In college, I was a research assistant on two studies investigating the attachment relationship between 18 month old children and their mothers. Attachment theory, first described by British psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950’s, has been an important hallmark
of psychology for generations, but over the past couple of decades has been less integral to the field. As a freshman in college, I had no idea what attachment theory was, but I thought volunteering as a research assistant would impress my professors. My job was to watch hundreds of video tapes (literally, the large plastic boxes we pushed into a metal door to watch videos) to decipher the attachment style of each baby. Bowlby and other attachment researchers posited that the lengths to which children avoided separations from their caregivers and the children’s reactions to those separations indicated a style of attachment. The theory goes on to say that our adult relationships might reflect what our attachments were like to our earliest caregivers.
The way researchers coded attachment styles was to observe a series of hellos and goodbyes between babies and their mothers (originally, attachment research focused exclusively on mothers) while asking questions like; did the baby become anxious right away and cry, finding it intolerable to be left by their mother? Did the baby ignore the change and become sullen, refusing to continue playing? Or did the baby play on as she had before, simply glancing at the door from time to time wondering with slight distress when mom would come back? As the filming went on, a stranger entered the room instead of mom, forging a new challenge and level of separation from mom. Some babies cried immediately, becoming very distressed and refused any engagement with the stranger. Some babies greeted the stranger shyly and reluctantly played until mommy came back at which point they crossed the room enthusiastically into a warm embrace. Upon mom’s return, others showed no emotion and turned their back to mom with indignation. Essentially, goodbyes (separations) and hellos (reunions) are the points of data for attachment researchers.
Recently, attachment styles have become a big thing on social media. TikTok videos related to attachment styles have been viewed over 348 million times! Attachment theory has been integral to my personal and professional development for over thirty years. It is very rare that I can confidently say I was ahead of the curve on a social media trend (this is exciting!). There must be something going on in relationships to make attachment theory suddenly relevant (other than to increase my sense of popularity and street cred). I wonder if the lengthy separations and social isolation of the COVID pandemic made us more aware of the quality of close relationships.We know that social anxiety has ascended to one of the biggest emotional problems in teens and adults since the pandemic. The Forbes Health survey (2022) found that 59% of respondents reported that it was harder to form relationships, 25% reported anxiety and 20% felt scared to socialize with friends and family since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe our post-pandemic selves want clear answers and formulas to guide us in our most sticky relationships with others. Maybe many of us are at a loss.
I like to use the image of ballroom dancing as a metaphor for attachment relationships. Some intimate connections feel seamless, with each partner exquisite attunement allowing them to anticipate the next move of the other. This level of physical and emotional simpatico requires skill, effort and also an innate ability to tolerate intimacy. Most relationships are vastly more complicated and far less poetic. Movements of most couples can be disjointed and unpredictable or there might be too much space between the partners to make the dance look cohesive. Attachment theory can be applied to all significant relationships, including parents and children and romantic partners. It is the overall pattern of one’s relationships with important figures that might provide clues about attachment style.
SECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE
Secure attachment is rooted in attunement which can be defined as the ability to be aware of and effectively respond to the needs of the other person. It is how we “tune into” and work to understand someone’s thoughts and feelings. Securely attached people generally grew up with plenty of love and consistent support from responsive caregivers. People with secure attachment have a basic sense of trust in others, are comfortable expressing their needs, and handle conflict and setbacks adeptly and with resilience.
- Emphasize trust, protection safety and connection
- Seek, initiate and accept repair
- Have a strong sense of self-esteem and respect for others
- Honor their own needs and the needs of their partner
- Can clearly show empathy and compassion for themselves and others
- Comfortable with commitment, intimacy and sharing their feelings
Those of us who embody an avoidant attachment style most likely had early caregivers who were emotionally unavailable, insensitive, rejecting or neglectful to a child’s need for connection. The attachment system copes by disconnecting––both physically and emotionally.
Without intimate nurturing, the developing brain’s neurobiology does not receive the signals and stimulation it needs to build social responses and develop proper bonding. As a result, the child does not securely attach to their primary caregiver and unless the child is shown very reliable and steady caregiving at a later point in time, this inability to trust others extends to other relationships. Those with an avoidant attachment style often respond to close connections by withdrawing or isolating, especially during conflict or separations.
