Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships


While I discuss how the different attachment types fare in relationships with each other in my book (Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong), I didn’t go into great detail, mostly because the book is directed at those looking to get into a relationship, not those trying to deal with one they already have. But I see there is great interest in using attachment theory and types to try to guide difficult relationships to a more secure and satisfying pattern, so here’s my (sometimes speculative) take on each combination type:

Secure with Secure:

These couples may well have other problems (addiction, differences over money and spending, fairy-tale expectations), but on the whole since they are both Secure, they tend to communicate well and don’t end up in the dysfunctional communication patterns as often. Having their own internal sense of security makes them less self-centered, and allows greater empathy for their partner’s feelings. A sense of reasonableness and fairness makes every issue they face a bit easier to face together, and counting on each other is more often rewarded.

Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type

Anxious-Preoccupied with Secure:

The Preoccupied one will test the patience of the Secure one by requiring more messages of reassurance and edging toward anxiety when the Secure one can’t respond quickly or reassuringly. This will tend to drive the Secure one toward a more Dismissive attachment style in interactions–despite possessing internal security, the excessive demands of the Preoccupied would make anyone less patient. If this problem is not too severe, the Secure partner can bring the Preoccupied partner further toward security by constant patient reassurance, even when the Preoccupied one is being unreasonable.

The Secure partner will sometimes feel alone in carrying most of the responsibility for the relationship’s emotional stability. In crisis, the Preoccupied will revert to anxiety and self-centeredness, and that will feel to the Secure like partner flakeout. If the relationship does well and the Preoccupied grow more secure in time, this problem will ease.

More on this couple type: Anxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example, Type: Anxious-Preoccupied, Type: Secure

Dismissive-Avoidant with Secure:

The Dismissive will tend to drive the Secure partner toward attachment anxiety by failing to respond well or at all to reasonable messages requesting reassurance. As with the Preoccupied, an extremely secure partner can gradually change the insecure partner toward more security, but at great cost in patience and effort. If the Dismissive recognizes the problem and takes some responsibility for trying to respond positively even when he doesn’t really feel like it, this can gradually reorient the Dismissive partner toward more satisfying couples communication. If this does not happen, a Secure is more likely to give up on the relationship and move on, since unlike the Preoccupied who often stick with bad relationships, the Secure partner knows someone better is out there and is not too afraid to give up on a losing relationship.

Fearful-Avoidant with Secure:

This has some similarities with the Dismissive-Secure pairing, but the lower self-esteem of the Fearful-Avoidant makes it more likely he or she will be the one to exit the relationship when it becomes intimate and routine, since the closer they get to a real person the more afraid they are of loss, and apparently rationalizing their exit as due to their partner’s flaws is less painful than they subconsciously imagine being rejected by their partner would be.

More on this pairing: Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster

Dismissive-Avoidant with Anxious-Preoccupied:

This is a classic long-lasting but dysfunctional pairing. The two types (one under-valuing attachment and one over-valuing attachment) create an interlocking dependency full of stress and anxiety for both. Because the Dismissive may actually prefer having his/her view of others as needy and clingy confirmed, and by the sense of controlling the relationship by doling out just enough responsiveness to keep the Preoccupied partner off-balance but in the hook, the Dismissive may settle in for the long haul, while the Preoccupied partner is unhappy with settling for crumbs but sticks around out of fear of being alone, afraid of never finding another relationship.

This is one of the most common (second only to Secure-Secure) long-lasting relationship types. More on this couple type: Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment, Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?

Fearful-Avoidant with Anxious-Preoccupied:

Somewhat like the Dismissive-Preoccupied pairing, but less stable; the avoidant partner will be less comfortable with the constant requests for reassurance from the Preoccupied partner and will be less likely to tolerate a long relationship spent fending off intimacy. If the avoidant partner allows real closeness to develop, that triggers his or her anxiety; if they stay at a distance, the Preoccupied partner will be unhappy and increase the level of requests.

Anxious-Preoccupied with Anxious-Preoccupied:

A match that usually ends badly and quickly as neither partner is good at anticipating the needs of the other. It’s not impossible that two mildly Preoccupied individuals will bond and learn to satisfy each other’s security needs, but it is rare.

Fearful-Avoidant with Dismissive-Avoidant:

Uncommon, since neither avoidant type is very good at positive attachment. While one might think both types would prefer to be with more distancing partners, the Fearful-Avoidant is not comfortable without intimacy and would find the Dismissive’s lack of positive messaging as anxiety-inducing as the other types. Meanwhile, the Dismissive partner doesn’t get as much ego-boosting attention as he or she would from another type, and so this combination is less likely to even get started.

Dismissive-Avoidant with Dismissive-Avoidant:

…and even more so for this very rare combination. Without a partner willing to do some of the communications work, this couple type rarely even gets started, and the “why bother?” from both of them tends to end it quickly under even minor stresses.

Fearful-Avoidant with Fearful-Avoidant:

Even more rare since the fearful-avoidant type is uncommon. These two will find it tough to reach stable orbits around each other. But since they both feel a real need for intimacy even if they are skittish when it actually happens, there’s a chance they can make it work. They are more likely to succeed if aware of each other’s insecurities.

[Note: if you arrived here looking for insight into a dismissive or fearful-avoidant spouse or lover, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner.]

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Malignant Narcissists
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management


    1. Looks like I missed that one — which would be quite rare, since f-a’s are about 5% of the population. They would have some difficulties remaining intimate, but the fact that both do consciously desire intimacy — despite being scared by it when it happens — means they have some chance of working toward mutual security in a relationship that is more superficial in nature. But they are less likely to succeed that they might be paired with a Secure.

  1. I am a fearful avoidant who has been with a dismissive avoidant for 15 years. I see now why there is so little information about this combo. I would love more advice about this specific duo.

  2. I think it’s worth mentioning that religious convictions and/or concern for children can be why people “stick around” and not necessarily from fear of being alone if they were to leave or lose their partner stemming from low self esteem attachment styles.

    Being Secure but having a strong conviction to stay married can make for a pretty miserable relationship with a Dismissive Avoidant who is reluctant to address their fear of intimacy. Without an “acceptable” option to end their relationship and move on, the Secure person is driven towards an ever greater sense of loss and anxiety which seems to have no end. It can feel like a prison which your partner ignores or despises your requests to be released from and escape would make you a renegade with your children, family, friends and faith.

  3. Looks like the combinations most likely to have some success are secure-secure or preoccupied-secure. It makes sense to me. I am a mix of preoccupied & secure, and I have suffered deeply at the hands of fearful & dismissive types that first presented as secure. While I work to become more secure myself, I cannot allow such types in my life again, it’s just too triggering and exhausting…. endlessly disappointing. The tricky part is most avoidants start out wonderfully present. Gotta learn to read the subtle signs of underlying avoidance. It’s hard tho. Wish ppl came with disclosures about their attachment styles.
    I was hoping to find more info about preoccupied-preoccupied combinations, and I’m a bit surprised that it’s apparently not a good match, as I thought two “needy” ppl might get each other…but I guess it makes sense they’d both just be unable to meet each other’s needs.

  4. Hi Jeb,
    I’m just curious what findings you are basing these combinations on? Is this purely anecdotal in nature or are there actual reviews/journal articles exploring these concepts? It might be worthwhile to readers new to the theory to state the source more explicitly.

    1. At the time I wrote this, I hadn’t seen any quality research (though a lot of studies mention the common avoidant/preoccupied coupling.) Since then, there may have been some papers trying to slice-and-dice the type combinations. This was just my best effort from what I had read in, for example, Shaver’s discussions.

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