Attachment type refers the particular ways we relate to other people. Each of us has a certain style of attachment that was influenced and developed from birth. The most important years of attachment development occur during our first two years of life and is influenced by our primary caregivers. Once established, our attachment style remains in place influencing how we relate in intimate relationships and in how we parent our children. It is important to identify and understand one’s style of attachment and how it developed in childhood as it offers insight into present and persistent relationship patterns. It also clarifies ways we can become emotionally limited as adults and where we can adjust to improve close relationships.
Early Attachment Patterns
From birth and throughout the early years of childhood, we need to develop a relatively stable and healthy relationship with at least one primary caregiver, this is important for sound social and emotional development. Without a consistent caregiver secure attachment is negatively impacted, and children can suffer serious psychological and social impairment. During the first two years, how parents or consistent caregivers respond to their infants, particularly during times of distress, establishes the type and pattern of attachment their children form. These patterns will go on to guide the child’s feelings, thoughts, and expectations as an adult in future relationships.
Ideally, when an infant cries out, their caregiver responds consistently. The baby begins to formulate confidence in the idea that when they experience discomfort (hunger or wet nappy for example), someone will attend to their discomfort. This is essential during the first year of life and must be consistent during the first two years of life (the end of which the emotional brain becomes fully formed). As a result of this consistency of care, a secure emotional attachment is formed with the parent is formed. The parent(s) are sensitive and responsive in their interactions with their child. It is vital that these attachment figures remain consistent caregivers throughout this. During the second year, children begin to consider and use their parent(s) as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship is more likely to become securely attached. In order for a child to feel securely attached to their parents or caregivers, the child must feel safe, consistently recognised, and comforted when distressed.
Some adults are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, are insensitive and unaware of the needs of their children. They seem to have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Emotions are seen as being negative and a sign of weakness. Often these children quickly develop into “little adults” who learn to take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They are likely to develop an avoidant attachment with such miss-attuned parenting.
Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children receiving this kind of parenting become confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children develop an ambivalent/anxious attachment with such unpredictable parenting.
When a parent or caregiver is outright abusive to a child, the child experiences the frightening physical and emotional cruelty and as life-threatening. Such children become caught in a terrible dilemma: their survival instincts are saying ‘FLEE’ to safety, but safety is also the very same person who is terrifying them. The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from conscious awareness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures.
Adult Attachment Styles
People who formed secure attachments in childhood have secure attachment patterns in adulthood. They have a healthy sense of self-worth, and naturally desire close relationships with others. They basically have a positive sense of self, their partners, and their relationships. Their lives are balanced: they are both secure in their independence and in their close relationships.
Those who had avoidant attachments in childhood most likely have dismissive attachment patterns as adults. These people tend to be loners, regarding relationships and emotions as relatively unimportant. Dismissive personalities can be excessively cerebral and suppress emotions. Their typical response to conflict and stressful situations is to avoid them by distancing themselves. Their lives are not balanced, they are isolated, and emotionally removed from themselves and others.
Children who developed an ambivalent/anxious attachment often grow up to have preoccupied attachment patterns. As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In close relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected often make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent with their partner. Their lives also are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in close relationships.
People who grew up with disorganised attachments often develop fearful-avoidant patterns of attachment. Since, as children, they detached from their feelings during times of trauma, as adults, they continue to be detached from themselves. They desire relationships and are comfortable in them until becoming emotionally close. It is at this point, the feelings that were repressed in childhood resurface and, with no awareness of them being from the past are experienced in the present. The person is no longer in emotionally in the present but suddenly re-living an old trauma. These people’s lives are not balanced: they do not have a coherent sense of self nor do they have a clear connection with others.
It's Never Too Late!
There is good news—it is never too late to develop a secure attachment. The negative effects of not having an ideal attachment experience early in life are absolutely reversible. Even though patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and can follow you throughout your life, it is possible to shift your attachment style into a healthier secure one. The first step is to become aware of your present style of attachment.
Research on attachment demonstrates that awareness of your present attachment style and making sense of childhood experiences is the best predictor of future security in relationships. Research also shows that by forming an attachment with someone with a secure attachment style can influence our own sense of security in the relationship.
A good Psychotherapist can help make sense of relationship insecurities and offer steps to shift and change the attachment patterns that have become barriers to a more emotionally enriched and fulfilled life. The therapeutic process helps us to get to know ourselves through understanding past experiences. The future is a continuation of the past ‘modified’ in the present! The therapeutic process takes time and varying levels of courage. However, by doing this, we strengthen our ability to navigate through the world with a more grounded sense of security that helps us better withstand the trials and tribulations of life.
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