You might’ve heard the word ‘attachment’ floating around the interwebs in the last few years. Attachment theory has everything to do with how we bond with the super important people in our most valued relationships. Think partners, close friends, and family. Attachment is a sense of security in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. And like so many things that we learn in our families of origin, we also learn about security and attachment from our caregivers.
Attachment theory teaches us that security that we learned through attachment is incredibly important because of how it affects our ability to have healthy relationships. And, healthy relationships are kind of the keys to the queendom! Happy and healthy relationships give our lives meaning and help us feel connected and rooted in the world! So, yeah, kind of major stuff to know about! Let’s take a minute to break it down…
WHAT IS ATTACHMENT?
A person’s attachment status is a fundamental determinant of their relationships, and this is reflected in the way they feel about themselves, and others.” ~ Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
We can thank psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby for being the MVPs of the field known as attachment. Ainsworth and Bowlby did the research that led to what we now know about attachment styles – more on that soon. That is to say, the way we attach, why we attach, and why it all matters in the first place.
Attachment Theory explains how we develop bonds with significant others so that we may meet emotional needs. As babies, our lives literally depend on our caregivers to take care of our needs. These needs include physical needs like food, warmth, protection and also, YES, emotional needs. So, things like nervous system regulation, affection, comforting and soothing.
MOSTLY CONSISTENT & DEPENDABLE CARE
When these physical and emotional needs are met in a mostly dependable and consistent way by a primary caregiver, we develop what’s called a Secure Attachment style. (The emphasis is on the word mostly, because humans aren’t perfect and neither are caregivers!) Caregivers supply a secure base, or dependable availability, to the child. This secure base allows the child to move away to explore the world and then be in close proximity for safety if there is fear or danger. Pretty cool, right?
John Bowlby described attachment as “the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” If you read our blog post on stress, you might remember that the connections we make to other people are absolutely vital to our survival. Think about a newborn baby. That freshly baked kid needs another human to care for their basic needs.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
It matters because we learn what to expect from the important people in our lives, starting the moment we’re born. Say that our parents can’t (or won’t) consistently and reliably be there for us. What we then learn is that the things we need aren’t reliable.
We are also meaning-making creatures. So, the stories we write about our lives tell us what to believe about needing other people, as well as having needs in general. When our parents don’t reliably provide the basics and consistently tune in to our needs, it sends a message. And, that message might unconsciously register as “we don’t deserve to be cared for.” That is what follows us as we grow up and have adult relationships.
For example, let’s say that your partner forgets to follow through on a small promise they made. This might not seem like much. But, it may feel very much like the despair you experienced when you were accidentally left alone in your crib for too long and were really scared.
Makes sense, yes?
NEUROBIOLOGICALLY WIRED FOR ATTACHMENT
This stuff is really important, y’all. As primates, we are neurobiologically wired to form connections with others. Thinkaboutit! Our instinct to connect with others can override our instinct, ability, or desire to feed ourselves or sleep! That’s serious business!
Our attachment style forms the patterns of behavior we might see in our lives. In general, there are four attachment patterns or styles that most of us will fit into. They are Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant, and Disorganized.
In early childhood, a securely attached kiddo might react with a fair amount of distress when separated from a caregiver and joy when the caregiver returns. When scared, a securely attached child will seek out the comfort and safety of a trusted caregiver. They know where safety is and how to get to it!
A securely attached grown-up acts in a very similar way. They tend to be generally comfortable expressing their needs and desires, comfortable being close, and comfortable being farther away. In essence, they react relatively appropriately to stressors out of their control. They’re more likely to find healthy and productive ways to manage the stress of day-to-day life. They can easily identify where safety is and the most effective ways to find safety should it be necessary.
A kid who has an Ambivalent or Anxious Attachment style tends to have really, really big reactions to a parent leaving the room. We usually see this when caregivers themselves have really inconsistent emotional reactions to the child or aren’t consistent in their care. In short, the kiddo doesn’t really know what to expect from the person responsible for keeping them safe, so they learn to take all they can while they have the ability to. They might get really, really worried when a parent leaves and spend a lot of their time concerned that mom or dad might not come back.
Adults with Ambivalent or Anxious attachment might behave very similarly. Folks who might experience this attachment pattern might be overly dependent on a romantic partner for comfort or safety. They might make disproportionate bids for affection. Or consistently experience a great deal of anxiety when their partner is unreachable or quiet. They tend to have a sense of distrust in the people on whom they rely for safety. And, they might find it really uncomfortable to communicate their needs and desires without getting distressed.
For a little who has an Avoidant Attachment style, they are going to do all they can to rely on themselves instead of their caregivers. In fact, they might not even notice or care whether a primary caregiver is in the room or not. Behaviors that look a lot like they are avoiding safety might actually be their brain’s way of avoiding harm.
