More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Basics of Attachment
by Will Meek, Ph.D.
August 25, 2012

Our earliest relationships with caregivers set the stage for nearly all of our future relationships. The past 40+ years of research on attachment has taught us a lot, and the following is a snapshot of the basics of attachment.

John Bowlby is credited with being the first person to describe the attachment system. Essentially, he demonstrated that we are all born with a set of survival instincts that help us develop a strong emotional bond with our first caregiver, usually our mothers (although it doesn't have to be). Having a strong emotional bond (attachment) with our primary caregiver was important for literal survival across evolutionary time, as well as healthy relational and emotional development.

Later, researchers like Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main demonstrated that these first attachment relationships became "internal working models" (relationship templates and rules) that we carry with us and use to create bonds with others in adult life. So, attachment isn't the only thing that is important in our development, but is it truly huge.

Attachment Styles
Since all parents have different parenting styles, skills, and values, different attachment patterns with infants can form. There have been 4 basic attachment styles identified: secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized; although each has a wide range of individual variation.

Secure: A secure attachment is formed when the caregiver is regularly response, protective, caring, and attentive to the infant's needs. This allows the developing child to use the attachment figure as a "secure base" to explore and return to, as well as a "safe haven" when he or she is in distress or danger. The child thus learns that close others are safe and trustworthy, and that the self is valuable and worthy of care.

Avoidant: An avoidant attachment is formed when the attachment figure is more emotionally distant, withdraws when the child is in distress, and is less open to physical contact. The child usually becomes somewhat indifferent and emotionally muted, and does not routinely seek connection with the caregiver. The child thus learns that others are unreliable for care, and that the self is unimportant to others.

Ambivalent: An ambivalent attachment is formed when the caregiver is inconsistently available; an unpredictable blend between the types of parenting involved in secure and avoidant. The child also usually becomes unpredictable, switching between being passive, angry, and preoccupied with the caregiver. The child thus learns that others are unpredictable, and that the self is valuable only when certain conditions are in place.

Disorganized: Finally, a disorganized attachment style is typically formed in abusive and neglectful situations, when the caregiver is experienced as frightening, or when the caregiver him/herself is regularly frightened or dissociated (typically from being abused herself, addicted, traumatized, or depressed). The child often displays unpredictable and unusual behavior, and experiences feeling trapped between wanting the comfort of the caregiver, but also wanting to avoid potential danger. The child thus learns that others can be dangerous and unreliable, and that the self is able to be easily harmed in close connections with others.

Having a secure or insecure attachment pattern doesn't mean that someone is going to have problems for the rest of life, but it sets us up for greater success or difficulty relating to significant others. Additionally, a current trend that means well but misapplies the ideas behind developing a secure attachment can contribute to other difficulty for growing kids. Specifically, parents that cater to every desire a child has, and are so present that the child does not have space to develop autonomy, will clearly lead to other developmental problems.

The takeaway message for parents is to do a "good enough" job responding that a secure attachment forms, and within that connection, teach the growing child the rest of things that are important to being a healthy adult. Saying "no" occasionally will not destroy a secure attachment.

Attachment in Adulthood
As previously mentioned, each of these styles becomes the internal working model of attachment that we carry into adulthood, and is then enacted when we form a close bond with another person. For example, in a new and developing relationship, someone with a secure attachment model will be more able to open up, will expect to be treated well, will provide good care of others, and will have a noticeable capacity to connect. In contrast, someone with an avoidant attachment model may not open up very easily, may need more reassurance from the other person in a developing close relationship, and will have a lower initial capacity for deep emotional connection.

The good news is that research has also shown that these attachment models can change throughout our lives, primarily by forming new attachments. The most common type of these is a committed romantic partnership. This means that the people we develop the closest connections with have the potential to help us change in the most profound ways. For example, someone that had an avoidant attachment model from childhood can have that pattern altered by forming a secure attachment to someone else at another stage of life (like a romantic partner that is responsive and loving, rather than one that withdraws or is unresponsive).

There may always be some artifacts from the initial attachment style, but much of it can be molded. This unfortunately can also go the other way, such as when we initially have a secure attachment model, but end up in a long term abusive or rejecting relationship. Many couples come into counseling because their attachment histories create problems in how they relate to one another, whether or not that is known at the outset.

Attachment in Counseling
Another type of relationship that can become transformative in positive ways is the therapeutic alliance that forms in counseling. Longer term psychotherapy with a therapist that is responsive, attentive, trustworthy, and caring can also change our internal attachment models, and has led some researchers and theorists to believe that this is a key ingredient to what makes therapy so powerful.

So if attachment history and how it relates to you current relationships is something you want to learn more about, counseling can be a great place to explore it.


The Quick And Dirty

Attachment styles are patterns of how we think, feel, and act in close relationships. They form early in life based on the way we bond (or don't bond) with our primary caregivers. The four attachment styles are:
  • Secure: trusting, independent but close, and open to expressing affection in confident ways with their partners.
  • Dismissive-avoidant: aloof, do not feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, and tend to pull away from close others if they feel hurt or rejected.
  • Anxious-preoccupied: needing reassurance from their partners, seeking closeness and intimacy more intensely and often more quickly than their partner is ready
  • Fearful-avoidant: a combination of avoidant and anxious, often confused and giving mixed signals of pushing away and craving more connection.
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