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Likely you’ve heard someone flippantly declare that they (or you, or someone else) have “daddy issues” or “mommy issues.”

While most often used as an insult, these phrases are actually rooted in psychotherapy.

Specifically, a psychological model known as attachment theory.

Originally developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and later expanded by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory says a person’s early relationships in life — especially with their caregivers — greatly inform and impact their romantic relationships later in life.

They believed that a person was born with an innate drive to become attached to their caregiver (usually, the mother).

But the availability (or inability) of their caregiver and the quality of that care shaped what that bond or lack of bond looked like — and ultimately, what that person’s romantic bonds will look like as an adult.

Attachment theory is more complex than the rules of rugby. The short of it is that someone can fall into one of two camps:

  • secure attachment
  • insecure attachment

Insecure attachment can be broken down further into four specific subtypes:

  • anxious
  • avoidant
  • anxious-avoidant
  • disorganized

Secure attachment is known as the healthiest of all attachment styles.

What causes it?

Folks with secure attachment had caregivers that were, in one word, dependable.

“Whenever the child needed protection, the caregiver was there to create a secure, nurturing, and safe place for them,” explains Dana Dorfman, PhD, NYC-based family therapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch.

What does it look like?

As adults, securely attached folks aren’t scared of rejection or intimacy within their relationships.

They feel comfortable getting close to others and trust that if their lover (or best friend for life) says they aren’t going anywhere, they aren’t going anywhere.

This isn’t the type that would “accidentally” scroll through their partner’s emails or make their boo share their location with them at all times.

Also known as “anxious-ambivalent” or just “anxious” attachment, these folks are generally perceived as needy.

What causes it?

You may have anxious attachment if your primary caregiver failed to consistently support your needs or come when you called, explains Carolina Pataky, LMFT, co-founder of the Love Discovery Institute in Florida.

This type of attachment is common for people whose parent(s) traveled often for work.

For instance, if the parent was away on business and not available Monday through Friday but very present Saturday and Sunday.

Or, folks people whose parent(s) were going through their own sh*t. Think: divorce, job loss, death of a parent, depression, etc.

What does it look like?

Someone with anxious attachment is constantly afraid that they’re going to be rejected or neglected.

To quell those fears, they’ll often engage in obsessive behaviors like texting 24/7, refreshing their partner’s social media, or overcommunicating.

Typically, they find themselves in super co-dependent relationships with other anxiously attached folks.

They may also lust after avoidant-attached folks because the dynamic is similar to what they had with their parents.

Ever meet someone who seemed like they had no feelings at all? They were likely avoidant-attached.

What causes it?

When a caregiver dismisses a child’s needs or treats those needs as superfluous, eventually the child stops stating their needs altogether.

Instead, they turn inward, shutdown, and (hopefully) learn to become independent and self-reliant.

What does it look like?

As adults, they seek isolation, independence, and often come across as self-absorbed, selfish, or cold.

“People with this attachment style tend to view emotions and connections as relatively unimportant,” says mental health professional Jor-El Caraballo EdM, a relationship expert and co-creator of Viva Wellness.

As a result, they don’t often prioritize relationships.

It’s common for avoidant-attached folks to avoid relationships altogether. Or, to have one semi-serious relationship after the other, without ever fully committing.

The person Katy Perry wrote “Hot and Cold” about was probably an anxious-avoidant type.

What causes it?

Anxious-avoidant is the love child of avoidant and anxious attachment.

Much rarer than avoidant or anxious attachment styles, folks with fearful-avoidant attachment often had traumatizing experiences with their caregiver.

Sometimes the caregiver was aggressively present, other times the caregiver was absent. This caused the child to be caught between being afraid of their caregiver while also wanting to be comforted by them.

What does it look like?

Often, they find themselves in tumultuous relationships with high highs and low lows. They may even find themselves in abusive relationships.

In other words, they’re hot then they’re cold, they’re yes then they’re no.

Also known as disoriented, insecure-disorganized, or unresolved attachment, folks who fall under this type are generally erratic and unpredictable.

What causes it?

Folks with disorganized attachment often had traumatizing experiences with their caregiver, such as emotional or physical abuse.

This caused the child to be caught between being afraid of their caregiver, while also wanting to be comforted by them.

What does it look like?

People with disorganized attachment simultaneously are afraid of getting either too close to or too distant from their loved ones.

They’re the kings and queens of the self-fulfilling prophecy: They crave connection, but out of fear of losing it, they retaliate, create drama, and find themselves in a lot of meaningless arguments once they have it.

Like most foundational research, the research that helped establish attachment theory was developed with samples from white, upper-middle-class, and heterosexual populations, says Caraballo.

“We don’t have enough research on how these theories might apply specifically to same-sex couples with children,” he says. “Or how they apply to familial setups such as queer families, chosen families, or in polyamorous parenting scenarios.”

According to Caraballo, “While one can explore their attachment style by looking at the characteristics of each style and then doing a historical inventory of their own interpersonal and familial relationships, this is notoriously difficult to do.”

That’s why he says the best way to learn your attachment style is to go to a therapist. Specifically, a trauma-informed therapist.

“A therapist will help you explore and dissect the nuance of your life and then help you as you work on attachment issues that require your attention and skill-building,” he says.

Of course, if you just want to know really quick what your attachment style is, there are several online quizzes you can take as a cost-effective entry point. For example:

“Our attachment styles are deeply ingrained in our emotional brains,” says Pataky.

Good news, though: Our attachment styles aren’t completely set in stone!

“With a lot of hard work it’s very possible to change your attachment style,” says Caraballo.

How? By:

  • Going to therapy. Using therapy to make sense of your past, identify your patterns, or come to terms with the underlying mechanisms can help.
  • Developing relationships with more securely attached people. This will help you learn what secure attachment looks like.
  • Communicating with partner(s). Regular communication can help you both manage expectations, build trust within the relationship, and maintain personal boundaries.

To learn more, head to the self-help section and check out these books:

More an aural learner? Audiobook them on Audible or another platform! Or, check out these podcasts on the topic.

Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.