Every relationship is unique. Each one presents distinct challenges, requires unique inputs and supplies various advantages. For example, a mother-daughter bond will invariably differ from that with a sibling, and a romantic relationship from that with a friend.
However, some consistent patterns and requirements hold between all types of connections. All require sacrifice, communication and introspection. And tendencies developing in one relationship, particularly an early and formative one, often continue to appear in relationships further down the road.
Some psychologists use a framework called attachment theory to help contextualize and explain how we relate to significant figures in our lives as adults and where those tendencies may have originated.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was proposed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in 1958. His theory attempted to explain how one’s emotional connection to parental figures in early childhood, particularly between 10 to 20 months, is formative for patterns carried into later relationships. Bowlby first hypothesized his theory after analyzing a body of research indicating that animals with an absentee mother experienced resulting distress later in life.
After working as a child psychiatrist with emotionally disturbed patients at the Child Guidance Clinic in London, Bowlby suggested that children developed attachment behaviors (e.g., crying and clinging) as an evolutionary safety mechanism. When experiencing fear or stress, a young child instinctually seeks security through propinquity to their parents. Further research on Bowlby’s theory indicated that, when separated from caregivers and placed in an unfamiliar situation, children tended to react in one of three ways:
1. Secure: Although initially distraught, these infants desired comfort and were quickly reassured when their parents returned.
2. Anxious-Resistant: Children in this category were more distressed. When parents came back, they sought comfort but simultaneously seemed to ‘punish’ their parents for leaving.
3. Avoidant: Unlike the first two groups, these children showed little concern when separated from their caregivers. When reunited, the children largely disregarded or even actively avoided their parents
Later in the development of attachment theory, a fourth category was added — Disorganized-Disoriented — to describe babies exhibiting unpredictable attachment patterns.
According to Bowlby, the attachment style developed when young results in a mental model of how relationships function. The person then (consciously or subconsciously) applies this framework to future relationships, whether with romantic partners or friends. This is known as the ‘continuity hypothesis.
The Four Attachment Styles
Though developed very early in childhood, the four attachment styles manifest themselves differently in adult relationships.
1. Secure Attachment
a. Summary: Appearing in roughly 66% of adults in the U.S., the Secure attachment style is one in which the person easily trusts, feels safe in relationships, is easy to bond with and can identify and express how they are feeling. According to the Attachment Project, five conditions must be met in someone’s childhood to develop a secure attachment style. They must feel safe, seen, and known, and receive comfort, reassurance, appreciation and support to explore. The other three attachment styles technically fall into an “insecure attachment” category.
i. Positive emotions are displayed toward parents.
ii. The child is capable of being independent while still connecting with caregivers.
iii. The child is stable, even when separated from their parents.
i. The individual assumes a two-way trust and love in relationships.
ii. The individual participates in healthy and open communication.
iii. The individual has high respect for themselves.
iv. The individual can trust others.
v. The individual knows how to balance autonomy and intimacy.
2. Avoidant Attachment
a. Summary: Adults prone to form anxious-avoidant attachments generally keep their distance from forming deep relationships. Despite having many friends and seeming self-confident, they shy away from meaningful connection and vulnerability. They are fiercely independent, refusing to rely on others. Because of this distance, they quickly shut down in seemingly threatening scenarios, such as during conflict. When they do engage in relationships, they sometimes self-sabotage or look for a reason to terminate the relationship, afraid of being hurt if they allow it to continue.
i. The child seems disinterested in their parents.
ii. The child shows no signs of being upset if separated from their parents.
iii. The child doesn’t fear strangers.
i. The individual avoids cultivating close relationships.
ii. The individual protects independence at the cost of engaging with others.
iii. The individual conceals true feelings.
iv. The individual feels that relationships requiring emotional intimacy are ‘needy.’
3. Anxious Attachment
a. Summary: Those with an anxious attachment style often crave affection and attention to an abnormal extent, idolizing their significant other while demeaning themselves. They may believe that a relationship or person will make them whole. They require constant reassurance, often blaming themselves for events outside their control. Occasionally, this fear of being left by their significant other will make them unnaturally suspicious and jealous.
i. The child is needy or clingy.
ii. The child exhibits extreme distress when left by their parents.
iii. The child occasionally partakes in aggressive behavior.
i. The individual consistently fears being abandoned.
ii. The individual may be jealous.
iii. The individual frets over the state and future of their relationship.
iv. The individual is highly aware of others’ needs.
v. The individual displays low self-esteem.
vi. The individual asks for reassurance from their partner.
4. Disorganized Attachment
a. Summary: Adults with this attachment style are often hard to characterize, owing to their irregular and unpredictable patterns. They may have drastic mood swings, expressing a desire for intimacy and closeness one day while isolating themselves the next. While strongly desiring love, they are afraid to pursue it. Those with a disorganized attachment may struggle to comprehend that their partner loves them unconditionally. This often leads to a highly negative view of themselves and others.
i. The child struggles with confusion concerning their parents.
ii. The child displays inconsistent responses when left by and approached by caregivers.
i. The individual desires intimacy but is afraid of vulnerability.
ii. The individual may sabotage relationships.
iii. The individual is often distrustful.
iv. The individual is unpredictable in relationships and with emotions.
v. The individual struggles to control their emotions.
Critiques of Attachment Theory
Despite being used by psychologists, therapists and the everyday self-searcher for years, attachment theory has more recently been criticized for being overused and lacking a solid foundation. Some have attributed Bowlby’s theory development to a conglomeration of “personal and cultural confirmation biases.” They point to Bowlby’s youth, where he was distant from his mother and close to a governess, who then proceeded to leave when he was only four years old.
Some psychologists believe that social class and environment are far more influential than one’s connection with parents as a young child. Others assert that peer relationships, rather than parental relationships, have the greatest impact on a person’s attachment patterns.
While Bowlby’s theory is still widely used and undeniably contains some material of value, it is important to constantly analyze older theories through modern developments and critiques.
Discerning Your Attachment Style
If this article has sparked an interest in attachment theory and you’re looking for more information, there are plenty of sources out there! The Attachment Project has a blog with dozens of detailed articles, as well as a short 5-minute quiz where you can discover your attachment style. Diane Poole Heller’s Attachment Styles Test, which you can find here, lists 45 different statements, asking the participant to rate themselves from “Rarely/Never” to “Usually/Often.” If you’re curious, do some digging; there are an incredible number of resources out there just waiting to be explored!