Has anyone ever told you that you have attachment issues? Over the past few years, a growing number of clients have come to me asking for counselling around relationship and attachment issues. While “relationship issues” is a vast topic, it’s also pretty easy to grasp. “Attachment”, on the other side, is a concept that I have heard used and misused many times, which is why I want to take some time today to explain what we actually mean when we talk about attachment theory and how, indeed, it can help us understand and improve our relationships.
As humans, we are fundamentally social, and attachment is hard-wired into us. We form our first bonds with our caretakers, and these define how we later engage with our friends, colleagues, and romantic partners, with this last category being especially significant. Depending on our earliest interactions and the responses we receive from our first caregivers, we can develop various attachment patterns that may be more or less adaptive.
There are three different categories
Our attachment patterns, that is, the ways in which we engage with other people, fall under three different categories that broadly describe our tendencies. The anxious attachment style refers to a pattern where people tend to feel preoccupied about their partner’s love and whether they are loved back. People with an anxious style tend to appear needier and seek out reassurance from their partners. An anxious style is cultivated by caretakers who are inconsistent in their responses to the child, sometimes being available.
Those with an avoidant style tend to be distant and uninvolved in their relationships. They value their independence a lot, but they can come off as detached and lacking closeness. Avoidant partners tend to withdraw at any sign of trouble and may push people away when they are uncertain of the relationship. The avoidant style is shaped by caregivers who are absent, neglectful, or less responsive to a child’s physical and emotional needs.
The secure style is the most favourable one, as it tends to make a person more confident in their relationships. People with a secure style tend to feel comfortable in their relationships, giving and receiving love. They can be vulnerable and connect with others but can also handle distance and tolerate uncertainty. This is the most desirable attachment style because it allows for a good balance and a higher level of satisfaction. It is shaped by caregivers who respond appropriately to the child’s physical and emotional needs.
Studies about attachment
Studies about attachment were initially done with little children. Authors Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the original theorists behind the concept, studied infants and tried to identify how children behaved in the absence of a caregiver. They studied this for many years. The children were placed in environments (for brief periods of time) where their mother would leave, and then the researchers would see how the children reacted to their absence and their return. The patterns they saw fell, roughly, under the three categories described above. Some children got very upset but were quickly soothed by the caregiver’s return (secure attachment). Others seemed not to care but, in further research, showed an extremely high level of stress that was not relieved by the caregiver’s return (avoidant). Some were upset during and after the caregiver’s absence (anxious). Upon further investigation, the researchers found that adults showed similar patterns of behaviour, albeit in a more sophisticated way.
Why is it important to understand one’s attachment style?
It can explain the problems that you may continuously find in a relationship and repeat over with different people. It can explain your partner’s behaviours and their sudden need for reassurance or reticence to connect. It also gives us a way to find solutions to these problems. If you want to find out your attachment style and that of your partner, here is an excellent quiz to get started: Compatibility Quiz.
Additionally, the styles have more nuances. You might benefit from choosing a particular behavioural strategy with a partner with a specific style, changing some behaviours that are keeping your relationship down, or communicating in one way or another. To find out more about all the attachment styles and apply this directly to your relationship, Attached: The Book will be a great help.
Attachment theory is a beautiful approach to use to improve your relationships. We know that attachment is hard-wired into our brains since birth, but our environment can shape how we build our relationships in less-than-ideal forms. By understanding the topic in-depth, we can become happier and more fulfilled within the context of our social and romantic bonds.
So, what do you say? Do you understand attachment theory a little bit better now? What is your attachment style, and how has figuring this out helped you improve your own relationship?