Attachment Theory: What is it, and Can it Improve Your Relationships?
Romantic relationships are never perfect, and they always take work. If you've ever "done your homework" and checked out websites, Pinterest boards, or self-help books looking for ways to improve your relationship, you've likely stumbled upon some mentions of "attachment theory". What started in the 1930s as a psychological investigation on how infants connect with their parents has turned into an enduring theory on the development of human connection that is still being studied to this day. Read on as we explore these important emotional bonds, how our childhood influences our attachment style as adults, and how knowledge about our own attachment style may help us understand and improve our intimate relationships.
What is attachment?
Before we can discuss attachment theory, we need to have a working definition of attachment. Attachment was defined by John Bowlby (more on him later) as "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings". To get into a little more detail, according to Saul McLeod in Psychology Today's Attachment Theory, attachment is "a deep emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when in the presence of the attachment figure."
For the purposes of this post, we'll be thinking mostly in terms of our current romantic/intimate adult relationships (or prospective ones) and how our early childhood experiences may have affected how we attach to these loved ones later in life. That being said, we are all of course capable of and required to form many different types of attachments throughout our lives - to our parents, our partners, friends and colleagues, and our own children. Your attachment style has an effect on all of those relationships.
Attachment Theory - the basics:
John Bowlby, a psychologist following the psychoanalytic school of thought common to the era, worked in the 1930s as a psychiatrist at the Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he worked with many traumatized and emotionally disturbed children. This led him to question and study if the nature of how a child connected or "attached" with their parent or primary caregiver had a noticeable effect on that child's long-term development and emotional state. He proposed that, as an evolutionary trait, babies would automatically develop an emotional attachment to those who provided them safety and security and met their needs.
Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachments, and these are the features he was looking for in his work with babies:
- Proximity maintenance - the desire to be physically near the people we are attached to.
- Safe haven - returning to the attachment figure for safety & comfort when scared or threatened.
- Secure Base - the attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore their surroundings.
- Separation distress - anxiety which occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.
Conducting many in-depth longitudinal studies of infants and caregivers in their home environments throughout the 50s and 60s, he further developed his hypotheses and findings into what we now call Attachment Theory. His findings showed that the most critical period for development of how a child will attach to others occurs between 0 - 5 years of age. While an infant went through many different stages of attachments as they grew, they met those milestones differently based on the responsiveness of their parents. Overall, those babies who felt the most secure connection with a caregiver did demonstrate the strongest attachments and emotional regulation as they grew. He found some things that surprised him as well, like that a baby did not automatically attach most securely to the caregiver they spent the most time with, but to the one who most consistently interpreted their signals accurately and provided for their needs correctly.
While Bowlby's work focused mostly on the child-caregiver relationship and how that particular attachment affects a baby's development, many other psychologists and researchers have worked to extrapolate data from this earlier work to translate to theories that apply throughout adulthood and to other types of relationships, including our adult intimate ones. Before you blame your parents on your relationship problems, it's important to note that the attachment style thrust upon you in early childhood does not necessarily translate directly to how your adult romantic relationships will me, but many strong correlations have been identified.
Psychologists have identified different 'attachment styles' that seem to develop largely based on those earliest interactions with our caregivers. Each of these attachment styles vary in the nature and strength of the emotional bonds we form, how we feel in our intimate relationships (or about forming intimate relationships in general), and what specific triggers may 'activate' certain relational behaviors that stem from our earliest memories. Let's take a deeper look at these four main attachment styles and how the one we were raised with may affect our intimate relationships as adults.
The Four Main Attachment Styles in a Nutshell:
How it forms in childhood: As an infant, you probably had a high level of physical closeness with one or more regular caregivers,. Your caregivers were promptly responsive to your needs and recognized the ways you signaled for those needs. Your caregivers consistently helped you feel safe and secure, and communicated through emotional cues. While you weren't necessarily with a parent 24/7, you knew you could get your needs met by communicating with them, and you weren't worried that help would never come. This allowed your nervous system to develop proper and healthy attachments, and you knew those bonds were secure even when you couldn't see your caregiver, so there was likely not much separation anxiety, though you were probably happier and felt safer when you were close to one.
What it looks like in adult relationships: Adults who were raised in the ways that contribute to a secure attachment style are usually empathetic and capable of establishing safe, secure, loving relationships. They know how to set their own boundaries and respect those of others. Those with a secure attachment style typically feel happiest and most fulfilled when they are with their partner, but are also self-confident and independent enough to enjoy time on their own, without trust issues or anxiety about what their partner may be doing without them around.
Internal dialogue about relationships: "I know my partner is there for me no matter what.", "I feel so safe when I'm with you, but I trust you when I'm not.", "I love you unconditionally, and I know you love me too.", "I feel confident that I will meet the person that is just right for me.", "Things won't always be perfect between us, but we will always work on fixing any problems that arise because we matter to each other.", "You make my world a happier place, and I hope that can last for a very long time."
