Attachment theory was developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. The theory suggests that attachment style forms in infancy based on caregiver responsiveness and stays with us into adulthood. Attachment style dictates how we relate to others. Attachment is viewed on a continuum ranging from secure to anxious with avoidance in between. Bowlby conducted extensive research in which he studied infants who were separated from their primary caregivers and their subsequent behavior. He hypothesized that the extreme behaviors infants engage in to avoid separation from a parent or when reconnecting with a physically separated parent such as crying, screaming, and clinging were all evolutionary mechanisms. It is our instinct to respond to the perceived threat of losing the survival advantages that accompany being cared for and attended to by our primary caregivers. These instincts have evolved into what is known as an “attachment behavioral system” which is the system that guides us in our patterns and habits of forming and maintaining relationships.
Bowlby’s research showed three attachment styles in infants:
- Secure attachment: These infants showed distress upon separation but sought comfort and were easily comforted when the parents returned.
- Anxious-resistant attachment: A smaller portion of infants experienced greater levels of distress and, upon reuniting with the parents, seemed both to seek comfort and to attempt to “punish” the parents for leaving.
- Avoidant attachment: Infants in the third category showed no stress or minimal stress upon separation from the parents and either ignored the parents upon reuniting or actively avoided the parents
A fourth style was later added by researchers: the disorganized-disoriented attachment style, which refers to children who have no predictable pattern of attachment behaviors
So now that we know a little about the origins of attachment theory and what it looks like in infancy, what does this mean for us as adults? When we hear the word attachment, we automatically think of romantic relationships, but it is also important to keep in mind that our attachment style relates to all relationships, not just romantic. This includes parent-child relationships, friendships, and even our professional and working relationships. It can impact our daily lives beyond our family and intimate relationships.
Adult attachment styles differ a little from the infant styles described above, but follow the same general format. The following are some characteristics that are associated with each attachment style
- Secure: These adults are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships, feeling secure and connected. They are able to create meaningful relationships, are empathetic, and are able to set appropriate boundaries.
- Anxious-Avoidant (or dismissive): People with this attachment style generally keep their distance from others. They may feel that they don’t need human connection to survive or thrive, and insist on maintaining their independence and isolation from others. These individuals are often able to “shut down” emotionally, avoid closeness or emotional connection; are distant, critical, and intolerant.
- Ambivalent(or Anxious-Resistant): This attachment style includes those who form less secure bonds and may feel that their partner must “complete” them or fix their problems. They tend to be anxious and insecure, controlling, blaming, erratic, unpredictable, and sometimes charming.
- Fearful-Avoidant (or Disorganized): People with this attachment style generally try to avoid their feelings because it is easy to get overwhelmed by them. They tend to be chaotic, insensitive, and have mood swings. They can be untrusting even while craving security. Unsurprisingly, this style makes it difficult to form and maintain meaningful, healthy relationships with others
It’s important to note that each of these styles should be viewed as a continuum of attachment behaviors rather than a specific type of person. Someone who is secure can still feel anxious and someone who is anxious can still feel security with certain people. Being aware of your attachment style can give great insight on how we react to our needs and how we got about getting them met. This can be seen through how we interact with our partners, parents, children, friends, and even co-workers. Awareness of an insecure attachment style can help us work towards developing a more secure one.
If you’d like to learn more about attachment style and what your attachment style is visit https://quiz.attachmentproject.com/ to take the quiz!
By, Amanda Navarra, MHC Intern, EAP Counselor