What is Attachment Theory?

'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.' - Philip Larkin

Attachment theory does not relate to the concept of 'attachment parenting', which as far I know means that the child and parent are literally physically attached as much as possible.

Attachment theory is about how we form bonds and attach to our primary caregiver as an infant and can impact on how we relate to others during our whole lives. This is why is can be so useful to discover our 'attachment style', via therapy, reading,

workshops, and whatever other means, as this understanding can help us have healthier, more loving and less co-dependent relationships.

Conceptualised in the 1950's by John Bowlby, he defines attachment as 'lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.' Bowlby observed infants in his work in a children's hospital and noticed that they became very distressed when separated from their mothers. Other caregivers coming in to feed them did not appease the infants and Bowlby concluded from this that the idea that infants attached to whomever fed them was false (although this is true for the beginning of a baby's life). The making of a secure attachment is care and responsiveness to social cues like smiling and crying, not food.

There are three stages of attachment:

Stranger anxiety - response to the arrival of a stranger.

Separation anxiety - distress level when separated from a carer, the degree of comfort needed on return.

Social referencing - looking to caregiver for guidance on how to respond to something new. This is how an infant develops a secure base.

The child initially forms an attachment with one caregiver, and uses this as a 'base' for exploring the world and other people (the child goes on to form other attachments within a year of life). This initial relationship is how the child models future relationships, how it learns how to 'be', and how to 'be safe' in relationships. You can see how important the primary care giver's role is in being a 'secure base' for the child. If the primary caregiver is unpredictable with the child, neglectful, angry and so on, the child forms the view that they must be, for example, very needy in relationships to get what they need, or they must be very loud in relationships to get what they need, and so on. If the primary caregiver is predictable, caring and responsive, the child will likely to develop a 'secure attachment' and will go on to feel 'secure' in relationships. The crucial time for a child to form a secure attachment is up to 5 years.

There are four types of attachment styles we may discover about ourselves in our adult years. Our style will manifest in our adult relationships and friendships, and we may notice a pattern.

Secure attachment

Anxious - preoccupied

Dismissive - avoidant

Fearful - avoidant

Secure Attachment:

Our parents help us organize our emotions until we develop the ability to do this for ourselves. Because the child learns that he/she can feel scared or distressed, and then get comfort and be helped to feel better, they learn that negative emotions can be tolerated and managed effectively. By extension, once they grow into adulthood, they don’t worry too much about other people leaving them or about getting hurt in relationships. They know that they can tolerate such pain if it comes, so they are free to be themselves and not behave in an overly needy, aggressive, or demanding fashion.

Because secure children’s emotions are mirrored accurately, the children themselves acquire the ability, not only to regulate, but to accurately identify and label their own emotional experiences. The ability to recognize and label one’s personal emotional experiences, in turn, is a pre-requisite for being able to accurately recognize and understand the emotional experiences of others…an ability that we commonly refer to as empathy. By extension, people with high awareness of emotions in themselves and who are empathetic, are able to sustain more deeply rewarding interpersonal relationships.

As this process is continually repeated and children begin to internalizing the parents’ secure base functions (i.e., validating emotions; self-soothing; problem-solving new strategies or adopting new goals) they develop the confidence to act independently. Accordingly, as they mature through adolescence into adulthood, secure children become increasingly efficacious individuals who believe that; (a) they are lovable and worthy of support, (b) others as available and responsive, and (c) the world is a safe and predictable place. By extension, they have strong frustration tolerance, can tolerate ambiguity in relationships and at work, can deal effectively with others (without being over or under responsive), and can overcome the challenges that life throws in the way.

(taken from Psychology Today)


Compared with securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied

with attachment tend to have less positive views about themselves, while holding positive views about others. They often doubt their worth as a person, and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, emotional deregulation, worry, and impulsiveness in their relationships. A child with an unpredictable primary care giver could likely adopt this attachment style to survive the uncertainty of their relationship with the care giver, becoming clingy and insecure in relationships, never knowing if they are safe or not, and needing a lot of reassurance. In their older relationships, others are a source of comfort and nurturance, but that comfort could go away at any moment, so they feel anxious within those relationships.

A person with this attachment style finds it important to be self-reliant and self-sufficient, not feeling comfortable on depending on others. The desire for independence often appears as an attempt to avoid attachment altogether. People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to suppress and hide their feelings, and they tend to deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the sources of rejection. This self reliance and rejection of intimacy could have begun when the person was a child and negotiating not having their needs met by the primary care giver. It is likely that the primary care giver never showed this child that it was safe to depend on or trust others.
People with losses or other trauma, such as sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence may often develop this type of attachment. They want close relationships but find it very difficult to trust others or to depend on them. They worry that they will be hurt if they allow themselves to be too close to others. They tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness, and the mixed feelings are combined with sometimes unconscious, negative views about themselves and their attachments. They commonly view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness from their attachments, and they don't trust the intentions of their attachments. Similar to the dismissive-avoidant attachment style, people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style seek less intimacy from attachments and frequently suppress and deny their feelings. Because of this, they are much less comfortable expressing affection. These people may have been shown when they were children that close relationships are dangerous.
This is a tiny bite of a truly enormous subject. I recommend reading up on it or/and seeing a therapist to gain more insights. It is fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) to discover our own 'attachment style', but it can also be necessary in order to have healthy relationships and to interrupt repeat patterns of unhelpful behaviour. We can really trace so many of our 'issues' back to our attachment style. But as with everything, once it is brought to our awareness, we can do something about it, learn how to attach healthily, helpfully and compassionately, and go on to have great friendships and relationships.

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