Human beings are emotional animals which means we are capable of forming attachments to things we love or that give us comfort. These attachments can be a source of great comfort – the feeling of having a “security blanket”; they can also be of a romantic nature – the feelings we call being “in love”; or they can just be pleasurable – the feelings we get from looking at a favourite art work, listening to music or being in certain places.
Our attachment to other people, cooperation with them and doing things “together” are innate aspects of our social being. Our connection to family, lovers and friends should be a source of spiritual nourishment and should satisfy our need for emotional giving and receiving. When our relationships are going well, we hardly give the mechanics of attachment very much thought, but if our attachments are a source of angst, instability or emotional pain it becomes difficult to be happy. This is when it is time to think about your attachment style and those of the people you’re having difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship with. Whether you find yourself experiencing difficult relationships or not, it is worthwhile reviewing the psychology behind the various attachment styles that have been indentified through years of research by relationship psychologists.
What is attachment style
In the past half-century, psychologists have studied the behavioural patterns displayed by children when they are faced with separation from their significant care-giver, who is usually the mother. We’ve all seen, and many parents have experienced, this: the crying, inconsolable child being left at the kindergarten for the first time. Observing these situations over time led British psychoanalyst John Bowlby to develop a theory of human attachment, which he postulated could also be seen in relationships between adults.
Working with children, Bowlby suggested that if a child is secure in the knowledge that the parent/care-giver is not abandoning them, they can maintain a healthy level of independence and will be more confident exploring the world outside the home for themselves. The corollary is that if a child feels abandoned, they become insecure, fearful and less confident about being independently in the world. Building on the work of Bowlby, psychologist, Mary Ainsworth noted several patterns in the way children would be “attached” to their care-giver/parent in a controlled laboratory setting. This led her to describe and name three styles of attachment that indicated differences in how children responded to parental care (or the lack of it).
Secure attachment occurs when the child knows that the parent figure is loving and nurturing. A child with secure attachment may still be upset when the parent drops them at kindergarten but settles down quickly and is happy to re-engage when the parent returns at the end of the day.
An Anxious-Resistant attachment style displays different characteristics. The child may be upset when the parent leaves, but also displays similar behaviour when the parent returns. Ainsworth suggested that the anxious-resistant child was both seeking comfort from the returning parent and wanted to punish them for their earlier abandonment.
A child with Avoidant attachment was not bothered about separation and also displayed indifference when the parent/caregiver returned at the end of the day.
Importantly, Ainsworth’s experiment also correlated with parent-child interactions in the home, outside the lab setting. Children with secure attachment tended to have parents who were responsive to their needs and consistent in their parenting behaviour. The anxious and avoidant children were usually in homes with parents who did not always meet their developmental needs and did not always display affection.
It is now well accepted among psychologists and therapists that most of us carry our childhood attachment style with us into our adult relationships, particularly with romantic partners and close friends.
Adult Attachment Styles
You might be surprised to learn that adult romantic relationships and parent—child attachments share some common features. How many of these do you recognise in your own relationships with either a romantic partner, a child, or both?
- Feeling safe when the other is nearby and responsive
- Engaging in close, intimate, bodily contact
- Feeling insecure when the other is inaccessible
- Sharing discoveries with one another
- Playing with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
- Engaging in “baby talk” (from Professor R Chris Fraley, University of Illinois).
In romantic partnerships the various attachment styles play out in remarkably similar ways according to the extensive research done in this area over the last 20 years or so. With a secure attachment, a person is confident that their partner can be relied upon and is therefore able to exist independently as well. If a person is anxious-resistant they are likely to worry that their partner doesn’t love them “enough” and even become angry if they don’t think their partner is attentive enough to their needs This style is also called preoccupied because of the person’s constant fear of rejection. Someone with an avoidant style may seem not to care too much about having close relationships and resistant to any kind of dependency between partners. This is also known as a dismissive style because the person appears not to care about their partner’s needs. People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles tend to display a number of characteristics including worrying about whether they are truly loved by their partner and also being less available within the relationship or avoiding real intimacy.
Despite the attractiveness of secure qualities, however, not all adults are paired with secure partners. Some evidence suggests that people end up in relationships with partners who confirm their existing beliefs about attachment relationships R Chris Fraley.
According to the theory of attachment, in adult romantic relationships (and close friendships) the best pairing is when both parties have a secure attachment style. These relationships tend to be more equal and enduring and provide both partners with security, intimacy and emotional security. Having a relationship based on this also means that both partners feel supported when they are going through difficulties and are confident to ask for help from their partner. On the other hand, an insecure attachment makes it harder for partners to support each other and problems within the relationship are also harder to resolve. Essentially, any conflict in an insecure relationship will usually make the situation worse and even harder to resolve to the satisfaction of either partner. Avoidant attachment styles can also lead to variations in reactive behaviours. One reaction is known as fearfully-avoidant and it indicates that the affected partner has become so anxious that they simply refuse to deal with the issue, instead expressing themselves by freaking out. However, dismissing-avoidant individuals tend to cope by supressing their thoughts and feelings. It goes without saying that neither reaction is particularly helpful or healthy.
After decades of research relationship psychologists have updated their theory and model of attachment to propose four styles that account for different types of insecure avoidant behaviours.
A matrix of secure and insecure attachment styles
©2020 FEEL Collaborative
The good news
While psychologists have concluded that we often carry attachment styles learned in childhood into adulthood, they are learned behaviours, rather than innate. This means that with the right support, patience and willingness, adults can begin to recognise their own attachment style and move towards a healthier and secure approach to initiating and maintaining healthy adult relationships. Contemporary attachment theory proposes that we can modify our own attachment style in the light of new and healthier experiences.
However, as you’d expect it is not easy and there is a danger that an insecure person may eventually undermine a secure person so that neither of them is in a position to rescue the relationship. The bottom line is that attachment style is closely related to our own self-confidence and self-image. Therefore, knowing what your own attachment style is and that of your partner, you can plan for a process of healing to move both of you towards a more secure attachment style.
If you want to know more, and to learn how you can change or improve your own attachment style, download a free copy of FEEL Collaborative’s Survival Guide – Understanding Attachments.