Adults who have Avoidant Attachment patterns might be really emotionally distant or become cold when experiencing stress, will avoid situations that might trigger emotional responses, display a distance from their own emotional needs, or not even recognize that they have emotional needs at all. They might also have disproportionate emotional reactions to events that might otherwise be seen as ‘good’ by others. Like a tendency to self-sabotage when things are going really, really well. They might also experience an intense need for control in their lives and feel deeply uncomfortable or even unsafe when they cannot access a sense of control.
This one works exactly like it sounds like it does. A kiddo with a Disorganized Attachment style is kind of all over the place. They don’t tend to have consistent or predictable reactions to a parent leaving or entering a room. It kind of depends. This kind of behavior is very common in kiddos who have experienced abuse. The source of safety is also the cause of harm, and there are competing instincts of moving towards and moving away. Kids might seem disoriented or confused when a caregiver leaves, or may even resist the caregiver altogether.
For adults who have Disorganized Attachment patterns, they might find it difficult to relate socially or emotionally co-regulate with others. Reactions to stressors that are disproportionate and unpredictable. It can be difficult to trust other people and even difficult to understand their own emotional responses. They just know it’s more comfortable to back away from emotional connection or closeness.
CAN ATTACHMENT STYLE BE CHANGED?
The good news is that romantic partnerships seem to be a well-suited environment to shift our attachment styles more toward the secure. Consistent responsiveness can help rewire our brains! And couples therapy helps enormously. Being able to effectively communicate our needs to our partners can make a huge difference. It improves our chances of connecting and feeling secure in our significant other relationship. And, that’s what attachment is all about.
SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
If you’re one of the 50% of Americans who developed a secure attachment to your caregiver, this doesn’t mean that your relationships are perfect. Similarly, having an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean that you’re impossible to “deal with.” Our attachment styles and behavior patterns can, and do, impact how we do what we do every day. However, we aren’t beholden to a list of behaviors based on how we attached to our parents. Here’s what you can do:
KNOW YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE
The first step in improving our relationships is being aware of the patterns we already have! Knowing our attachment style doesn’t mean we can’t change them and it doesn’t justify unhelpful or abusive behaviors. More deeply understanding ourselves means we can more easily choose to walk into our lives in the ways we really want to. And, more deeply understanding our partners means we can more easily find empathy and a sense of deep compassion when they react in ways we don’t like. It’s like developing a relationship superpower!
CHANGE YOUR RESPONSES
Changing the way you respond in your relationships begins to unwind unhelpful attachment dynamics. If you have an Anxious Attachment style, you can move away from pursuing your partner and let them have a little room to breathe. If you have an Avoidant Attachment style you can get better at moving closer to your partner which will feel reassuring to them. This kind of practice can profoundly change things for the better insignificant other relationships.
KNOW THAT STRESS IS A TRIGGER
When people are stressed or in conflict, attachment wounds get triggered. Again, knowledge is power here. A little preventative planning can really help. Know that you get on each other’s nerves when getting ready to go out? Slow down and remind yourself to be patient and don’t take it personally. Use a distraction technique, or try giving the person the benefit of the doubt. These things can go a long way!
2 STEPS FORWARD 1 & 1/2 STEPS BACK
These things take time. If something is wired into us, it’s going to take some practice and patience to get better at it! Learning new things is hard, so be gentle with yourselves. Try to remember that we are on the same team.
Take this attachment style quiz by attachment specialist Diane Poole Heller, and see what attachment style is most reflected in your relationships and behaviors. Remember, knowledge is power!
Attachment and safety are full-body things. They’re dependent on previously learned attachment styles as well as neurological wiring. And, to make things even more challenging, attachment is also dependent on our socio-economic status, race, gender, biological sex, religious beliefs, country- or region-of-origin. And, so many more things. Including all of those things from our parents! And our parents’ parents! And so on, and so on, and so on.
Attachment is one of those very complex life things that can feel tricky and simple all at the same time. And it impacts us in ways that we might not expect it to. We might avoid our inbox because responsibilities feel heavy like they did when we were little or get so preoccupied with making a presentation perfect that we forget to eat lunch. All of that is connected to what we learned to believe about ourselves and the world. And all of that is what we learned when we were the soft, squishy, and bright-eyed little kids who couldn’t stop asking questions.
ATTACHMENT: THE TAKEAWAY
Working through and with our attachment style is a journey that has ups, downs, setbacks, and triumphs. So we thought we’d offer up some great books for the ride:
- The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships, by Diane Poole Heller
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, by Levine & Heller
- Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can do About It, by Becker-Phelps
- Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build and Build a Secure Relationship, by Stan Tatkin
Also, the therapists at Relationship Insights would be honored to stand alongside you through this journey of self-exploration and change. So, get curious and keep asking questions! Reach out to get started today.
Relationship Insights Therapy & Coaching offers relationship therapy in Minneapolis, MN. Whether it’s through individual therapy or couples therapy, Relationship Insights is here to help you improve your relationships. We love doing the deep work that actually makes a difference. If you are up for some powerful insights, deep reflection and some awesome tools then contact us to set up a session today.