Attachment theory explains the dance of attunement that occurs between an infant and primary caregiver. The child responds to the care provided by the primary carer and this relationship forms the basis for how we view ourselves as people, how we view others and our place in the world (what we call the ‘internal working model).
Attachment styles have been categorised into four areas:
Secure – Caregiving was consistently good enough, secure, nurturing and safe; View of the self is balanced and overall positive; Enjoys and seeks emotional closeness
Insecure – Avoidant: Caregiving was unavailable during moments of emotional stress or was overbearing; Propensity to self-sooth and supress feelings; Views the self as not worthy of love and attention; Others cannot be trusted; Often avoids emotional intimacy and conflict
Insecure – Ambivalent: Caregiving was inconsistent and unpredictable which often meant the child acted-out to get what was wanted; Believes the self is un-loveable and of little worth; Holds a black and white view of the world; Driven by emotions rather than thoughts
Insecure – Disorganised: Caregiving was dangerous, chaotic and inconsistent; Believes the self is bad and so is everyone else; Controlling; Self-regulation difficult; Emotional closeness is frightening and/or dangerous
The following fictional case study paints a picture of how an attachment style may influence someone.
Case Study Part 1: If your primary carer (usually your mum) was not responsive to your needs (you may cry and not be soothed, you may hurt yourself and be told to ‘man up’, you learn to hold emotion in rather than show it) then you learn that emotions are difficult and are to be supressed or ignored. You may also form an unconscious belief that something about you makes your mum respond to you in this way – you unconsciously believe that you’re not worthy of love. Therefore, rather than trusting people with your feelings and thoughts, you rely on yourself and you show the external world that you are strong and independent. In this case, your attachment style will have elements of ‘avoidant’.
Attachment in adulthood
Attachment styles and our internal working model remain consistent for most people over the course of their life. This does not mean that these styles are fixed and will remain static through the lifetime – rather, new attachment strategies can be learned through experiencing a consistent, secure and nurturing relationship (with, for example, a partner, close friend or therapist).
If in childhood a particular attachment strategy was required, these strategies become a learned pattern – they will be used by the individual into teenage years and adulthood. Our attachment style influences all key relationships in our life, including our relationships with parents, intimate partners, friends and children. Our early attachment relationships also influence our ability to manage conflict and interpersonal stress, emotional regulation and self-esteem.
Attachment styles are defined slightly differently in adulthood (the related child attachment style is identified in brackets):
Autonomous (Secure): Able to value and objectively reflect on attachment relationships; Open to emotions without being ‘owned’ by them; Can balance own needs / needs of others; Secure self-esteem
Dismissing (Insecure – Avoidant): Minimise awareness of feelings in general and of relational feelings in particular; Need to feel strong, self-sufficient and independent; May relocate weak / untrustworthy feelings onto others; May have contradictory self-esteem between external and internal values
Preoccupied (Insecure – Ambivalent): Hyper-aware of feelings; Highly sensitive; May switch between anger / passivity in attachment relationships; May be clingy and/or needy; Difficulty regulating emotions; Low self-esteem
Unresolved (Insucure – Disorganised): Experience of trauma / loss that is not reconciled; Can become overwhelmed or chaotic when emotionally challenged; May use control as a form of regulation; Feeling of being perpetually threatened by feelings and by others; Low self-esteem
For most of us, our attachment style sits on a continuum – we will typically not be 100% secure or 100% dismissing / preoccupied – rather we will respond in particular ways depending on context. Our responses are unconscious until we build awareness, at which point we can respond in ways that challenge our learned ways.
Case Study Part 2: If you tend towards an avoidant attachment style, you may find emotional intimacy difficult within a relationship. Part of you may want to be in a relationship, but you may feel uncomfortable or nervous when your partner gets too close; alternatively, you may choose partners who are ‘unavailable’. You may keep people at a distance, maintaining your independence and strong external face. You may feel quite emotionally empty, without understanding why. Often you are successful in other areas of your life.
Increasing awareness of attachment
Increasing my own attachment awareness has taken many years and has involved reading about attachment, reflecting on my own life history and recognising in my life today how I deal with conflict, emotional challenge and close personal relationships. Understanding my strategies for managing these life elements has allowed me to effect change in my own life – in behaviour, self-esteem and self-care – and also to accept my personal attachment preferences.
In my work I meet many adults who struggle with relationships. In many instances the work we do together involves the exploration of their attachment history. Helping individuals to make sense of their past allows them to find different ways of being in the present.
While a therapist can help with this work, it is certainly not the only way to increase attachment knowledge. Having emotionally secure relationships with close friends or intimate partners can also increase attachment security. Reflecting on attachment history can assist in identifying fixed (often unconscious) patterns – and awareness of these patterns is a great starting point for thinking about or trying new strategies. Reading about attachment can also be beneficial – “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller discusses attachment in a user-friendly format.
Over the coming months I will write about areas that I believe are important for attachment security: self-esteem, emotional regulation, personal reflection and mindfulness.
References: I have read many excellent articles and books about attachment. The work of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, Peter Fonagy, John Arden and David Wallin have all informed my understanding of attachment theory.