The quality and ultimate success of adult relationships depend on choosing the correct person and working on your partnership and how you relate to others. According to attachment theory, the quality of care and bond developed with your primary caregiver shapes future interactions into adulthood, including romantic relationships.
I first became interested in Bowlby’s attachment theory when I had to study it as part of my professional qualifications. In the years since, having worked with thousands of clients, I can appreciate the impact this has as we develop into adulthood.
Your attachment style is a blueprint for your future relationships that can affect how you relate to others in both positive and negative ways. If you are fortunate, interacting with others is a breeze. Still, suppose you find that your relationship behaviour keeps falling into a familiar pattern. In that case, it is worth understanding attachment style.
Keep this in mind when learning about attachment theory.
- Attachment style is not static and can change over time
- Attachment style is influenced by early relationships but not determined by it
- Attachment style can be different in different relationships
- Attachment style can change
Why I want to talk about attachment theory
Suppose you are having problems in interpersonal relationships. In that case, understanding how you relate to others set down in childhood (according to attachment theory) can provide some answers and hopefully allow you to change.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is a social and emotional development theory that explains how you form close relationships with others.
According to attachment theory, your earliest attachments to your caregivers lay the foundation for future relationships.
John Bowlby’s pioneering work into the attachments formed by babies and their caregivers identified the following.
Secure base. Having a secure base from which the baby could explore the world and then return. For example, a baby crawling can confidently explore the living room floor, knowing its mother is there; She is their safe haven.
Safe haven is where the baby they can return to if they feel anxious. Once they return, nervous feelings disappear, and the baby is confident to try again.
Proximity maintenance. The young baby will want to be close to the person with whom they have formed an attachment, as they provide their safe haven and secure base, and become distressed when absent.
Separation distress. Baby is upset when separated from the person with whom they have formed an attachment.
According to Bowlby’s work, children who feel safe to explore the world, knowing their caregiver is always there, grow up more secure than those who lack this safety.
The benefit and repeated experience of knowing that someone is there and always there helps the child grow emotionally.
Hopefully, you can see how this works. Venturing away from their mother or primary caregiver can be frightening.
But getting the benefit of taking steps away to explore and repeatedly having a secure base to return to helps baby explore their world further.
Mary Ainsworth and the strange situation
In the early 1970s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth conducted a study called the “strange situation” to observe how infants responded to separation from and reunion with their caregivers.
I remember studying this during my professional psychology training and watching how the study unfolds and how various infants react. Once I explain the strange situation, you will recognise this yourself in either children of your own or younger siblings.
In the strange situation,
the primary caregiver is alone with the infant in a room.
A stranger (hence the name, the strange situation) comes into the room, chats with the caregiver and comes over to the infant. The caregiver slips out of the room,before finally returning and comforting the child.
Some children were easily settled, whereas others remained distressed or avoided the caregiver. The different reactions to the caregiver’s return depended on the child’s attachment style.
Ainsworth identified three attachment styles, and Main and Solomon added a fourth to the list.
She discovered that attachment style is primarily determined by the quality of the caregiver’s responsiveness to the child’s needs. They form secure attachments when the caregiver consistently responds to the child’s needs; for example, the child receives comfort every time. In contrast, anxious-ambivalent and anxious-avoidant attachments are formed when the caregiver is inconsistently responsive to the child’s needs.
An individual’s attachment style in childhood can have a lasting impact on their adult relationships. Individuals with a secure attachment style tend to be more trusting and intimate in their relationships. In contrast, those with an anxious-ambivalent or anxious-avoidant attachment style tend to be more distrustful and distant.
Attachment styles in adults
Secure attachment is characterised by adults who feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm with their partners.
They’re also able to be emotionally open and honest with their partners. They don’t feel the need to withdraw when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style have a deep-seated fear of being rejected or abandoned.
As a result, they tend to avoid intimacy and close relationships. They may also have a negative view of themselves and feel unworthy of love and affection.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you may feel worried or preoccupied about your relationship. You might feel like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and as a result, you might find yourself clingy or needy.
You might also have difficulty trusting your partner, and you might find yourself constantly checking in with them or wanting reassurance.
People with a Disorganised / Fearful-Avoidant attachment style tend to be:
– Anxious and insecure in their relationships
– Preoccupied with their partner’s availability and fear of abandonment
– Avoidant of intimacy and intimacy-related activities
– Inconsistent in their affection and behaviour towards their partner
– Often ambivalent about close relationships
– Unable to trust their partner and fear being hurt
– Unable to rely on their partner for support
– Often feeling alone and isolated in their relationships
Regarding attachment styles, it’s important to remember that we all have a mix of all four styles. However, one style is usually more dominant.
And while it’s normal to have some anxiety about close relationships, you might want to seek help if your attachment style is causing you significant distress or making it difficult for you to function in your everyday life.
Here are some signs that you might need help:
– You’re preoccupied with your partner’s availability and fear they will leave you.
– You’re overly clingy and dependent on your partner for support.
– You’re uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness.
– You have a negative view of yourself and believe you’re unworthy of love.
– You’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned by your partner.
– You avoid intimacy and close relationships altogether
Can your attachment style change?
It is normal to feel attached to people, but sometimes these attachments can be unhealthy.
Find yourself feeling excessively clingy, jealous, or worried about your relationships. It may be time to seek help from a therapist.
Attachment styles can change over time, so even if you have been “avoidant” in the past, it is possible to learn to develop healthier attachments.