- Over-attuned to their own needs (over-focused on self)
- May have difficulty expressing needs, or feel it is better to “just do it yourself”
- May find fault in relationships or partners (history of brief, non-committal relationships)
- Tendency to dismiss emotions and send “mixed signals”
- Fear being hurt so may sabotage a relationship to avoid intimacy
ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT STYLE
The early experiences of someone who identifies with the anxious attachment style were most likely personified by “on again, off again” caregiving. During some moments, the caregiver can be attuned and focused on the child’s needs only to find that other moments the caregiver is misattuned and unaware. Because of this lack of consistency, connection is a gamble––the child is vigilant, often looking for signs and searching for behaviors that will elicit a positive response. People with ambivalent attachment have the tendency to ignore their own needs and can have unrealistic expectations of others. Like all humans, people who have an anxious attachment style have a strong desire to connect, but often others feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their need to connect. Despite their best efforts, people with an anxious attachment style can feel insecure and undeserving of love. Hence, they often neglect their needs and work very hard to please others, in the effort to remain in relationships.
A balance can be restored in the relationships of those who exhibit an anxious attachment style when they learn to recognize and prioritize their own needs without guilt or complaints. They must also learn to regulate their own emotions thereby putting less pressure on their intimate relationships.
- Over-focus on other; external regulation
- Desperately wants connection; at the same time, has a disabling fear of losing it
- Anxiety, insecurity when the partner is absent
- Fear abandonment; at the same time pushes partner away with unrealistic demands or expectations
- Complains or criticizes as a signal cry
DISORGANIZED ATTACHMENT STYLE
The disorganized attachment style is the most complex. These were the babies who didn’t know what to do or how to feel when their mother re-entered the room in the studies that I described above. It was very sad to observe these babies as they seemed to experience a fight/flight/flee or freeze reaction when their mothers greeted them. This occurs when the source of safety—the primary caregiver—is also a source of fear or threat, often in chaotic or abusive situations. The disorganized attachment style can present in unpredictable behavior patterns, marked by sudden shifts—like a mix of avoidant and ambivalent but with survival defenses always on and ready to respond to threat.
Relationships can feel dangerous to people with disorganized attachment, but progress is possible. Understanding, without judgment, that disorganized attachment is an adaptation to a chaotic early environment is a great first step. In many cases, repair is possible with the help of a professional therapist who has specific experience working with trauma.
- Closeness can induce panic or activate distancing for safety
- Crave intimacy while appearing to avoid it; confusion and ambivalence about relationships
- Waiting to be rejected or hurt
- Difficulty self-soothing and also co-regulating
- Constant vigilance for danger or shifts in mood
- Inability to express needs
So, why is understanding one’s attachment style important? For some of us, forming close relationships is easy. For those lucky few whose relationships seem to function without angst or major disruption, pondering the question of their attachment style might be unnecessary. For the rest of us, it can be helpful to know why we do what we do in close relationships. Do we fight with our significant other when they come home from a trip? Or perhaps we bombard a romantic interest with texts if we don’t know where they are. When we put a name to an emotional challenge, we increase our objectivity and awareness. Awareness is the first step toward potential change. One cautionary comment regarding online “attachment quizzes” or social media accounts that label the whole person (i.e. generalizations about “avoiders”); we have multiple parts of ourselves and many of us embody a combination of attachment categories and our style might vary depending on with whom we are in a relationship.
Attachment theory is extremely relevant to our daily lives as parents. Many of us did not have ideal relationships with our own caregivers. The insecure attachment styles we developed as children do not prohibit us from connecting with our own children. When I was pregnant with my first child I was terrified that my insecure attachment to my own caregiver would prevent me from attaching to my newborn. As a mother, I find that it is important to understand when my feelings of insecurity are being triggered. Most of us can tell when we are being triggered by listening to our body’s reaction to a situation. When we experience unexpected, inexplicable or over exaggerated tension while interacting with our young children often our current state is being influenced by our original attachment experience with our primary caregiver rather than the current situation. In those moments, I use the DBT skills of “opposite action” and “mindfulness” to clue into the moment more intensely that I am naturally inclined to do. For instance, when saying goodbye to my children before leaving for work, I open all of my senses to take in the moment and make sure to say a proper goodbye. As a psychologist, I recommend that parents never sneak out the door when leaving the house without their children. Attachment theory reminds us to be explicit and consistent about how we say goodbye and how we reunite with our children.
Attachment theory is a northstar for parents. Essentially, it reminds us that the most important thing we can do as parents is to be consistently present for our children. Simple, yet in our frantic pursuit of perfection we often lose sight of what matters most.
- Do not use online attachment quizzes to label yourself or your partner in one insecure attachment style or another
- Most of us are a combination of attachment styles
- Our attachment style might depend on with whom we are in a relationship
- Experiencing childhood insecurity does not mean that you will not be a good partner, friend, or parent
- Especially in important close relationships, emphasize separations and reunions. Don’t skimp on saying goodbye and hello
- When old attachment habits are triggered, use the DBT skills of “opposite action” and “mindfulness” to overcome
- As parents, try not to leave the house or come home without alerting your children