In focusing upon relationships, or indeed anxiety or depression or relationship problems, I often find Attachment Theory is a useful model to help understand how and why we react to one another the way we do and gives you a greater understanding of what’s going on. Attachment Theory is the concept of how we emotionally bond to others. Developed by John Bowlby, Bowlby observed that infants would go to extraordinary lengths (e.g., crying, clinging, frantically searching) to prevent separation from their parents or to re-establish proximity to a missing parent. These attachment behaviours, such as crying and searching, provides the helpless infant with support, protection, and care from their attachment figure. However, not all attachment figures respond in this way, and their responses have major implication on our outlook and our relationships as adults.
To understand how, let’s look at the four main attachment styles and their implications;
- Secure Attachment: When the infant/child becomes distressed and the child is quickly comforted. Childrens feels confident that his or her carer will help fulfil any needs when they occur. Their distress brings them proximity, safety and comfort from their primary carer
Impact on relationships; Low on avoidance, low on anxiety. Comfortable with intimacy; not worried about rejection or preoccupied with the relationship. “It is easy for me to get close to others, and I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
- Avoidant Attachment; When children become distressed, their carers become angry or irritable. Their cries, anger, neediness or frustrations are typically met with punishment and anger. Suppressing emotions and distress brings them proximity, safety and comfort from their primary carer.
Impact on relationships; High on avoidance, low on anxiety. Uncomfortable with closeness and primarily values independence and freedom; not worried about partner’s availability. “I am uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust and depend on others and prefer that others do not depend on me. It is very important that I feel independent and self-sufficient. My partner wants me to be more intimate than I am comfortable being.”
- Ambivalent (or Resistant) Attachment: When children become distressed, their carer does not immediately respond. They believe they are undeserving of automatic, unsolicited attention and typically become angry and rejecting of that carer to get that attention. Acting out brings them proximity, safety and comfort from their primary carer
Impact on relationships; Low on avoidance, high on anxiety. Crave closeness and intimacy, very insecure about the relationship. “I want to be extremely emotionally close (merge) with others, but others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t love or value me and will abandon me. My inordinate need for closeness scares people away.
- Disorganised Attachment; It does not matter what the child does in response to their distress, it does not bring proximity, safety and comfort from their primary carer.
Impact on relationships; High on avoidance, high on anxiety. Uncomfortable with intimacy, and worried about partner’s commitment and love. “I am uncomfortable getting close to others, and find it difficult to trust and depend on them. I worry I will be hurt if I get close to my partner.”
These early relationships provide a blueprint on how we see ourselves, others and the world around us. Research indicates that attachment style affects our physical and mental health, finding a compatible romantic partner, and our behaviour in family, social and work contexts. When you realise that your beliefs and reactions are caused by your early interaction and relationships, it may help you change your own mindset. Taking such positive steps can help you develop a more secure attachment style.