How to support friends with different attachment styles

Whether it’s a romantic relationship or a friendship, we often are drawn to people with different attachment styles. These styles are based in attachment theory, which examines relationships between young children and their parents. Psychologist John Bowlby pioneered the theory by observing how children respond when a parent leaves and later returns.

Two friends sitting close together, one with an arm over the other's shoulder. The pair is seen from behind as they look out over water with a city in the background.“The idea is that when you are vulnerable as a child, you learn what you need in order to survive that situation,” said Dr. Yasmine Omar, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “That’s likely to come back up in a romantic or vulnerable situation later in life. It could be in relationships with your co-workers or with friends.”

So how can you be supportive of friends who have different attachment styles? Omar explains the four styles and suggests methods to communicate with people of each style in an effective way.

Secure attachment

People who are securely attached are most likely to recover from stressful situations in a healthy way. They are able to reengage when the stress resolves. According to Omar, this group needs open lines of communication and is less likely to personalize things that others tell them.

“Communicate thoroughly, understand your own boundaries and be respectful of their boundaries,” Omar said.

Anxious or anxious-preoccupied attachment

People with this attachment style have a strong fear of abandonment and feel rejection easily. The children in this group remained distressed even after their parent returned. In order to maintain connections with others, they will be agreeable and may not speak up when their opinions differ from others’, Omar said.

“To be a supportive friend, you can let them know it’s ok if they disagree with you,” Omar said. “When you communicate with these friends, make it clear the boundaries you set are for you and not against them. For example, if you need time alone, you can say, ‘It’s important for me to recharge alone. That helps me be more present with you the next time we’re together.’”

Avoidant or dismissive-avoidant attachment

People with an avoidant attachment style feel that they cannot rely on others, so they have to rely solely on themselves. According to Omar, they may be less likely to be able to talk about their emotions and may focus instead on external things. She recommends creating a safe space for them to approach and share their feelings.

“This person isn’t as worried about abandonment; they are more worried someone else will swallow them up,” Omar said. “If they say they can’t hang out, respect their need for space and let them know you’ll be there for them when they are ready.”

Disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment

People in this category fall somewhere in between the previous two attachment styles. The children studied in this group didn’t want their parent to go too far away, but also didn’t want them to be too close. According to Omar, people with this attachment style don’t have an organized strategy for feeling safe and unstressed.

“Respect their boundaries and be extra transparent in communicating what you need,” Omar said. “If you need time alone, don’t just tell them you need time for yourself. Instead, you can say, ‘I’ve had a busy day, and I’m exhausted. I’d love to spend time with you, but I don’t have the bandwidth right now.’”

Be sensitive to your friends’ needs

Omar stresses that communication is key in all relationships. She compares different attachment styles to speaking in different languages. The way to express “I care about you” in one language may mean something completely different in another language, she said.

“All of our needs are fairly similar, but we adapt to meet them in different ways,” Omar said. “We all need effective communication. If you take responsibility for yourself and know your boundaries and how to effectively communicate to someone else why you have that boundary, all of these attachment styles can get along with each other.”

Learn more about psychiatry and behavioral health services at Baylor Medicine. 

By Molly Chiu

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