even after one ends.
- You feel comfortable depending on others and being relied on by your partner.
A great way to figure out if you have a secure attachment style is to think back on whether or not you fear or get anxious about being on your own.
Also known as anxious-ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied, this is the likely attachment state of those who need a lot of reassurance to feel safe in their relationships. Like the name implies, you have high anxiety about being abandoned.
Anxious attachment is formed when the support, love, and care your parents or guardians provided were inconsistent. When you don’t know when your needs will be met, you feel as if you need to strongly hold on to, cling to, or make a scene to be noticed by your primary caregiver.
This also results in you constantly craving for emotional intimacy and validation. As adults, this can turn into acting “needy” or clingy. As a child, this worked, as it forced the adults to attend to your needs. In adult relationships, however, it can lead to ruptures in the relationship.
Other ways anxious attachment can look like for adults in relationships are:
- You can become too fixated with your partner.
- You feel anxious when your partner is away.
- You want to be close with others but at the same time are reluctant to fully do so.
- You constantly worry about what your others really think about you.
- You try to read between the lines too much.
- You often seek approval or support from your partner.
- You can become too demanding or controlling towards your partner.
- You feel less positive about yourself or have lower self-esteem.
- You have a tendency to overreact, especially to what you may consider threats to your relationship.
- You may struggle to maintain other close relationships, outside of your partner.
- You feel as if you won’t survive without your relationship and fear you’ll end up alone forever.
The ambivalent side of the anxious attachment style comes into play when you’re unable to fully trust or rely on the intimacy and love you receive. This is why relationships with anxious attachment people can still feel cold and distant, despite the clinginess.
This can often result in the end of relationships — turning your worries into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Similar to people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, avoidant attachment also stems from feeling unsafe in relationships. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you still have high anxiety regarding being potentially abandoned.
However, instead of clinging to others, you feel wary of others, of forming connections, and especially of relying on other people. As a result, you do the complete opposite and simply avoid or push them away first.
Relationships with anxious attachment people can still feel cold and distant, despite the clinginess.
This is why it’s also called the dismissive attachment style. “They can’t leave me if I leave them first,” or even worse, “They can’t abandon me if I never let them in.”
Avoidant attachment usually forms if you were left to fend for yourself at a young age. You learn early on that it’s hard to trust and depend on others — and that it’s ultimately easier and safer to simply depend on yourself.
If you were reprimanded or even rejected by your primary caregivers for showing emotions, expressing your needs, or depending on them, then you likely be an avoidant type as an adult, too.
In adults, the some signs of having an avoidant or dismissive attachment style are:
- You avoid physical or emotional intimacy or both.
- You feel more comfortable alone.
- You believe you don’t need others to survive.
- You are dismissive of other people or of their concerns and feelings.
- You find it hard to trust others, even without any reason to distrust them.
- You don’t want to depend on others or have others to depend on you.
- You don’t feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings.
- You often don’t feel desire for relationships.
- When in a relationship, you keep your partner at arm’s length.
- You prefer more casual relationships than long-term ones.
- The romantic relationships you form feel shallow or lacking deep emotion.
Although this attachment type doesn’t seek the approval of others, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have high self-esteem or a positive view of themselves. In fact, many are the opposite. Instead of having high self-esteem, you might simply not care about what others think.
Disorganized attachment — also called fearful-avoidant attachment — is usually formed when kids grow up in unpredictable, highly chaotic, or even risky environments. It can often stem from some sort of childhood trauma or abuse.
As a result, you also didn’t learn how to trust and rely on others, or even yourself. You want to love and be loved. However, you also don’t know how to show and accept love offered to you in a safe or healthy way.
Not only do you have a high anxiety about being abandoned, you also have conflicting wants; you have high avoidance but also have high enmeshment. You might want to be left alone or you may insert yourself into others’ life with ease. You might really struggle with boundary setting.
This attachment style can manifest as the following:
- You’re fearful of being left behind yet tend to start conflicts.
- You find yourself emotionally shutting down and pushing your partner away.
