As a Psychologist, I often think about how everything I do is ultimately about relationships. What we do well, what we struggle with and what we notice, that seemingly keeps happening again and again, despite our best efforts. These relationship styles also enter the therapeutic alliance, the relationship between therapist and client. Attachment theory helps us to understand some of these patterns.
Within Attachment Theory, 'attachment' refers to a psychological bond between two people; at the start of life this will be a child and caregiver. Attachment Theory is attributed to John Bowlby, who suggested that we have a natural and biological need to make a relationship with at least one main caregiver as children, to allow normal emotional and social development for our safety and survival. This can be with our biological parents, but also anyone else who might be raising us; extended family, adoptive parents or foster carers.
Babies learn to attach to a regular caregiver to help them manage stress as infants (for example, hunger) and create a psychological bond with them. Later in their development as toddlers, they will use the caregiver as a base from which to explore the world from and return to. Caregiver responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment, which lead to us creating our own working models of what we can expect from our caregiver. A child's experiences and understanding of the caregiver's responses will then guide their feelings, thoughts and expectations in later relationships (Bretherton & Mulholland, 1999).
It is widely agreed that there are 4 attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant and anxious-dismissive (the final 3 are referred to as insecure attachment styles). Nowadays, the understanding is that these patterns can shed light on the wide range of relationships that we enter, such as romantic, friendships, relationships with our children, work colleagues and others. Understanding our attachment styles can shed some light on why we react differently to events or in relationships.
Secure Attachment Style
Secure attachment can be seen as the most adaptive style, coming from a childhood where the parental figure was experienced as available, attentive and appropriately able to respond to a situation and meet their needs.
Securely attached adults will positively approach a task with the goal of mastering it and have an appetite for exploration in achievement settings (Elliot & Reis, 2003).
Within romantic relationships, a securely attached adult will:
-- have good conflict resolution and be effective communicators
-- be flexible (able to see many points of view, solutions and possibilities)
-- avoid manipulation
-- be comfortable being close to the other person without fear
-- quickly forgive
-- view sex and emotional intimacy as connected
-- believe they have a positive impact on their relationship
-- be able to care for their partner how they want to be cared for
-- not be afraid to give positively and ask for their needs to be met
If securely attached adults come across an individual who is not meeting their needs, they will typically lose interest very quickly or remove that person from their circle (Ahmad, Mohammad & Shafique, 2018). Research indicates that even if there is only one securely attached partner within a romantic relationship, this is enough to maintain healthy, emotional relationship functioning. The same research has shown that combinations of two partners with other attachment styles (outside of secure) can be associated with negative relationship functioning.
Insecure Attachment Styles
The anxious-ambivalent strategy is a response to unpredictable caregiving in childhood and leads to an 'anxious preoccupied' style in adulthood.
As adults they seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming quite dependent. People in this category tend to be less trusting, have more negative views about themselves and their partners, and may be highly emotionally expressive and worried or over analytical in their relationships.
These individuals often have a very strong emotional reaction to the anticipation of separation or actual separation from their partner and might find it very hard to cope with the feelings this evokes in them. Their thoughts and actions can lead to a painful cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and even self-sabotage. Studies show that this group often seek a dismissive-avoidant partner.
Anxious Avoidant/ Dismissive Avoidant Style
When a caregiver has been consistently unresponsive to their needs, the infant comes to believe that communicating their emotional needs has no effect on the caregiver and so stops responding to the caregiver; in studies, some infants actively turn away from them.
Studies of heart rates, however, have shown that even though they appear outwardly unaffected, the infant actually experiences a high level of stress when encountering their caregiver in this way. It is thought that this behaviour is a way to stay close to the caregiver (who they still need for survival) but not showing any emotion avoids them being rejected and feeling overwhelmed by the rejection.
Adults who are anxious avoidant / dismissive avoidant, value self-reliance and independence, seeing themselves as self-sufficient and not needing close relationships or attachments to anyone. They tend to suppress how they feel and deal with conflict by distancing themselves from partners, who they often have a poor opinion of. They are not concerned with forming or maintaining emotional closeness with others, generally distrusting others and don't believe that other people are truly able to offer emotional support.
Adults in this group tend to have a positive model of themselves and their abilities and try to create high levels of self-esteem by focusing on their abilities or accomplishments. This means that their positive views of themselves are based on their personal achievements and competence rather than feeling acceptance from others. These adults will explicitly reject or minimise the importance of emotional attachment and passively avoid relationships when they feel they are becoming too close. They are indifferent to the opinions of others about themselves and resist positive feedback from their peers.
Adults who are more anxious-avoidant rather than dismissive have mixed feelings about close relationships, wanting them, yet feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust the intentions of their partners and view themselves as unworthy of others' responses or emotional support. Like dismissive-avoidant adults, anxious-avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy and suppress or even deny their feelings, and so are less comfortable expressing affection.
Studies have shown that individuals with an insecure attachment style may also be more vulnerable to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders in addition to the challenge of developing their own healthy attachments in adulthood (and potentially with their own children). There are also some links to criminal behaviour such as domestic violence, as adults try and enact their attachment needs through use of force.
These styles can be understood as survival strategies that had to be adopted for the child to survive. While difficult life events can occur for people with all attachment styles, it seems to be that the level of responsiveness of the caregiver is what offers a level of security and protection to the child and informs the style that the adult then carries into their own relationships.
Similarly, people can grow up with no difficult life events and having had their physical needs met (food, shelter, money etc), yet still find they struggle in relationships. This can turn out to be related to how responsive their caregivers have been able to be and how much of the emotional load they have had to take on themselves, and can be useful to explore in therapy.
My purpose in writing this article is to help shed some light on your own attachment style and reflect on how this might impact you, which in itself is an action. If, on reading this, you feel that it would be useful to further explore or better understand your patterns within relationships (whether with romantic partners or other kinds of relationships) you can get in touch with a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist to do this.
You can find a list of accredited counsellors and psychotherapists on the BACP website and a list of accredited psychologists on the BPS website.
There are a wide range of materials to read on attachment theory, and a quick google search will lead to lots of articles if you are interested in reading more.