Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed the theory of attachment to help explain why infants became so distressed when separated from their parents.
Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth performed an experiment that separated babies from mothers for a short time.
They came up with three main categories of attachment based on how babies responded to their mothers leaving and then reuniting with them.
Babies who got upset at the parent leaving but were easily comforted upon their return were labeled “secure”.
Babies who became extremely distressed when parents left and were not easily comforted when parents came back were labeled “anxious”.
Babies who didn’t seem distressed when parents left and who actively avoided contact once the parent returned were labeled “avoidant”.
The responses of the babies correlated to relationship patterns in the home. The secure children had parents who were responsive to their needs.
The anxious and avoidant children had parents who didn’t respond to their needs or were inconsistent in their care.
Attachment follows us into adulthood
Unfortunately for some of us, attachment follows us into adulthood and affects the way we relate to others and the world. This will have a dramatic impact on our relationships.
It’s common sense that people with secure attachment would feel confident that their partner will meet their needs. They will find it easy to depend on others and be there for others when needed.
Anxious attachment will cause someone to feel insecure in their relationship. They will be quickly frustrated if needs are not meant. They are the ones who appear clingy and needy and who end up repelling their partners, the opposite of their heart’s desire.
Avoidant people will tell themselves they don’t need close relationships. They will not feel comfortable asking for and receiving help and they will not want anyone to be too dependent on them.
If this weren’t bad enough, it seems we have little control over the relationships we choose. Because we gravitate to relationships that look like those with our primary caregivers, we have adopted a set of beliefs around what to expect from people and from the world.Because we gravitate to relationships that look like those with our primary caregivers, we have adopted a set of beliefs around what to expect from people and from the world. Click To Tweet
So, if we expect not to have our needs met, we’ll seek out people who will meet that expectation. Or if you’re lucky enough to have secure attachment you’ll gravitate to partners who are willing to take care of your needs and for you to take care of theirs.
How to know your attachment style
A basic way to determine your attachment style is by choosing a paragraph below that you most closely relate to:
A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
A fourth category called disorganized attachment arises when a parent is inconsistent and unreliable. The child does not know which parent she will get from one moment to the next and therefore does not know whether the parent will be a source of comfort or terror. Examples of this could be a parent with an addiction or mental illness.
It’s easy to see how difficulty in relationships can be attributed to our attachment “style”. If you were not aware of your attachment style how could you have prevented it from sabotaging your relationships?If you were not aware of your attachment style how could you have prevented it from sabotaging your relationships? Click To Tweet
Many of us have trouble understanding why our relationships have failed. It turns out the actions of our caregivers when we were mere infants had much to do with our inability to relate to others.
Stay tuned for the next post in which we’ll delve into the anxious attachment style.