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Attachment Styles and Borderline Personality Disorder

How different attachment styles influence borderline personality disorder.

Key points

  • There are different presentations of borderline personality disorder, including classic BPD, quiet BPD, and high-functioning BPD.
  • Which type someone displays may depend on their attachment styles, adopted from childhood.
  • People who are high on the anxiety dimension are more likely to have a negative view of themselves and have dependency issues.
  • Individuals high on the avoidance dimension have developed negative views of others and are mistrusting.

We cannot paint everyone with borderline personality disorder with a single brushstroke. Even though people may carry the same diagnostic label, their unique life experiences and innate temperaments will create different coping styles and thus symptom profiles.

In this article, we will review how different attachment styles may affect your push-pull behaviors and explain various BPD symptoms.

Attachment Styles and Adaptation Strategies

Our parents' responses to our attachment-seeking behaviors shape how we see the world later in life.

In the most ideal scenario, we would have had attachment interactions with someone loving, attuned, and nurturing, who can mirror our emotions back to us accurately and does not ask us to carry their distress. That will be how we develop a sense of safety and trust for those around us. We would internalize the message that the world is a friendly place; we trust that someone will be there for us when we are in need.

However, if the message that we were given by our caregivers was that the world was unsafe, it could affect our ability to withstand uncertainty in life. Since we may feel unable to sit with any ambiguity in communication, we may demand constant reassurance, quickly flip into black-or-white thinking, feel the impulse to end everything, or plunge into despair whenever conflict arises.

Attachment theory was originally developed by John Bowlby (1907-1990), who started by observing how infants react to being separated from their parents. Psychologists found that without conscious intervention, we tend to stick with our childhood attachment styles. To put it simply, if we have an anxious attachment pattern, we might become attached and clingy; if we have an avoidant attachment pattern, we tend to cut off to protect ourselves.

What Are the Main Attachment Styles?

There are four main attachment styles. They can be understood via where they fall on two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver,1998).

1. Secure attachment

Securely attached individuals who are low on both anxiety and avoidance. They tend to view themselves positively and believe that they are worthy of care. They usually grew up in a supportive environment where parents were responsive to their needs. Securely attached people are usually flexible, open, and warm. They can be vulnerable and express emotions in front of others.

2. Anxious-preoccupied (anxious) attachment

People who are high on the anxiety dimension are more likely to have a negative view of themselves. If you are anxiously attached, it means that your upbringing has caused you to believe you were unworthy of love and care. You crave intimacy and approval, yet fear rejection and abandonment.

You have developed this form of attachment likely because your parents were or continue to be inconsistent with their emotional availability and responses. Maybe at times, they were nurturing. Other times, or as their mood changed, they flipped to being cold, rejecting, detached, or even cruel. You never knew what to expect. This results in a hyper-vigilant psyche—at every moment, you feel like you have to watch out for any signs of change in the relationship dynamics.

As an anxious child, you sought constant assurance, approval, and attention from others, and as an adult, you may demand these from your partners. You have an intense need for contact and connection, which can come across as being dependent or clingy. You struggle with the idea of object constancy and experience constant fear of abandonment. You are highly aware of the smallest hint that others may be angry, upset, or pulling back from you. When you feel insecure, you cannot help but react with fear, anger, and a desperate search for contact, validation, and connection.

You tend to struggle more with maladaptive dependency. You may sacrifice your own needs for that of others, and find it difficult to trust your ability to endure or enjoy solitude.

Anxiously attached individuals with borderline personality disorder may relate more to the descriptions of "classic" BPD, where the fear of abandonment and instability in interpersonal relationships are core features.

3. Dismissive-avoidant (avoidant) attachment

Individuals high on the avoidance dimension have developed negative views of others. If you are avoidantly attached, you learned through experience that people could not be counted on, and you have to rely only on yourself.

You tend to minimize or downplay painful feelings. You may not remember much of your childhood and feel uncomfortable speaking about it. Normalizing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing painful events are your core coping mechanisms.

Children develop this attachment style when their primary caregivers are not responsive to or reject their needs. You eventually become uncomfortable with emotional openness and you deny the need for intimacy even to yourself. You place a high value on independence and autonomy and would do all you can to avoid feeling overwhelmed, engulfed, and controlled. You may recognize the value of relationships and even have a strong desire for them, but have difficulty trusting others.

If you have this attachment style and BPD, you may relate more to descriptions of quiet BPD or high-functioning BPD. In quiet BPD, you turn your pain inward and hurt yourself rather than lash out at others. In high-functioning BPD, you shield your conscious and unconscious anxieties and relational wound with a facade of normalcy.

In both cases, your deepest pain remains buried. Both your yearnings and fears remain unseen—not just to others but even yourself. While you may seem to function "normally" in your day-to-day life, inside you feel numb, as though you are running on an auto-pilot. The emptiness and loneliness wear on your conscience day after day, and however much you try to suppress it, from time to time you feel like you are on the verge of breaking.

4. Disorganized attachment

Children who have developed this style have been exposed to prolonged abuse and/or neglect. In a situation involving abuse, these primary caregivers are also a source of hurt; this creates enormous inner conflicts in the child, causing them to have to use mechanisms like splitting and dissociation to cope. If your attachment style is disorganized, you may relate to others in a chaotic, unpredictable way, or even perpetuate a vicious abusive cycle.

You may also have symptoms along the "traumatic-dissociative" dimension (TDD) (Farina, Liotti, and Imperatori 2019). For example, you may experience a "loss of continuity" with your experience, unexplained memory loss, or randomly "losing time." You may experience depersonalization—feeling disconnected with your own body—or derealisation, a sudden sense of disconnection with the world, like you are "floating above it."

Healing is Possible

Your coping styles are not inherently "bad" or wrong. If your parents were not to be trusted, withdrawal and hyper-vigilance might have been absolutely necessary for you. But it could gradually become a liability if the same approach is brought over to your adult relationships, even when there is a genuine loving presence around. This is the mechanism by which a once-necessary, desperate method to survive can become classifiable as a "mental disorder."

To complicate matters, many of us have mixed attachment patterns—so we may swing between various behavioral patterns, from distancing to clinging, controlling, or devaluing the relationship. Or we glorify our partner one day, then devalue them the next day. We swing from attaching intensely to distancing ourselves and armoring up heavily. This split partly explains the confusion we see amongst borderline personality disorder, including quiet borderline personality disorder and high-functioning borderline personality disorder.

We often find ourselves repeating the same behaviors and patterns throughout our lives. Having an awareness of what is underneath your presentation can then help you move towards developing more securely attached relationships, and heal from the painful symptoms of BPD. Combining deep insights with time, you can certainly turn the situation around.

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