You just arrived at your friend’s party. How do you feel about attending? Are you excited? Nervous? Annoyed? Once you get there, what do you do first? Do you mingle, wandering the space holding causal conversation with many, or do you enter into deep one-on-one conversations? Do you like being a part of large crowds, or do you prefer to stick to a few close friends? How many people do you speak to throughout the evening? How early do you leave?

Another hypothetical: You and your partner are in a fight. What do you do? Do you try to understand their experience? Do you suppress your own feelings to end the conflict? Do you have a panic attack? Do you walk away?

Every individual’s own unique attachments style greatly influences each one of these questions.

So what exactly is “attachment”?

In short, attachment is the way we relate to others; the ability to make emotional bonds with other people. We begin to develop an attachment style as soon as we begin life. From birth, we develop our first primary attachments, our caregivers, and continue developing those attachments while gaining new ones into early and later life. In early life, these connections teach us how the world works, and how we should behave within our spheres of existence. One of these behaviors is staying close to and developing a physical and emotional connection to our caregivers. For an infant, the world is an unfamiliar and scary place. Infants do not yet know how to help or comfort themselves. For survival, infants develop attachments with their caregivers, allowing them to develop and maintain a sense of security.

Why is Attachment Important?

Early attachment experiences act as an blueprint for how we engage in social-emotional contexts throughout our life. As such, children develop expectations about later relationships based on these early interpersonal experiences. With the good enough caregiver, the caregiver is able to adapt to the needs of the child. When our caregivers are available and responsive, we as children are able to feel safe and learn that others are a reliable source of help and support. Through parental connection, we develop a sense of comfort, security. The empathic love we receive from our caregivers helps lay the foundation for an internalized sense of security. Through empathic caregiver modeling, instruction, and age-appropriate encouragement for environmental exploration, we incrementally increase our own ability to navigate frustrating situations over time and learn self-soothing coping strategies, which in turn aid us in increasing self-reliance and achieving eventual independence. As such, the formation of early life attachment bonds have been found to have long lasting effects on people’s physical health (including mortality rate), mental health, romantic relationship stability and satisfaction, friendships, professional success, and self-esteem.

Types of Attachment Styles

Psychologists and scientists have been able to examine attachment pathways, and have developed categorize for understanding how early life attachment styles influence later behavior. Generally, attachment styles in adults can be broken down into four categories:

  • Secure Attachment (low anxiety, low avoidance)
  • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment (high anxiety, low avoidance)
  • Dismissing-Avoidant Attachment (low anxiety, high avoidance)
  • Fearful-Avoidant (high anxiety, high avoidance)

Through the understanding of these attachment styles, we open the door to developing greater insights into our own motivations, and the social dynamics we find ourselves in.

Let’s explore them.

 

Secure Attachment

A secure attachment bond meets a child’s need for security, calm, and understanding, allowing for optimal psychological development of the child. A child’s developing brain organizes itself to provide a foundation based on a feeling of safety. As a child matures, this foundation can result in a healthy self-awareness, an eagerness to learn, a nuanced ability to trust others, and a heightened empathic ability. People with these positive early life attachment experiences have more friendships, are better able to negotiate conflicts, are less likely to act out and behave in negative ways, and are more confident in their developed skillsets. They are better able to deal with hardships later in life, ‘bounce back’ from unexpected setbacks more readily, and are less likely to develop depression, drug use, and/or engage in dangerous self-destructive behaviors.

In short, people with a secure attachment style are low on avoidance, and low on anxiety. They are comfortable with intimacy, and are rarely worried about rejection or preoccupied with close relationships.

