In forming long-term relationships with clients, I’ve come to appreciate and utilize Attachment Theory. The theory purports that the childhood bonds formed with our caregivers shape how we relate to others and ourselves for the rest of our lives. In connection with others, we will either seek what is familiar to us or try to re-create accustomed patterns – this is our attachment style. For some of us, this is a helpful tendency. If our relationships were warm and attuned then we will seek out similar feeling relationships. Conversely, if our relationships with caregivers were conflict-ridden or inconsistent then we will unconsciously seek out others that will fulfill these expectations or create that same dynamic with partners.
Researcher Mary Ainsworth and her 'Strange Situation' study (done in the 1960’s-70’s) were crucial in understanding how our attachment style forms during our infancy. While previous generations of researchers and psychologists already placed value on early childhood development, Ainsworth's broad categorization of attachment styles helped adults more easily understand the effects of their childhood on their adult relationships. Through observing the reactions of young children and their primary caregiver, usually the mom, Ainsworth assessed the quality of the infant-parent relationship a.k.a. attachment style. The ‘Strange Situation’ study was conducted in a few systematic steps. First, a caregiver and infant would play in a room together for some minutes, then a stranger would enter and be present with the infant along with the parent. After a few minutes, the caregiver would leave the room then return shortly thereafter, all the while Ainsworth and her researchers observed through a two-way mirror.
Based on her observations, Ainsworth developed four categories of infant-parent attachment style: 1. Secure attachment 2. Insecure-anxious attachment 3. Insecure-avoidant attachment 4. Insecure-disorganized attachment. Attachment styles may be thought of as parts of a continuum with secure attachment at one end and disorganized attachment on the other end. Secure attached infants played and explored freely in the presence of their caregiver and showed little fear of the stranger. When their parent left, they became upset and upon their return, were happy and soothed by them. Secure attachment reflects a child’s belief that their parent is attuned and aware of them and will help in times of distress. This safe relationship instills in a person a belief that people are generally helpful and trustworthy. Conversely, insecurely attached children carry complicated beliefs that people are unhelpful, untrustworthy, or dis-regulating. The different variations of insecurely attached children reflect caregiver relationships that are inconsistent, absent, or at worst, another source of distress for the child. Anxiously attached children were wary of strangers (even in the presence of a parent), were highly distressed when the caregiver left, and upon return of the parent were either angry or displayed helplessness. These children had caregivers that were unpredictable in their care – alternating between presence and absence. Anxious children’s big displays of anger or helplessness were seen as cries for more steady contact. Avoidant attached children mirrored the behavior of a caregiver that snubbed or avoided the child’s bids for attention. These children explored little of their environment and ignored or tepidly approached their caregiver when they returned. While these children were clearly distressed by their caregivers’ absence - their belief that their needs would not be met prevented them from making an outward show of suffering. Why cry if no one is listening? Their silent protestations were a way to have some closeness with their caregiver, but not so close as to experience the painful rejection of an absent parent. Lastly, disorganized children were symbolic of a highly dysfunctional and un-attuned caregiver-infant relationship. Sadly, these children had parents that not only rejected or ignored their children’s requests for help but may have become enraged, upset or despondent by their child’s request for help. When their caregiver returned to the room the child displayed erratic behavior, they would approach their caregiver with irregular motion and display a flat affect while clearly being distraught. The infant was displaying the inner conflict of wanting care and attention but also a fear or wariness of their caregiver. Often, the parents in these relationships had recently experienced a major trauma or had serious depression.
This study has proven to be important because attachment style has proven to carry over into adulthood and emerge in our romantic relationships, close friendships, or in our own created families. For those of us with secure attachment, we have a belief that we can trust our feelings and those that are close to us. We probably don’t have much need for psychotherapy. For those of us with some insecure attachment, our relationship with others and ourselves is more complicated. We may notice troubling patterns and tendencies that emerge over time - different partner, same issues. Sometimes we might be unpleasantly reminded of how we felt as a child or notice that we’re responding to others as we responded to our parents. Anxiety and depression may be present. If we are an anxious (pre-occupied) type, our partners may give us feedback that we’re too needy or overwhelming. Jealousy and a fear of abandonment may drive our actions. If we are avoidantly attached, we may retreat if we feel hurt or angry – it may be safer to spend time alone rather than deal with issues. Perceptions that we are frequently distant are common. Disorganized attached individuals may have chaotic relationships with others, oscillating between rage and helplessness. Craving time with another while also being terrified of them.
Thankfully our attachment style is like our brain – malleable. Through therapy or even through relationship with other securely attached individuals, we can come to change the way we relate to people and ourselves. Kindness and empathy from others teach us to be kind to others and ourselves. We come to understand much of our feelings are by-products of the attachment style or schema laid during childhood, from ages 1-5. Some of us need to deepen our trust of our feelings while others may need to learn to ignore them! The more awareness we turn towards our inner workings the greater chance we have of choosing a healthy path and avoid repeating the same detrimental patterns.
There have been many important contributions and challenges to attachment theory since its inception in the 60's. We don’t all neatly fall into one of the categories – we all exhibit some streaks of each of these styles that manifest at different times. However, the essence of the theory remains important – that our early relationships are remarkably important to our long-term well-being.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.