What is attachment? If you’ve ever Googled questions related to love, romance, or parenting, you might have come across the term “attachment.” You may have seen books on attachment at the library or even encountered the term in therapy. While the concept of attachment is important in psychology, it isn’t often discussed in routine conversation. Let’s look at the idea of attachment, and explore what it means in everyday life.
A Brief History of Attachment
British psychologist John Bowlby first developed the Theory of Attachment in the mid-1900s. “Bowlby was interested in understanding the separation anxiety and distress that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers.” His studies led him to observe that primary caregivers (such as parents) were an essential source of comfort and protection to their children. Bowlby found that when children were distressed, they would seek comfort through contact or proximity with their caregivers.
Bowlby’s work defined attachment as an innate, lasting emotional bond between parent and child. His findings suggested that children are born with an innate drive to form attachments, and to seek proximity with attachment figures. He observed that successful (aka, secure) attachment is characterized by a pattern of nurturance and responsiveness to the child. In other words, when a primary caregiver, often a mother, consistently and promptly responds to her child when they are in need, a secure attachment bond develops over time. The child learns that their primary caregiver is reliable, which leads to a sense of security in the relationship. This feeling of security provides a base from which the child can explore the world. Thanks to that secure base, the child becomes increasingly independent over time.
Other influential psychologists built upon and expanded Bowlby’s original theory of attachment, including Mary Ainsworth, whose work helped illuminate the connection between attachment and behavior. Ainsworth observed three different attachment styles, and later studies proposed that the attachment style developed as a child would impact future behaviors within relationships. A fourth attachment style, disorganized, was added in 1986 by researchers Mary Main and Judith Solomon.
4 Styles of Attachment
- Secure attachment — characterized by a child’s distress when separated, and joy when reunited. Securely attached children easily seek proximity and comfort from their parents.
- Anxious attachment — characterized by a child’s high distress when separated from their parental figure. These children feel that they cannot depend on a parent to be present when they are in need.
- Avoidant attachment — characterized by a child’s avoidance of their parent, and often the result of being unable to access their caregiver when in need. This style may also develop due to abusive or neglectful parents, who consistently dismissed the child’s needs and attempts to draw comfort.
- Disorganized attachment — characterized by a child’s inconsistent behavior towards a caregiver, and the lack of a clear attachment pattern. The child both seeks and avoids proximity, often as the result of inconsistent responsiveness from the caregiver over time.
Attachment in adult relationships
While a child’s early attachment style may look different from its attachment style as an adult, research has shown that early attachment styles can help predict behavior patterns in adulthood. For instance, according to Kendra Cherry (2020), securely attached children often grow up to be adults who seek social support, maintain long-term relationships, express vulnerability, and have good self-esteem. Additionally, anxiously attached children often grow up to be adults who are reluctant to become close to others, struggle to trust that their partner loves them, and endure great distress when a relationship ends. Cherry also writes that children with avoidant attachment may become adults who avoid close, intimate relationships, struggle to share how they feel with others, and invest little in romantic relationships. Finally, children with disorganized attachment may grow into adults who lack a clear attachment pattern, often sending mixed signals that translate into push-and-pull behaviors towards their romantic partner. They simultaneously desire and fear closeness.
Pursuers and withdrawers
Another way to visualize how attachment shows up in adult relationships is to consider that there is a pursuer and a withdrawer in most relationships. These roles are not always clear or consistent, and each person can be a little bit of both. Generally speaking, though, the pursuer is typically the partner with a more anxious attachment style, while the withdrawer displays more of an avoidant attachment style. It is also possible that a person with a disorganized attachment might display both the pursuer and withdrawer role at different times. Fortunately, it is not imperative to find the perfect attachment label or box for ourselves or our partner. These labels are more of a general description to help us make sense of how we relate to one another and understand how we tend to react when we are in relationship distress.
How to address your attachment style
Once you have a general sense of your attachment style, you can take steps to address the challenges that might arise when you go into attachment distress. Just like with children and their caregivers, adults experience attachment distress when they feel disconnected or unable to access their partner’s emotional accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement. Adults might also experience attachment distress when the sense of harmony is disrupted, as with fighting. Remember, attachment is an emotional bond, so it makes sense that if we feel unable to reach our partner emotionally, or if we feel a lack of harmony, distress would ensue. Generally, pursuing partners become clingy and demanding, while withdrawers become numbed out and shut down as a reaction to attachment distress. These reactions can quickly lead to unproductive, negative cycles of conflict that can be tricky to resolve.
In order to soothe your attachment distress, exit a negative cycle, and feel more secure with your partner, it helps to do the following:
- Identify your feelings of distress, and understand how they are getting triggered
- Acknowledge your reactivity, take responsibility for your behaviors
- Learn to self-soothe
- Ask your partner for what you need in order to feel comfort
We are all wired for attachment, designed to develop lasting emotional bonds with our primary attachment figures. At birth, our mother typically fills the role of the primary attachment figure, but our partner normally takes over as we age. We never outgrow our need for proximity, comfort, and responsiveness from “our person.” Attachment exists from the cradle to the grave.
Need a bit more help?
Sometimes the need for support extends beyond self-help. If you want help understanding how your attachment style shows up in your adult love relationship, schedule an appointment today. Our therapists are available if you live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started. We offer virtual and in-person sessions.