Friendship might be the most complex relationship two human beings share. While there are reams of research about the benefits of long-term bonds, we don’t talk enough about the difficult parts: the frustration of feeling like you’re putting in more energy than the other person is giving back; the angst of needing extra support or affirmation but not knowing how to ask for it without sounding clingy; the guilt of feeling envious of your friend’s accomplishments.

The way we approach conflicts and fluctuations in friendships is influenced in part by our attachment styles and behaviors. Attachment theory, which focuses on the early relationship between a child and their primary caregivers, delineates three main attachment styles: anxious (preoccupied), avoidant (dismissive), and secure. The fourth style, disorganized attachment (or fearful-avoidant) is under-researched in adults. “During the formative years, children develop mental representations of themselves and others,” says Brooke Feeney, PhD, psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “They develop beliefs about whether they’re worthy of love, attention, support, and protection. And they develop beliefs about whether other people can be depended and relied upon. Basically, during the first months and years of life, children learn what to expect from others, and they reach important conclusions about themselves. Given stable circumstances, these beliefs become central components of personality and guide their interactions with others.”

Though we originally form “attachment bonds” with our parents or primary caregivers, we eventually form them with romantic partners, mentors, and friends, too. According to Feeney, there are four criteria that qualify a relationship as a securely attached one: The other person is someone you resist separating from, whom you seek out in times of stress or crisis, whom you feel comfort and safety around (and whose connection feels essential), and whom you feel confident in their availability and responsiveness to you. These people are your secure base, Feeney says—the foundation you need to step out into the world and explore, embrace challenges, and pursue goals. A secure attachment bond implies a certain level of expectation, trust, and intimacy.

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The safer and more emotionally intimate a relationship is, the more opportunities you have for self-disclosure and vulnerability, says Miriam Kirmayer, PhD, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist and keynote speaker on social connection and friendship. But you also have more opportunities for conflict to arise. It’s unsettling when the safety in a friendship feels threatened, but how we understand and communicate with each other during those times is crucial. If you’re struggling to navigate a friendship right now, here’s what these experts have to say about the role your attachment style might be playing, and how to find resolution.

A secure attachment bond implies a certain level of expectation, trust, and intimacy.

Anxious attachment (preoccupied)

What it means: An anxious attachment style is often the result of an inconsistent or chaotic relationship with one’s primary caregivers. Those with this style worry about their loved ones distancing themselves or abandoning them, and may resort to reassurance-seeking behavior as a result, Kirmayer says. “We do a lot of bids for connection and attention when we’re trying to hold on really tight. And sometimes we do that in ways that push people away, because it’s not the way that they want to be connected, or it feels like too much.”

How it plays out: Feeney adds that people with an anxious attachment style doubt their own self-efficacy yet struggle to fully receive the care and support they crave from others. Because of this, they can be hypervigilant and hypersensitive to signs of rejection, and may misinterpret a friend’s behavior as such. For example, when a friend sets boundaries, someone with an anxious attachment style may internalize this as a rejection, or see it as a reflection of their worth or of the friendship, rather than something the other person needs to do for themselves, Kirmayer adds.

A healthier approach: When a friend turns down plans or sets a boundary, pay attention to how you interpret it, Kirmayer says. “Once you get a clearer picture of the story you’re telling yourself, then you can start to question the accuracy of it.” Sometimes your internal narrative is a result of other experiences you’ve had or patterns you’ve observed, whether from parents, friends, or other close loved ones. “Ask yourself, Do I have any evidence to suggest that this is the beginning of the end of our friendship? Do I have any evidence to suggest that that boundary is even about me? Is there another way of looking at this situation? That’s another really powerful question,” Kirmayer says. “Is this about them or about our friendship?

Some research proposes that to form healthier friendships, an anxious type has to increase their confidence and self-reliance. But Feeney has found that another source for healthy confidence is for them to have at least one secure relationship with someone who responds sensitively to their attachment needs: “I call this the dependency paradox—that true independence and self-sufficiency emerge because of one’s ability to depend on others in times of need.”

Sustaining an intimate, long-term friendship requires self-awareness.

Avoidant attachment (dismissive)

What it means: Per attachment theory, avoidant attachments stem from a childhood where caretakers were unresponsive, unaffectionate, or straight-up neglectful. For these people, intimacy and closeness with others can bring great discomfort, and they find it difficult to rely or depend on others, or to allow others to rely on them, Feeney says. “They value self-reliance and try hard to keep their attachment system deactivated, so they defensively inhibit expressions of emotion and vulnerability. Seeking support in times of need is risky and uncomfortable for them, and their friends often want them to be more open and intimate than they feel comfortable being.”

How it plays out: While anxiously attached people crave more closeness when threatened, the avoidantly attached seek the opposite: If the people in your life aren’t going to be there for you, you don’t need—and don’t want to need—anyone. Instead of reaching out and making bids for connection, you withdraw, Kirmayer says. “When you feel hurt, abandoned, unsafe, or uncertain, you are more likely to start declining plans and putting up physical and emotional distance.”

A healthier approach: In emotionally intimate relationships, getting hurt is inevitable. But it’s important for you to challenge the belief that this means you won’t be okay, or that you’ll be unsafe, or that you’ll always be alone and never find your people, Kirmayer says. “The key here is tending to those fears with compassion and kindness, and trying to motivate yourself to be a little bit more open and vulnerable and present. It’s not about telling yourself, I am doing such a terrible job of being a friend, or I’ll never have friends unless I do this right. It’s leaning into gentleness and saying, I am deserving of close friendships, and my friendships can benefit from my showing up in a slightly more vulnerable way.” Rewriting your internal narrative to one where your friends like you, want to hear from you, and want to hear about the ups and downs in your life is an important healing step.

Secure attachment

What it means: In childhood, you were able to consistently trust and rely on your caregivers, or you watched your caregivers exhibit trust toward each other; and because of this foundational base, you typically feel comfortable forming close bonds with others. But this doesn’t mean you always feel secure and confident in friendships, both experts agree.

How it plays out: Conflict and insecurity arise in all intimate relationships, and for a securely attached person, understanding a friend’s different attachment behaviors can be challenging, Kirmayer says. “You may more easily overlook things your friendship might benefit from. For example, you may not realize the power of validating your friendship with, say, an anxiously attached friend who’s engaging in a lot of reassurance-seeking behavior.” And in turn, that friend can feel dejected.

A healthier approach: You may already handle relational conflict in a healthy way. Just remember that approaching the turbulent moments in your friendships with gentleness and curiosity—whether they stem from your own misgivings, your friend’s attachment behaviors, or a mixture of several things—can make for a more trusting friendship.

Whatever your attachment style, remember that it’s just one piece of the puzzle impacting the dynamics in your friendship. Sustaining an intimate, long-term friendship requires self-awareness and self-compassion, says Kirmayer, and understanding all the factors influencing the ebbs and flows. “We can ask ourselves, What is it about this friendship—the challenge at this moment—that feels scary?” Kirmayer says. “What am I worried about? Is this a fear of being rejected? Is this a fear of being unwanted? What am I really feeling at this moment? And the big question: How am I reacting to that threat?

The point isn’t to never fight, but rather to build a trusting friendship that withstands honest and difficult conversations. “The closest, healthiest relationships and friendships are ones where people are able to voice that,” Kirmayer says. “That responsiveness and willingness to sift through conflict means your relationship can survive.”