Have you seen the show How I Met Your Mother? It’s about a bunch of flawed but lovable New Yorkers trying to find (or hang onto) love as they go through life’s changes, which range from silly to momentous. It’s a funny, feel-good, and sometimes poignant sitcom.
But what I like most about it is that it’s a perfect showcase of human attachment styles (Bretherton, 1992).
If you don’t know what attachment styles are, or haven’t ever seen the show, don’t worry. Once you hear about the characters and how they personify each attachment style, you’ll be sure to recognize yourself or people you know.
But first, what is attachment? Attachment is the bond we form with our first primary caregiver, usually a parent. It’s a universal human phenomenon that starts as early as in the womb, and the way we develop it eventually affects the way we find, keep, and end relationships.
There are four major styles of attachment that people form early in life and generally tend to keep into adulthood. These styles are:
- Fearful-avoidant (a.k.a., disorganized)
To determine an individual’s attachment style, psychologists will administer a battery of tests. (Free Attachment Style Questionnaire: https://www.scienceofpeople.com/attachment-styles/#attachment-style-quiz). They ask you to agree/disagree with statements like, “I easily develop emotional ties to others,” “If a partner pushes me to establish a commitment, I freak out inside,” and, “If I’m not in a relationship, I am nobody.” You can see that these items are probing the way we think of others and ourselves in the context of relationships and intimacy.
So what attachment style do you think you have? Well, let’s see if you most closely relate to Ted, Barney, or someone else from How I Met Your Mother. In this first in a three-part series on attachment, we’ll let the beloved HIMYM characters guide us through the four major attachment styles:
1. Securely attached—Lily and Marshall
Lily and Marshall are the quintessential cute couple. They have quirky inside jokes; they have cute nicknames for each other (Lilypad and Marshmallow); they finish each other’s sentences, but none of this cuteness overload explains why they’re securely attached.
When a person has a secure attachment style, they feel confident in their relationship and their partner. They feel connected, trusting, and comfortable with having independence and letting their partner have independence even as they openly express love. They reach out for support when they need it and offer support when their partner is distressed.
And this is where Lily and Marshall excel. Their relationship wasn’t all puppies and rainbows for all nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother. There were times when they broke up, had family tragedies, worried about building their own family, and had awful fights that seemed to shake the very foundation of their future together. But through it all, they fundamentally trusted each other, openly showed affection (sometimes enough to make you gag), told each other their thoughts and feelings even when it was difficult, offered support when the other was sad and gave each other space when needed.
This type of attachment style starts when, early in life, a child feels that their parent is a secure base, so that even though they’re happy to be with Mom or Dad, they also feel confident enough to explore the world on their own. Kids grow up this way when their parents themselves are securely attached people, and when they use an authoritative parenting style, meaning they are involved and firm, but also warm and allow independence.
Given Lily and Marshall’s own security and their loving style, I bet their kids will turn out to have secure relationships of their own.
Barney Stinson may have been one of the most legendary sitcom characters ever. His whole life and career was a mystery, and he certainly knew how to live life in the fast lane with his womanizing ways. And through his romantic relationships, we can see that he is the poster boy—at least on the surface—for the dismissive-avoidant attachment style.
People who have the dismissive-avoidant attachment style find it uncomfortable to get too emotionally close to others or to fully trust them.
People who have the dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to be very emotionally independent—perhaps overly so. They find it uncomfortable to get too emotionally close to others or to trust them fully. In fact, those around them may describe them as actively trying to avoid closeness. They seem to pride themselves on not needing emotional intimacy. When they’re rejected or hurt, they tend to pull away.
Although we see Barney with a lot of “romantic” relationships, they tend to be mostly one-night stands. He even has a system for getting rid of women the morning after seducing them, because he doesn’t want to get to know them or spend any more time than necessary with them. When we do get a glimpse of his vulnerability—the time he finally gets to know the father that he never knew growing up—he immediately leaves the room when he feels hurt. And then he tries to steal the man’s basketball hoop.