How it forms in childhood: An infant develops an anxious attachment style when its needs are met inconsistently by any of their caregivers. If this is your attachment style, you may have had wonderful, caring parents most of the time, but some outside traumas or occasional miscommunications led you to feel you couldn't necessarily always count on them to provide what you needed, physically or emotionally. Your nervous system developed around that inconsistency - the fact that sometimes things were fine, but sometimes you went for a long time without the attention you required. You needed constant communication, validation, and reassurance to feel peace within yourself. As you grew a little older, you may have even felt like you needed to behave in a certain way to please your caregivers in order to get what you needed, which led to feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, or the perceived need to be a "people pleaser". As a person who developed an anxious attachment style, you've likely always had a hard time self-regulating your emotions, and you become an easily triggered worrier.
What it looks like in adult relationships: An anxious attachment style is apparent in a person who always seems to be waiting for something to go wrong in their relationship. This attachment style is sometimes referred to as "preoccupied attachment", because an individual with this attachment style is constantly preoccupied with the uncertainty of an attachment. No matter how good things may be in a given moment, this attachment style obsesses over what will happen next, and how any disaster will likely cause the end of the relationship. Those with an anxious attachment style to their romantic partner are always on edge or 'waiting for the other shoe to drop', certain that something good can't last forever, and that if a relationship doesn't last, it's probably their fault. That being said, when they are romantically attached, they desire to be around their partner or deeply communicating with them as much as possible, often leading to labels of being clingy or needy. This is the attachment style that most often leads to harmfully codependent behaviors, but these can be worked on to get to a healthier and more secure attachment style and relationship.
Internal dialogue about relationships: "I love them, but what if I'm not in love with them?", "We've been fighting a lot lately...I think we're about to break up.", "I don't believe in soulmates or finding 'the one'...I'll be lucky if I wind up with anyone who puts up with me.", "I think they love me, but I can't be sure.", "What if they dump me?", "Forever's a long time to make a relationship work...I doubt it'll last that long.", "My partner is my whole world and I am so afraid of losing them.", "I haven't heard from my partner all day...I must have done something wrong.", "What if their feelings for me aren't as strong as my feelings for them?"
How it forms in childhood: A dismissive-avoidant attachment style stems from only a portion of an infant's needs being met, or having those needs met by an inconsistent and changing number of different caregivers or in a chaotic household environment. These young children have a hard time bonding to a primary caregiver, as they often have their cries ignored or misinterpreted and are unable to get the communication and emotional reassurance they need. Therefore their nervous system develops with a great deal of improvised (not necessarily healthy) self-soothing tactics because the child comes to learn they can't rely on others.
What it looks like in adult relationships: Those with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style have a hard time forming secure relationships because they find it easier to just be alone. They would rather not have to rely on anyone else to meet their emotional needs, nor have someone else relying on them. Adults with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may gravitate towards brief & fleeting casual relationships over long-term, intimate ones, or they purposely seek out partners who are just as independent as they are, so they both only have to get so emotionally close. If you have this attachment style, you may try and convince yourself that you don't need close intimate relationships with anyone, but you do...all humans do. We are hardwired to form connections and attachments, so fighting that urge to connect with someone only makes your life harder.
Internal dialogue about relationships: "I don't need anyone else, and I don't want anyone else to need me." , "Love is stupid.", "Relationships are overrated.", "I can tell my partner's not happy right now, but it's fine, they'll get over it.", "Ugh, they're so clingy...I'd rather be by myself.", "Don't I want a life partner like everyone else? Meh. *shrug* "
How it forms in childhood: Those who develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style were unfortunately often neglected or abused in their household as an infant or very young child. Not only were your needs not met consistently, but you were caused some outright physical or psychological harm by those who were supposed to be entrusted to care for you. This may happen when a caregiver is dealing with their own ongoing or unresolved traumas. As a result, your nervous system developed erratically, replacing what should have been feelings of trust with feelings of fear and confusion. There may often be cases of PTSD or other underlying mental and emotional health conditions in individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, and this style will require the most "work" to get to a point where they can feel secure and safe in a stable relationship.
What it looks like in adult relationships: Those with a fearful-avoidant attachment style are often afraid to open themselves up to love, because they're afraid it's always going to end in hurt. Individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style have a hard time connecting with others, while simultaneously craving emotional closeness. They have a hard time trusting even the people they feel closest with, and they don't want to "give their heart away" for fear of it being broken. These characteristics can lead to those with this attachment style frequently winding up in dysfunctional or harmful relationships due to their desperation for emotional closeness, even if it comes with some problematic consequences.
Internal dialogue about relationships: "I would open myself up to love, but I'm afraid I would just get my heart broken.", "I know my partner just wants me to trust them, but that's asking a lot.", "Getting married or committing to a serious relationship is just asking for trouble down the road.", "Things were good between us last week, but this week has been rough...I don't know if we can come back from another fight.", "I love them so much and I can tell they love me, but I'm scared it won't work out so I should sabotage the relationship so it can't work out.", "Whatever happens, happens. I'll be fine either way.", "I don't want to get hurt again."
