Attachment Theory

How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Life

Attachment theory was first described in the 1950’s by psychologist John Bowlby and was further expanded upon by Mary Ainsworth (and many others) over the years.  Bowlby focused on the bond between mother and child (or permanent mother-substitute).  He believed that disrupted, cold, or distant relationships with caregivers could cripple the healthy emotional and social growth of a child—which, at the time, was a highly controversial concept.

What Is Attachment Theory?

According to attachment theory, there are four elements of attachment that are considered to universally occur in relationships across cultures:

  1. We seek out, monitor, and try to maintain emotional and physical connections with our loved ones.
  2. We reach out for our loved ones when we are uncertain, anxious, threatened, or upset. Effective connection teaches us how to regulate our own emotions and trust others.
  3. We miss our loved ones and become extremely upset when they are physically or emotional remote. Isolation is inherently traumatizing for human beings.
  4. We depend on our loved ones to support us emotionally and provide a sense of safety. The more we sense that we are effectively connected to and supported by our loved ones, the more autonomous and adventurous we can be.

There are two ground-breaking experiments that support Bowlby’s ideas.

The extremely disturbing Harlow experiment demonstrated the importance of comfort, companionship, and love in promoting healthy development.  In this experiment, psychologist Harry Harlow took infant monkeys away from their mothers and provided them with two surrogate mothers: One cold, wire “mother” that provided the monkeys with food, and one warm, soft, cloth “mother”.  The poor little monkeys clung to the warm cloth mother for comfort—even hanging off her when trying to eat from the cold wire mother.  When these monkeys were reintroduced to their peer group, they were distressed, unsure of how to interact, engaged in disturbing behaviours, and were completely unable to effectively connect with others.

The second experiment, the Strange Situation, was conducted by Bowlby and Ainsworth.  In this experiment, toddlers and their mothers were brought into an unfamiliar room with toys.  After a few minutes, a researcher enters the room and the mother exits, leaving the toddler alone with the researcher.  Three minutes later, the mother comes back.

Almost all of the children were visibly upset by their mother leaving; crying, throwing toys, or rocking back and forth.  However, Bowlby and Ainsworth observed three distinct patterns of behaviour from the children when the mothers returned.  They also noted that the patterns were dictated by the type of emotional bond that had developed between mother and child.  The labels of secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment styles represented the children’s strategies for dealing with emotions in relationships.

  1. The first group of children were resilient, calmed themselves quickly, easily reconnect with their mothers, and quickly went back to exploring and playing after their mothers returned. This group usually had warm, responsive mothers.  These children were labeled securely attached.
  2. The second group of children remained upset and nervous after their mothers returned, and became hostile, clingy, and demanding. This group usually had mothers who were emotionally inconsistent (hot and cold).  These children were labeled as (insecure) anxiously attached.
  3. The third group of children showed no anger, distress, or happiness in their mother’s departure and remained distant when their mothers returned. This group usually had mothers who were cold and detached.  These children were labeled as (insecure) avoidantly attached.
Attachment in Adulthood

Today, “attachment parenting” and the concept that children require close emotional and physical contact with their caregivers is the cornerstone of Western parenting practices.  However, many of us still believe that this need ends with adolescence.  Western society says that adults must be completely and totally independent; we must be capable of dealing with our problems on our own, capable of soothing ourselves when upset, capable of having casual sex and “situationships” without “catching feelings”, and above all, we must love ourselves before we can love someone else.

In contrast, Bowlby, the founding father of attachment theory, maintained that the need to be close to others persists through adulthood and shapes our adult love relationships.  Bowlby believed that adult relationships, specifically intimate romantic relationships, are an attachment bond similar to the bond between mother and child.  Although Bowlby passed away before he was able to assemble evidence of his ideas, in the decades since his death many psychologists have researched the connections between attachment theory and adult relationships.  Hundreds of studies have shown that attachment styles work as mental models for the way that we view ourselves and the world.  They form our expectations in love relationships, assign meaning to our partner’s actions, and give us templates for how to interact with others.

