Attachment theory, originally proposed and researched by John Bowlby in the 1960s and 1970s, is a way to understand how children interact in relationships with others as a result of the dynamics in their relationships with their early caregivers.
Bowlby suggested that when children are raised in an environment in which they feel confident that their primary caregivers will be there for them when needed (no more so or less so), they are less likely to experience anxiety than children raised in an environment that doesn’t afford this assurance and security. He also proposed that this confidence develops during the years of infancy, childhood and adolescence, and that the expectations formed during those years remains relatively unchanged for the rest of a person’s life. Finally, he put forward that these expectations for the future are directly tied to whether their caregivers were responsive to the child’s actually needs in the early years of life.
Four Dimensions to Attachment
Bowlby believed that there were four dimensions to attachment:
- Proximity maintenance – the desire to be physically close to our attachment figures
- Safe haven – returning to our attachment figure for comfort and safety when feeling frightened or threatened
- Secure base – the attachment figure is a secure base from which the child can explore the surrounding environment
- Separation distress – the anxiety that occurs when the caregiver is absent
Attachment and Romance
In the late 1980s, attachment research was applied to romantic relationships, and adults were found to have one of four attachment styles:
- Secure – People with this attachment style become emotionally close to others easily; they are comfortable depending on others and being depended upon; they don’t worry about being alone; don’t fear that others won’t like them; view themselves, their partners and their relationships positively; feel satisfied and adjusted in their relationships; feel comfortable with and seek both intimacy and independence. This attachment style develops in the context of a caregiver who is available and who responds appropriately to his or her child’s attachment behavior (moving toward and away from the caregiver), and who is capable of regulating both his or her positive and negative emotions.
- Anxious-preoccupied – People with this attachment style seek complete emotional intimacy, but find that partners are reluctant to get as close as they desire; they are uncomfortable being alone, and they worry that others won’t like them; they seek approval and high responsiveness from partners, and blame themselves when it doesn’t come their way; they become overly dependent on and clingy with their partners; doubt their self-worth; and tend to be highly emotionally expressive, worried, and relationally impulsive or reactive.
- Dismissive-avoidant – People with this attachment style are comfortable without close emotional relationships; they value independence and self-sufficiency; prefer not to depend on others or to be depended upon; view themselves as invulnerable to feelings of close attachment; deny needing close attachment, seeing it as unimportant; view their partners less positively than they view themselves; are highly defensive; suppress and hide feelings; and deal with rejection by distancing themselves.
- Fearful-avoidant – People with this attachment style are ambivalent about closeness in relationship; they want to be close, but feel distrustful and afraid to depend on others; they fear getting hurt in relationship; have mixed feelings about close relationship; view themselves and partners negatively; feel unworthy of responsiveness from partners; distrust the intentions of their partner; suppress and deny feelings; are uncomfortable expressing affection; and often have a history of relationship loss or sexual abuse.
What if I Didn’t Have Emotionally Mature Parents?
Obviously, relationships work best when both partners operate from a secure attachment style, so what are people to do who haven’t experienced the relational conditions as they were growing up that would have resulted in this style?
People can develop a secure attachment style by grieving the losses of their childhood.
How do we determine what our losses were when what we experienced feels “normal” to us? When we evaluate our history to determine what our losses were, we need to measure our environment with an appropriate standard—what all children need to thrive—a safe, secure environment with emotionally mature, secure parents.
We tend to use inappropriate measures, such as the families of our friends, the families we see on TV, or the families in third world countries. If these are our standards of comparison, we’ll end up with a skewed picture of our losses. All children need secure conditions in order to thrive, and to whatever degree they don’t have this security, their brains register loss.
Earning a Secure Attachment Style
People who do the work of grieving childhood losses can develop a secure attachment style. We say that such people have an “earned secure” attachment style versus those who have a “continuous secure” attachment style from being raised by emotionally mature, secure parents.
The good news is that relationships between “earned secures” and “continuous secures” feature the same characteristics of secure attachment. So if you identify with features of the insecure attachment styles, there’s hope. Working with a good counselor can help you move through your childhood losses to a place of peace and satisfaction within yourself, which will then be reflected in your love life.
Tomorrow we’ll look at internal factors that combine with these external factors in forming a person over time.