By Maria Lebron, February 2022
Attachment theory began with psychologist John Bowlby’s studies in the late 60s, which found that a child’s development was greatly dependent upon a child’s ability to form a strong attachment and a sense of security with at least one caregiver. Bowlby believed that one was born with an innate drive to become attached to another person. For a child to feel securely attached they must feel that their caregiver is responsive and attuned to the child’s primary, basic needs. The caregiver does not need to be ‘perfect’, but rather consistent, caring, and dependable, and when a misattunement occurs between the caregiver and the child, the caregiver attempts to repair the break in attunement.
Children with a strong, secure attachment feel that they have a secure base to depend on and are more adventurous and open to the new experiences necessary for cognitive, social, and emotional development. A child’s attachment will determine how they learn to express their needs, assess their safety, and respond to other people’s emotions and actions. If a child is confident in the caregiver’s ability to handle emotions, they will feel free to express both their positive and negative feelings and won’t develop defenses against the unpleasant ones.
Children who did not have a secure attachment had caregivers who were inconsistent and unpredictable with their attentiveness to the child’s needs. Bowlby believed the continual disruption in the attachment could result in long term cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties.
Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth would further develop Bowlby’s findings. Ainsworth identified the ‘attachment behavior’ shown by stressed or confused children displayed with the hope of establishing an attachment to an absent or inconsistent caregiver. In Ainworth’s ‘Strange Situation’ study children’s responses to their caregivers were observed while the caregiver was both in and out of the room.
When the caregiver was in the room, a strong attachment allowed the child to to explore the toys in the room and return to the caregiver when needed or keep an eye on the caregiver as they explored. When the caregiver briefly stepped out of the room, some children with strong attachments were relatively calm and seemed secure in the belief that their caregivers would return shortly. Some children became distressed upon separation but would warmly welcome the caregiver back through eye contact and hug-seeking. Attachment is the child’s first coping system and creates a mental representation of the caregiver in the child’s mind which can be a comforting mental presence in difficult moments.
Ainsworth found that children who exhibited insecure attachments could be classified into the following types:
Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is distressed by separation and continues to display anxious behavior once the caregiver returns.
Avoidant attachment describes a child who has no reaction to a caregiver’s absence and does not react to their return.
Disorganized attachment describes behavior that is ambivalent or conflicted behavior toward a caregiver upon their return. The child may turn away from the caregiver or hit the caregiver.
What are some of the criticisms to the attachment studies? Like most research conducted decades ago, it was developed by studying white, upper-middle-class, and heterosexual populations. Some critics have also pointed out that there is a bias towards traditional western concepts of caregiving or families. Another criticism of attachment theory is that although caregiving can influence attachment, there are other factors such as genetics, a child’s temperament, and environmental factors which play an important role. Stressors or life transitions can be times when even people with secure attachments exhibit behaviors similar to an insecure attachment due to what they are experiencing at a particular time of life.
In the late 1980s, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver applied attachment theory to adult relationships, stating that the early experiences one had with caregivers can play a part in how one forms relationships later in life. Hazen and Shaver found that a strong attachment was important to balance intimacy with independence. Much as what was found with secure children, a secure attachment in a partner allowed one to grow and gain experience in the world. If the attachment was too strong, there could be problems with codependency. If the attachment was too weak, this could lead to a lack of intimacy and feelings of inadequacy. If there was anxiety over the attachment, it could cause avoidance or rejection of attempts to connect.
Attachment styles in adulthood have classifications similar to those used to describe attachment patterns in children:
— Anxious-preoccupied (high anxiety, low avoidance)
— Dismissing-avoidant (low anxiety, high avoidance)
— Fearful-avoidant (high anxiety, high avoidance)
People with a secure attachment style approach relationships with openness, confidence, trust, and respect. People with secure attachments are comfortable with emotional and physical intimacy and can respond to their partner’s needs while also being able to express their own needs.
People with high attachment anxiety worry about being abandoned or uncared for.
People with anxious attachment styles may become overly attentive to their partner because they worry that their partner is always pulling away from them, therefore they feel they need to meet all of their partner’s needs while often and repeatedly sacrificing their own. These unmet and neglected needs can lead to feelings of resentment, fear, jealousy, or unhappiness. People with anxious attachment also seek constant reassurance from their partners because of the uncertainty about their connection and they may experience unreasonable jealousy.
People with high attachment avoidance will worry about letting others get too close and may become overly independent and not let themselves rely on others. People with avoidant attachment may avoid or deny themselves emotional intimacy and prefer not to form long-term relationships. Emotional distance may be created by looking for flaws in their partner or in the relationship once they begin to feel close to their partner. People with avoidant attachment may have difficulty expressing their feelings or showing intimacy and may not want to be perceived as ‘needy’ and reject their partner’s vulnerabilities.
People with a fearful-avoidant attachment often crave a close relationship but feel unworthy of love or afraid of losing the connection once they have it. These fears and insecurities can make make them avoid or suppress any desire for intimacy. People with fearful-avoidant attachment are able to feel intense feelings of love for a partner but as things get more serious, they’ll panic and search for reasons to end the relationship.
A person may not show the same kind of attachment pattern in every close relationship or they may not fall clearly within these classification. For some people, their attachment style may be a combination of the different behaviors.
Can you change your attachment style? Yes, it’s possible, but it will take time, patience, and effort. It may be possible in time that having a connection to someone with a secure attachment style may help someone to feel more security and trust in the relationship. Part of having a secure attachment is becoming self-aware and accountable for your role in the relationship and how your behaviors affect others. That being said, sometimes we recreate our early relationships and chose partners who reinforce and recreate insecure attachments. Therapy can also help to identify and work through some of the barriers to a more secure connection with others.