Attachment Theory 101

A short intro to the science of adult attachment.

Posted by Amit Ghosh on January 07, 2020 · 18 mins read

Attachment is one big part of human experience. In everyday life, we are attached to our ego, our wealth and to our partners, friends and families. But in this article, our primary concern is regarding attachment to our partners. Before delving into the details, let us remind why psychology is essential for improving our lives.

Importance of Psychology

Typical Education and knowledge of various types of philosophy primarily make us aware of the external world, i.e. the world outside of us( or our mind). Philosophy can reveal to us various ways we are being limited for self-expression. The chains that the society or the current culture or our government, i.e. any external system has placed upon us becomes evident. And by rejecting and rebelling against those impositions, we become the rebel. But even then, we are not free. Because the shackles of our mind are far greater than what society can impose on us. And this is where, psychology helps us immensely, to identify and hopefully break free of self-imposed shackles.

What is Attachment?

According to Bowlby, the pioneer in attachment theory, Attachment is a profound emotional bond that connects two persons across time and space.

Since it is across time and space, attachment to particular important figures in our lives can affect us even when they are no longer present in our life.

Basically, any emotional bond we have with another person comes under attachment. And the critical point is that it need not be a positive emotional connection. Every bit of hatred, jealousy, anger is also attachment.

Attachment theory was first developed for understanding how children attach to their primary caregiver. The primary caregiver is someone who has most of the time taken care of the child and spent the most time with him/her. Later, this attachment theory has been adapted and used to understand how adults attach to their romantic partners.

To understand how researchers were able to diagnose different types of attachment present in children, we have to learn about the experimental procedure followed by the researchers.

The Strange Situation Experiment

The Strange Situation experiment, devised by Mary Ainsworth is as follows.

  • At first, both the parent and child are present in the room. The child is given some new toys to explore.
  • Then a stranger enters the room and talks with the parent.
  • After talking with the stranger briefly, the parent leaves the room in a clearly noticeable manner by the child.
  • The child is left alone in the room with the stranger. The parent comes back after a while and comforts the infant.
  • In another variety, the parent leaves first and the stranger comes after some time. In between the child is left completely alone for some time.

Now, the attachment of the child with the parent was categorized by noticing how much did the child explore the room and the toys when away from the parent and how did the child react when the parent left and after the parent came back.

At first, three distinct types of attachment was developed. Namely,

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious-ambivalent
  3. Anxious-avoidant

Later, one more type was added called

    4. Disorganized.

Now let me explain what do these terms mean.

Secure attachment: In this situation, the child explores freely while the caregiver is present. While the parent leaves, the child may get visibly upset, but upon returning of the parent, the child will be assured and happy again.

Anxious-ambivalent: In this situation, The child did not explore much, preferring to stay close to the parent. The child showed physical symptoms of anxiety when the parent left. After the parent returned, the child did not calm down. The continued showing mixed feelings about the parent, i.e. ambivalent feelings.

Anxious-avoidant: In this situation, the child didn’t show any signs of visible anxiety after the parent left the room. And eventually, after the parent returned, the child did not seek closeness actively. The child mostly ignored the parent. This type is also referred to as dismissive-avoidant.

Now one question could be such: if the children from this subtype don’t show any signs of anxiety during the time the parent departs, then why is the first part of the name called anxious? Well, through subsequent research, it was found that while these children do their best to suppress showing any emotion to the outside, the physical symptoms tell a different story. Increase in blood pressure and heartbeat indicated that they also experience acute stress during abandonment. Therefore, both anxious-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant terms are used to refer to this subtype.

Disorganized: This last subtype came about when the researchers could not fit all the children in three categories. Thus the need for a fourth subtype was needed. The children belonging to this subtype did not show any clear evidence of only anxious or avoidant behaviour during the strange situation experiment. But, predominantly during the times of abandonment by the parent, they showed significant signs of stress and fear. And physical movements that children do to prevent themselves from crying such as putting a hand behind the neck or tensely cocking the head. The disorganized term emphasis the disorganized emotions these children have. Neither wanting closeness through anxious behaviour or distance through avoidance behaviour. This attachment is predominant when the child fears the parent, so much as to even if they seek closeness, the parent is too frightening to approach. This approach-avoidance behaviour enables a certain degree of closeness in the face of a scary or unfathomable parent.

Causes of Insecure Attachment

Now that we have defined each attachment type let us explore briefly what ongoing research suggests as the cause of the insecure attachment types arising in childhood. And after exploring the roots, we will delve into how these attachments translate to attachment in adult lives.

The primary cause, in one sentence, is an emotional disconnect between the child and the parent during the upbringing of the child.

  • Usually, parents who are not emotionally healthy themselves, which could be for various reasons, carry unhealthy emotional interactions with their child and thus painting a very distorted reality of love and connection to the child early in life.
  • Parents who are unable to love themselves, enmesh their life with the child. This, in turn, makes them too controlling of their children’s behaviour, as they hope to find happiness through the child.
  • In many cases, physical abuses also occur, but for most cases, emotional abuse is enough to traumatise the child. This emotional abuse can take place in many forms, such as the inconsistent behaviour of the parent during the times of stressful events. Lack of affection towards the child.
  • The child’s emotional needs are often not met, and the child thus comes to believe that the communication of emotional needs does not influence the caregiver.
  • Some of the ways the behaviour of the parent can cause emotional trauma are, accusing the child of making them unhappy or instilling fear in children by behaving erratically and punishing as a way of controlling the child’s freedom. In many cases, the parents mistake their feelings of lack belonging and the desire to get love from their child, for genuine love and concern for the child’s wellbeing.
  • In many cases, we see the parent being raised in an unhealthy home by their parents propagate the same unhealthy attachment styles to their children.
  • Other pathways to unhealthy attachment may feature a parent’s unresolved trauma or loss. Such experiences may lead a parent to display subtly frightening, frightened, or dissociative behaviours toward their infant.
  • Unhealthy parenting can also happen when the parent is mentally ill such as depressed without any medication. Prolonged separation between the child and primary caregiver also results in attachment issues.