Barney’s dismissive-avoidant attachment style is understandable because the dismissive-avoidant attachment style is associated with and generally have experienced rejection. Not only did Barney grow up without a father, but his mother was also dismissive toward him, even going as far as to casually lie to Barney that his father was Bob Barker from The Price is Right. And from flashbacks, we know that Barney was also rejected by his peers when he was a kid. His first serious girlfriend also brutally broke up with him.
But just because Barney acts like he doesn’t need emotional closeness most of the time, that doesn’t mean he truly doesn’t want intimacy in relationships. Research has shown that even people who are highly dismissive feel happier and better about themselves when they feel accepted, or when they anticipate having good relationships with others. And we do see this side of Barney shine through—he does end up cultivating a forgiving attitude and relationship with his father, and even shows his willingness to commit to romantic relationships by getting married. Even though that marriage ultimately ends, we see him making efforts and potentially turning over a new vulnerable, emotional leaf when his daughter is born.
3. Anxious-preoccupied attachment—Ted
Have you met Ted? He’s the lovable hero and narrator of the nine-season HIMYM saga. There are many sweet and admirable things about him, but sometimes the way he handled romantic relationships was a bit cringe-worthy.
For example, he can’t help but say “I love you” within days of meeting someone. He made one girlfriend get rid of her dogs because they were inherited from previous boyfriends, and he felt threatened. For someone who has an interesting career in New York City and great friends, he seems to be consumed by his search for “The One.” He’s always easily falling in love, even in unhealthy situations. Not to mention that the entire nine seasons of the show builds up to him—major spoiler coming!—asking his own kids for permission to date a long-term love interest.
These are not just symptoms of being a “hopeless romantic.” They actually point to Ted’s anxious-preoccupied attachment style. People with this attachment style tend to crave emotional intimacy, even when their partner is not yet ready, or the situation doesn’t call for it. They need a lot of approval, responsiveness, and reassurance from their partners. They can get anxious when they don’t get it.
It’s not fun to have this attachment style. Often, people like Ted feel dependent on others for approval and doubt their self-worth. That’s only reinforced when the target of their clinginess never seems to be as interested.
4. Disorganized (a.k.a., fearful-avoidant) attachment—Robin
Before we get into Robin, my disclaimer is that I don’t think she is the only match, or even the best match, for the “disorganized” attachment style in the show. Barney and Ted are also good contenders, but their attachment issues even better personify the dismissive and anxious styles.
Robin goes through a lot, relationship-wise, throughout the years on HIMYM. She dates a lot of people who are not good for her. She rejects a lot of people who are. Sometimes she’s going over the top to earn approval from a dismissive ex-boyfriend, sometimes she’s having a panic attack over gestures of commitment, and sometimes she’s marrying someone incapable of commitment while having ongoing feelings for someone else who desperately wants it. Yikes!
This is why this style is called fearful-avoidant, a.k.a., “disorganized.” A person with this attachment style is confused. They essentially have both the dismissive and the anxious styles combined—both wanting emotional closeness and also pushing it away. They’re fearful of fully trusting others, and yet they need approval or validation. They often deny their feelings or are reluctant to express them. At the same time, they’re more easily jealous and tend to perceive a greater threat from possible romantic rivals.
It’s hard to say where Robin gets this pattern from, though we know that she has an estranged (or at least difficult) relationship with her father, who wanted a son instead of a daughter.
In real life, people who have experienced loss or trauma are more likely to have a fearful-avoidant attachment style. For example, children growing up with parents with alcoholism are more likely to be fearful-avoidant. This makes sense because they live in an environment where security and closeness are not guaranteed, and sometimes there is active harm coming from the person who should be taking care of them. These mixed messages lead to the fearful-avoidant patterns of both reaching out and pulling away.
In Part 2 of my attachment series, we’ll look more closely at how attachment styles affect our current relationships in real life, including the way we express love, feel jealousy, and deal with rejection.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental psychology, 28(5), 759.