- You tend to not take responsibility for your actions.
- You often blame yourself when fights happen.
- You have a highly negative view of both yourself and your future.
- You can become overly involved in your partner’s life.
- You find it hard to depend on others.
- You struggle with independence due to a lack of skills or self-esteem.
- You struggle with regulating your emotions and can be volatile.
- You find it hard to communicate, or you have unhealthy communication behaviors.
- You can be insensitive or unnecessarily hard on your partner.
- You’re prone to dangerous or risky behaviors when under extreme stress, such as violence, self-harm, or substance abuse.
Avoidant attachment usually forms if you were left to fend for yourself at a young age.
Do Certain Attachment Styles Gravitate Towards Each Other?
Any attachment style can be paired with each other, and since these are usually unspoken patterns in relationships, you might not even be aware of your partner’s attachment style.
Having a secure relationship does not mean it will be perfect or last forever, but there will usually be healthier management if it does end. Additionally, two insecure attachment styles together doesn’t always mean the relationship will be unhealthy or end badly — though there might be a higher risk for rupture.
Though attachment styles may have certain distinguishing traits, each person is still different. Their growth and overall journey and life will still shape their attachment style — or even shift it as they grow older and wiser.
Still, there is a lot of information we can infer from two different attachment styles getting together.
- Secure and secure: This is the winning combination, generally leading to healthy relationships and positive, healthy changes individually.
- Secure and any insecure attachment: The secure attachment can potentially help heal their partner and serve as a positive impact. At the same time, they might not tolerate crossed boundaries and unhealthy relationship signs and simply step away.
- Anxious and anxious: This is generally only good at first as both heavily prioritize the other. The downside is the lack of independence from both makes it an unsustainable dynamic.
- Anxious and avoidant: The anxious attachment often gets the short end of the stick. They tend to prioritize their partner and seek reassurance, which is great for the avoidant. However, as the avoidant attachment fails to give reassurance and instead pulls back, this raises the other’s anxiety and risk for unhealthy behavior.
- Anxious and disorganized: This is usually a chaotic pair. The relationship tends to be an endless loop filled with insecurity and stress for the anxious attachment while their disorganized partner goes back and forth between wanting and not wanting intimacy.
- Avoidant and avoidant: This is most likely to end early, as both feel at ease walking away.
- Avoidant and disorganized: While the disorganized attachment can match their partner’s avoidant behavior, they are also prone to pushing for a closer relationship, which can potentially cause chaos.
How Can You Tell if Your Attachment Style Is Insecure or Impacted?
One of the easiest ways to tell if your attachment style is insecure is to think back to how you think and act towards your partner or loved one.
Do you thrive only when you’re in a relationship and not when you’re single? Do you heavily depend on your partner? Do you constantly seek approval of others?
Do you feel extremely anxious about being left alone? Do you find being on your own uncomfortable? Do you find the need to insert yourself thoroughly in all aspects of your partner’s life — just to reassure yourself of their love and trust them?
How about worrying about what others really think about you? Do you stress about oversharing your real thoughts and feelings, thinking you’d be judged for them?
If your answer to these questions are “no” then you most likely have a secure attachment. If you answered yes to a couple (or even just one) of these questions, then your attachment style has most likely been impacted by your life experiences.
How Do Different Attachment Styles Impact How You Express and Receive Love?
Different attachment styles can dictate how comfortable you are with expressing love and receiving love, affection, and trust.
Secure attachments basically don’t have any problem with giving and receiving love. They do both in healthy, positive ways — making it easier for their partner to also feel secure, heard, and seen.
If you have an anxious-insecure attachment style, you find it hard to trust your partner and the security of your relationship. You tend to question and second-guess the love you give, as well as the love you receive. Many are also more reactive — rather than taking initiative, you take first then reciprocate.
For avoidant attachment types, there’s often a deep struggle with showing meaningful love. You tend to make shallow gestures instead. In many cases, avoidant partners may feel pressured to give more than they are comfortable.