Securely attached adults have learned to reach for others when they need comfort or care.  They are generally calmer, emotionally balanced, and comfortable with closeness.  They are able to trust that the person they love will not betray or abandon them.  These adults generally have the most successful relationships with lovers, friends, family, and even colleagues, because they see themselves as generally good and worthy of love.  They view others as generally trustworthy and reliable.  They are open to learning about love.

Insecurely attached adults—whether they are anxious or avoidant—have learned that love is conditional, unpredictable, or dangerous.  Anxiously attached adults have ramped up emotions because they are inclined to worry that they will be abandoned.  These adults tend to idealize others while devaluing themselves as an individual and partner.  To deal with these emotions, anxiously attached adults will habituality seek closeness, reassurance, and proof that they are loved.  Dr. Sue Johnson describes this style as asking, “Are you there?  Are you?  Show me.  I can’t be sure.  Show me again.”

Avoidantly attached adults push down or shut out their emotions and longings for closeness to protect themselves from being hurt by others.  Allowing themselves to love—to be emotionally dependent on another person—is too vulnerable, too dangerous.  These adults generally view others as inherently unreliable and untrustworthy and they tend to supress any self-doubt about their own acceptability as an individual and partner, leaving them shut off to learning about love.  Again, Dr. Sue Johnson describes this attachment style as saying, “I don’t need you to be there for me.  I’m fine whatever you do.”

Why is Attachment Important?

Learning to love and be loved is also learning to tune into our emotions and balance them—staying in touch without being flooded by them.  As Dr.  Sue Johnson says in her book, Love Sense, “Once we are balanced, we can turn to the world and move in it with flexibility, open to learning and able to look at the choices available to us in any situation.  Nothing makes us stronger and happier than loving, stable long-term bonds with others.”

Understanding attachment styles can also help us to understand both our own and our partner’s behaviour.  Anxious partners are more likely to show rejection sensitivity—whether this rejection is real or perceived—and are more likely to respond with increased aggression.  Particularly, anxiously attached male partners are more likely to respond to perceived rejection with violence.  The overt anger hides the underlying anguish of feeling unsafe.  Avoidantly attached partners are more likely to shut out their partner when they feel rejected.  They hunker down and turn inward, not reaching out to family or friends for support either.  Understanding the real reason behind confusing or hurtful behaviour can help solve problems and manage conflict in our relationships.

Furthermore, studies have shown that the effects of attachment styles extend to the workforce, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) adults with secure attachment styles make better leaders in business and the armed forces.  In one study of Israeli Defense Forces, psychologist Mario Mikulincer found that securely attached leaders were more tuned in and responsive to subordinates—they gave guidance, offered challenges, supported initiatives, and fostered self-confidence.  Meanwhile, anxiously attached leaders were rated as deficient in providing direction in task-oriented situations, and avoidantly attached leaders were rated as deficient in building morale and team cohesion.  Many soldiers with avoidant leaders reported feeling nervous strain and becoming depressed.

Moving Toward Love

So you’ve determined you may have an anxious or avoidant attachment style.  What do you do now? Thanks to neuroplasticity—our brains ability to modify neural networks—we can actually change our attachment style.  Recognizing the underlying reasons why we behave a certain way gives us the power to change those thought patterns and resulting behaviours.

Recognizing attachment styles can also give us the power to determine compatibility in our relationships.  Some attachment styles simply are not very compatible.  Relationships between two avoidant people or two anxious people are generally difficult—the first because both partners are determined to reject emotional involvement, and the second because both partners are too consumed by their own worries.  One anxious and one avoidant partner is a common pairing, but one that is often toxic.  Stepping away from relationships that trigger our emotional fight or flight response and turning toward what Dr.  Sue Johnson calls “safe-haven relationships” can help to heal and revise our childhood model.