Transition to Adult Attachment

This attachment theory, as prescribed above, is only valid for children below 20 months. When transitioning into a young adult and beyond, here it gets tricky.

There haven’t been enough large scale studies done on adults for adult attachment. It is not always the case that the child attachment is carried forward to adult life.

Adult attachment can come from child attachment. But also, it can come from various traumatic events happening during growing up. It can also form during adolescence through unhealthy emotional attachment to parents. Or it can also develop after physical and sexual abuse. It can come from extremely unhealthy romantic relationships too.

Adult attachment is more complicated than child attachment. Still, it can be viewed in the same model as child attachment to a fairly accurate degree.

Adult attachment issues are most obvious in romantic relationships. The relationship which the kid had during growing up with attachment figures, is reflected back to romantic partners during adulthood.

Because, in a way, in adulthood, we become an individual and stop being dependent on our parents for survival. We learn to stop depending on parents for our needs to be met. But, for adults with insecure attachment issues, the focus then shifts to their partners. And it doesn’t help that the modern culture about romantic relationships portray that our partners are supposed to be the single solution to all our problems in social life.

The vital point to consider is that attachment wounded individual doesn’t learn how to self soothe. That is, during the times when someone experiences negative emotions, (which all people do, regardless of being secure or insecure) insecure people can not deal with that emotion. It becomes overwhelming to them, too painful to bear. And the insecure coping mechanisms give immediate relief in the short term from painful emotions. These coping mechanism can be in the form of avoidance or enmeshment. Depending on the individual’s specific attachment style, these painful emotions could be of loneliness, of lack of love and appreciation, fear of engulfment, jealousy etc.

In the short term, these coping mechanisms help them. It helps them from the immediate danger of being in pain. But in the long run, it perpetuates the cycle and most never grow up and never understand how to stop the cycle.

They keep living the same feelings over and over until some come searching for help either online or from books and therapists etc. For most situations, they never realise the actual issues. They keep thinking that there is nothing wrong with them; there is something wrong with the world. This victim mentality becomes a significant obstacle to live a healthier life. The suffering continues.

I don’t want to delve into detail about each adult attachment styles in this article. Because there are lots of articles and books that are written by qualified professionals that you should read. This is meant to be a basic introduction. With that said, typically, the three insecure attachment in children are also observed in adult attachment.

On a Positive Note

One thing I want to discuss, though. This insecure attachment doesn’t have to be a disadvantage in every way. To illustrate, (this is perhaps a terrible example) when someone is born blind, they learn to use other senses much better than most people who are not born blind. The same can be said about insecurely attached people. In some particular scenarios, insecurely attached people have a head start.

  • Anxious subtype people are typically very generous and empathic. To most people, this is a good thing. Only in case of attachment figures, this becomes a problem when, despite not wanting help, the anxious person keeps helping and violating the boundaries. They can not resist not helping, because it helps them to feel less pain over separation and feeling worthless.
  • Similarly, the avoidant subtype person learns to be independent and self-sufficient, and that’s a good thing for the most part. But in relationships, they are not being independent from a great sense of self-confidence. Instead, they are being independent because they have a fear of commitment and engulfment. This doesn’t help to make a healthy relationship.
  • And the fearful-avoidant subtype person, because of their highly emotional nature, understands and picks up the emotions of others very accurately. They can also be very expressive and full of life in situations that do not trigger attachment wounds. But in situations that trigger attachment wounds, that excess of emotions turn back on them to create a self echoing emotional hell. Since the fearful-avoidant do not have a fixed coping mechanism, depending on circumstances, they either become anxious or avoidant.

Summarizing

  • In very simple words, securely attached individuals are those who have a positive view of themselves and a positive view of others.
  • Anxious individuals have a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others.
  • Avoidant individuals have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of others.
  • And dismissive/fearful avoidants have a negative view of themselves and a negative view of others.

One Mandatory Caution

Before I end, I want to emphasise one caution that many people make equating hard sciences with soft sciences. Always take sciences such as psychology with a grain of salt because we are still in the infancy stage of these sciences. It would be a grave mistake to consider the current understanding of attachment theory of Bowlby as the final and concrete knowledge about this. Human beings are complex, and there are many avenues we haven’t even explored.

Don’t try to fit yourself or others into a pattern rigidly. And in the process suffer more than you need to because someone told you so and so.

For further reading, I suggest these below-mentioned resources.

[1] Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Amir Lavine

[2] Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner by Jeb Kinnison

[3] Insecure in Love by Leslie Becker-Phelps

If you felt that I provided some value through this article, then give me feedback to motivate me to continue writing.

I wish you the best of luck in the journey of self-exploration.