With disorganized attachments, it’s basically both anxious and avoidant behaviors combined. You crave intimacy and seek love but often push others away or find it hard to express love in return.
If you experience a disorganized attachment style, you may feel insulted or threatened by your partner’s boundaries.
How Does Attachment Impact Our Ability To Set Boundaries?
From the examples of behaviors we gave for the four attachment styles, you can already start to see how each one sets and recognizes boundaries.
Secure Attachments and Boundaries
Secure attachments are generally the best at both setting and receiving boundaries.
In many cases, avoidant partners may feel pressured to give more than they are comfortable.
You know your limits, what feels comfortable for you, and most importantly, what you deserve. As such, you can set healthy boundaries accordingly.
You’re also able to communicate these boundaries well with your partner. If one of your boundaries is crossed, you’re confident and secure enough to walk away.
Moreover, because you know the value of boundaries and can set them accordingly, you are also able to receive and respect your partner’s boundaries.
All three insecure attachment types struggle with boundaries — but in very different ways.
Anxious Attachments and Boundaries
Anxious attachment finds it hard to set boundaries. When they do set boundaries, they struggle with following through on them. The fear of being abandoned plays a huge part in this.
Because of fear and anxiety, you’re more likely to let crossed boundaries slide. You’re also less likely to set conditions because of this fear. On the other hand, you’re also more likely to receive your partner’s boundaries well — also due to your fear and anxieties.
Avoidant Attachments and Boundaries
Meanwhile, avoidant attachment styles are actually good at setting boundaries — maybe a little too good.
If you’re an avoidant type, you’re more likely to set overly rigid or strict boundaries. Your desire to avoid dependence on others (and others’ dependence on you) can push you to make extreme boundaries designed to push your partner away.
When it comes to a partner’s boundaries, avoidants respect and recognize them well. Again, you may push this to the extreme and use it as an excuse to end a relationship. This can make it hard for your partner to set boundaries.
When you know the value of boundaries and can set them accordingly, you are also able to receive and respect your partner’s boundaries.
Disorganized Attachments and Boundaries
Disorganized styles are the ones who struggle most with setting boundaries. It’s usually because they don’t know what they want in the first place. It might also be easy to feel insulted or threatened by your partner’s boundaries.
Another thing that can make setting boundaries difficult for you if you’re a disorganized attachment is your difficulty in expressing yourself. Even if you know what you want, you struggle with communicating it with others.
Additionally, disorganized styles are less likely to steadily uphold boundaries — both your own and other people’s.
How Can You Improve Your Boundary Setting Skills?
There are several ways to improve your boundary setting skills. Knowing your attachment style and how it affects your abilities to set and receive boundaries goes a long way.
After all, recognizing the problem is always the first step to arriving at the correct solution. Knowing where you may be faltering will help you address it better.
Other tried and true ways to help you improve your boundary setting skills are:
- Improving your communication style
- Improving your beliefs about yourself and others
- Improving your understanding of other people’s needs
- Improving your understanding of your own needs
- Improving tolerance when faced with conflicts and loss of relationships
The exact way of how you can improve all these will depend on your attachment style, too!
Knowing your attachment style and how it affects your abilities to set and receive boundaries goes a long way.
Taking Steps To Repair Your Attachment Style
Perhaps repair might be too strong a word. After all, your attachment style isn’t “broken” — it may simply be unhealthy for your mental, emotional, and social well-being.
That being said, what can you do about it? Are there any ways to correct, improve, or change your attachment style? Yes, there are!
The following steps can greatly help you:
Improve your fear of abandonment or judgment
Find balance between isolation and enmeshment
Improve desires for closeness
Manage mental health or physical health challenges that are hurdles
Enhance your overall relationships
Find better support systems in life
Grieve damaged and lost relationships in a healthy manner
Improve emotional safety
Heal from your past trauma, neglect, abuse, or betrayal
When you know your attachment style, you can start to work on it. You may be one of the insecure types today, but by addressing the issues you struggle with, you can eventually gain a secure attachment style some day.