Attachment Style Activation (or "what happens when things go wrong"):
Each attachment style has a different way of handling conflict in their relationships. Anxiously attached adults, especially, hyperfocus on anything they perceive as a threat to their relationship. This means they may get very angry or frustrated by anything they see as a potential danger to their love. Anything from the tiniest disagreement or their partner not texting them back as quickly as they usually would can "trigger" them and activate their attachment system - the parts of their brain that seek connection, comfort, and safety. When this attachment system is activated, those with an anxious attachment style may engage in some "saving behaviors". It's their way of trying to salvage what they see as a fragile relationship hanging on by a thread...and they feel like they maybe just cut the thread. Unfortunately these behaviors can sometimes backfire, causing their partner to feel overburdened or pushed away further by the emotional neediness of the anxious partner.
Similarly, those with avoidant attachment styles can also be "activated", usually resulting in self-sabotaging behaviors or other harmful efforts towards their relationships or partners. Behaviors like ghosting, callous breakups texted rather than done in person, or creating self-fulfilling prophecies ("They're probably going to dump me because they're unhappy when I don't spend much time with them, so if I don't spend much time with them, they'll be unhappy and dump me.") are all common in individuals with an avoidant attachment style. It can be helpful to recognize these if you're dealing with a partner who sometime engages in these detrimental or "saving" behaviors.
Not too long ago, when I found myself Googling "relationship anxiety" because I was feeling terribly anxious during a tiny rough patch I was going through with my partner, I realized I have an anxious attachment style...and all my search results confirmed it! I stumbled upon and listened to this podcast and felt very validated when I mentally ticked every box as she listed what a partner may have done to activate the anxiety, and how the anxiety caused me to respond. While validated in my feelings and reactions to these triggers, I also felt frustrated. Why was I like this? Why did every tiny inconvenience in my relationship send me spiraling out of control with thoughts of fear, loss, and loneliness? This is when I really set out to research attachment theory, and what I could do to shift to a more secure style of attachment.
Striving for Security:
When it comes to forming and maintaining healthy adult relationships, the obvious conclusion is that both partners having a Secure attachment style is most conducive to long-term positive outcomes. Based on everyone's upbringing and unique experiences, though, it may not be possible for all individuals to ever attain a secure attachment style. No matter how good their relationship may seem, feeling totally secure is just not going to happen based on how they are "wired", which is largely based on how they were raised.
If you feel that you're presently any attachment style other than Secure, don't worry...you're not doomed to wander the earth alone or piling up failed relationships. Even an avoidant attachment style is not a relationship death sentence. Everyone...yes, even you Mr./Ms. Closed Off & Cynical...can find ways to make things work with your loved one...you might just have to do a little more work on yourself to get there. It is possible to "heal" your attachment style and get to a secure one by working to address the childhood traumas that may have made your attachment style less than secure. You can accomplish this healing in many ways, and what works will vary from person to person. The common ways to address problems with attachment style are through professional therapy (solo and as a couple), meditation or yoga to help cultivate a more secure nervous system,
Even when actively working towards developing a more secure attachment style, people are likely to slip back into their natural behavioral responses and old habits of interaction. While knowing and being able to reference your current attachment style isn't an "excuse", per se, for certain behaviors, it may help just to acknowledge to yourself or point out to your partner that your attachment style - which was developed in your infancy and is largely out of your control - may be contributing to your feelings or behavior in a given situation. Our innate response is to behave in a way that encourages attachment to a figure that makes us feel safe, so our relational behaviors - no matter how desperate or needy they may seem to some - are just a bid for connection with our loved ones. We are all only human; sometimes admitting that, while also showing our loved ones we're working on it, can be all it takes to resolve an argument or improve your bond for the long haul.
Where to Explore More:
If any of this content has piqued your interest in how these theories about childhood attachments affect our relationships as adults, there are tons of other resources out there where you can learn more.
This book: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it can help you Find & Keep Love by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.
These podcasts: Let's Talk Attachments by licensed marriage & family therapist and attachment coach Jessica DaSilva, Project Love's Using Attachment Theory to Help Our Relationships to Grow, and Attachment Theory in Action with Karen Doyle Buckwalter.
These websites, many of which served as my sources for this post, and also have TONS of other great content:
- The Attachment Project - this one contains a handy quiz to help you figure out your attachment style if you're unsure about it, plus tons of great articles about healing and improving attachments.
- SimplyPsychology - more in-depth looks at attachment theory, attachment styles, and more.
- This article on HelpGuide.org about How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships, and this one on VeryWellMind.com with more about how those attachment styles develop.
- This scholarly look at Attachment Theory and all its implications in child development and future relationships.