The secure attachment style is a model for understanding the ideal circumstances for facilitating positive interpersonal outcomes. Realistically, very few of us can report to experiencing such immaculate caregiver responsiveness in our early lives. No parent is perfect, and the environmental systems in which we develop connections are flawed. As such, our ability to attach to and connect with others is sometimes limited in one degree or another.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

People with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles likely had primary caregivers who were inconsistent in their parenting style, sometimes engaged and responsive to the child’s needs, other times unavailable or distracted. This inconsistency may have left the child feeling anxious and uncertain about whether their needs in this “first” relationship would be met, and thus provided a model for their behavior in later relationships. This can manifest in many ways. As the labels suggest, people with this attachment style are often anxious and uncertain, lacking in self-esteem. They crave emotional intimacy but often struggle to feel that they can trust or fully rely on others. They may become fixated on one person, overly relying on one person for all their needs. They may struggle with boundaries and personal space, viewing any space between themselves and the person they overly rely on as threatening, something that can provoke panic, anger, or fear of abandonment. A person with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may develop a sense of self-worth that relies heavily on how they feel they’re being treated in social and emotional relationships with others, and they may tend to overreact to any perceived threats to a given relationship.

In short, people with anxious attachment styles are low on avoidance, and high on anxiety. They crave closeness and intimacy, and often feel very insecure about their relationships.

Dismissing-Avoidant Attachment

People with dismissing-avoidant attachment style often come from early home environments where primary caregivers were critical or rejecting of emotional displays. As infants/children they experienced anxiety because they were consistently sent the message that their emotional needs would not be met; that if these children expressed emotional needs, they were at risk of losing their caregiver entirely. As a result, these individuals quickly learn to suppress their feelings out of a survival need. They prioritize and derive pleasure in developing skills to increase self-sufficiency and self-reliance. As a result, people in this category of attachment have extremely high self-regulatory abilities and are often accomplishment or achievement focused. Conversely, the need to suppress emotionality at such an early age often results in a loss of ability for these individuals to adequately identify what their emotional experiences are, let alone feel secure enough in relational spaces to express them safely. They may avoid connection with others, feel skeptical when others express warmth or kindness, and will be quick to assume rejection by others.

In short, people with dismissing-avoidant attachment styles are high on avoidance, and low on anxiety. They utilize self-reliance to justify emotional distance, and fear relational closeness, intimacy, out of immense concern for rejection.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

This last attachment style occurs in people who responded to a either a lack of early bonding, or a disorganized type of bonding marked by confusing and overwhelming instances of inconsistent caregiver closeness and betrayal. Perhaps this child had a parent who one minute was nurturing and the next demeaning or exploitative of the child’s insecurities as punishment for some perceived offense. The disorganization of this early attachment often breeds anxiety and distrust, which endures in adulthood. These individuals want closeness and attention, having experienced it’s value intermittently, but are afraid of receiving it due to early childhood relational trauma which has left them fearful and confused. They may actively seek relationships out, but become emotionally overwhelmed when relationships becomes too serious or when the partner expresses a desire for increased intimacy. The person with fearful-avoidant attachment may respond with lashing out, by withdrawing from the relationship entirely, or by devising manipulative and relationally/emotionally abusive tactics to feel a sense of control within the relationship.

In short, people with fearful-avoidant attachment styles are high on avoidance, and high on anxiety. Both desiring and fearing closeness, they feel disorganized and insecure within relationships. To avoid the potential for being betrayed, they may withdraw or utilize emotionally abusive tactics to ensure a sense of control within interpersonal dynamic.

The good news:

Did you read this article and get nervous, identifying some of yourself in some of the insecure attachment styles? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Human emotional experiences are complex and fluid in nature. Life is nuanced and so are we! These categories are a framework for understanding different styles of attachment, but attachment can be more appropriately conceptualized as a topographical map we traverse through, rather than rigid categorical structures. Sometimes we feel anxious, sometimes we feel avoidant. The majority of people at times traverse through these interpersonal domains. The key is to be attuned. When we find ourselves “stuck” in one style most of the time, or more often than not, that is when we may want to consider asking ourselves where our insecure feelings and behaviors come from. Research suggests that attachment styles can change substantially over time, and may differ from relationship to relationship. Enduring a terrible relationship might lead to a less secure attachment orientation; a history of supportive relationships may lead to increased security. Therapy is a great medium for providing a safe connection to establish opportunities to develop relational skills and increase security within close relationships. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.