Attachment Theory And Our Relationships

Attachment refers the particular way in which you relate to other people based on your level of security in the relationship.  There are many different psychologists and therapists who have done scientific research on the topic, including John Bowlby, Dr. Allan Shore, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Stephen Borges to name a few. The main premise regarding attachment theory is that your style of attachment is formed at the very beginning of your life, during your first two years, in response to the interactions you had with your parents/caregivers.  Once established, attachment is a style that stays with you and plays out throughout your life in how you relate to others in your relationships. Attachment theory also clarifies ways that you might be emotionally limited as an adult and what you may want to adjust in order to improve your close relationships.

Today, there are four commonly identified styles of attachment that are considered to be developed in childhood:

Secure Attachment

Securely attached children are able to separate from their parents, yet if frightened, are also able to seek comfort from their parents. They are able to greet parents when they return with positive emotions.

Securely attached adults are able to engage in trusting and lasting relationships. They usually have good self-esteem and are able to share their feelings with friends and partners. They are also able to seek out support when they need it.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

Children with an anxious attachment style may show distress when they are separated from a parent or caregiver, yet at the same time do not seem reassured or comforted by the return of the parent. In some cases, the child might passively reject the parent by refusing comfort, or may openly display aggression.

As adults, those with an anxious attachment style might feel hesitant about becoming close to others. They may worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This can lead to frequent ending of relationships because the relationship feels cold and distant. These individuals may also feel especially distraught after the end of a relationship.

Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment

Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid parents and caregivers. This may become especially noticeable after a period of absence from the parents. These children might not reject attention from a parent, but they also don’t seek out comfort or contact. They also might not show any preference between a parent and a complete stranger.

As adults, those with an avoidant attachment tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. They don’t often feel comfortable sharing emotions, thoughts or feelings in relationships. They may also experience minimal stress when a relationship ends.

Disorganized Attachment Style

Children with a disorganized attachment style show a lack of clear attachment behavior. Their actions and responses to caregivers are often a mix of behaviors, including avoidance or resistance. They may expresses odd or hesitant behavior toward the parent, (i.e. first running up to them, then immediately pulling away, or running away from the parent, curling up in a ball or hitting the parent.) 

An adult with a disorganized attachment often has difficulty learning healthy ways to self-soothe. They may have trouble socially. It may be hard for them to open up to others or to seek out help. They often have difficulty trusting people. They may struggle in their relationships or friendships or when parenting their own children.  They often have difficulty managing stress and may even demonstrate hostile or aggressive behaviors.

The good news- even as adults, you can still learn to develop secure attachments. Practice being aware of how you interact in relationships to determine what you’d like to change or improve. Determine what emotions you feel when you experience insecurity in your relationships (anxiety, anger, distrust?) and how these feelings impact your interactions.

Give yourself permission to explore and get curious. What would it be like to respond differently? What could other possibilities be? What do you think could work better? Are you open to learning new ways of interacting in your relationships? If you get stuck on your own, developing a healthy, therapeutic relationship with a therapist can also help you develop secure attachment.

Mindfulness has also been shown to be effective in healing insecure attachment. Mindfulness is intentional and nonjudgmental paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. Mindfulness works especially well with insecure attachment because it can help to calm the anxious or insecure mind, which can tend to be overactive in those who struggle with attachment.

A great place to start practicing mindfulness is with your breath. Simply observe what it feels like to inhale and exhale. Does your chest rise? What does the air feel like as you inhale and exhale? Be mindful, just observe.  You can also simply count your breaths. For each exhalation, count. See how high you can count before your mind drifts.  Your mind will drift!!! It’s ok! When you notice it has drifted, simply bring your attention back to your breath.

Developing secure attachment takes time. Go slowly. Give yourself time.  For additional help, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or to schedule an appointment.