When we experience closeness with another person we often say we are ‘attached’ or ‘connected’ to them. But what does this sense of closeness really mean? In the world of relationships, attachment is fundamental if we are to understand ourselves within this context. Attachment theory underpins how we relate, our capacity to trust, whether we view the world as safe and secure and even how we respond in times of conflict.
Attachment Theory is a feeling of connection with another human being that can’t always be explained or understood. It starts with the emotional bond that develops in infancy, beginning with our primary caregiver, and is maintained throughout the life cycle. Once the template or ‘attachment style’ is laid down it is usually rigidly maintained in all close and intimate relationships.
Understanding Your Attachment Relationships
It is this early experience that sets our relational patterns and behaviours. When the attachment bond works we feel safe, secure and have our emotional needs met. This translates into healthy adult relationships. But when the attachment bond fall shorts the opposite occurs; we don’t feel safe or secure and our emotional expression is limited. This too translates into our adult relationships.
Secure and Insecure Attachment – what does it mean?
During infancy and early childhood when the needs of the baby are met in a timely, fitting and consistent manner the child learns that the world is safe and that others will be available in times of distress.
This is called a Secure (or healthy) Infant Attachment and is achieved when the babies’ basic and emotional needs are met. These needs include a nurturing presence, attention (mirroring), affection, comfort when the baby is upset, encouragement to explore the world, and awareness of the baby’s’ developing needs.
Secure attachment sets the infant up for positive expectations of others when it comes to future relationships. Yet not all infants experience positive interactions with their primary caregiver and when a deficit exists this gives way to Insecure Infant Attachment which sets the infant up for uncertain expectations of others in future relationships.
What does Insecure Infant Attachment look like?
There are four broad categories for insecure infant attachment – anxious, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised.
Anxious Infant Attachment stems from overprotective parenting, which results in anxiety for the infant when separated from the caregiver, and/or when exploring the world. When a child is constantly shielded or discouraged from participating in risk-taking activities the child learns helplessness, becomes over reliant on others to cope and fails to take the necessary steps to trust in it’s own abilities and judgements.
The same anxious outcome can also occur when parents and caregivers excessively shower the child with love, attention, and support. These parenting styles limit the life experiences of the child, and the child grows up seeking reassurance from others.
Avoidant Infant Attachment results when children are raised in dismissive or unresponsive environments. This is where the parents fail to give adequate attention and care, and can result from parents who are too busy to pay adequate attention to the needs of their child. Unintentionally, parents may minimise the needs of the child in times of discomfort or distress.
You see this attachment style manifest in children who are not allowed to cry or express emotions, and they soon learn that help and love are unavailable to them. Often parents believe they are doing the right thing by bringing up independent children, but this generates a default emotional position that it is unsafe to rely on others. This person is fearful of vulnerability, refuses to ask for help and develops low self-esteem during the growing years until adulthood.
Ambivalent Infant Attachment occurs when a child is raised by an unpredictable adult who sometimes acts loving and sometimes acts unavailable. These children live with adults who are inconsistent in their actions, leaving the child guessing whether the parent or the caregiver is truly available or not. They can feel anxious during separation from the parent, yet they can be rebellious and resistant during reunion. Again, the child mirrors the behaviours of the caregiver.
Disorganised Infant Attachment occurs when children are raised in abusive, emotionally devoid or chaotic environments. These children will tend to grow up as chaotic and disorganised adults who lack cohesion, act disoriented and display interpersonal behaviours that are highly challenging.
Attachment only occurs between two individuals; thus, a child can be anxiously attached to its mother but securely attached to a grandparent or father. Children do develop different attachments styles to different adults which helps to create stability. Therefore if you lack emotional availability in one early relationship it can be made up by another, more attuned one. Yet it is the case that our earliest attachment relationship set by our primary-carers becomes our dominant relational style.
What happens to attachment as we get older?
Attachment continues throughout the life cycle. Infant attachment transforms into adult attachment and the same relationship patterns and behaviours replay themselves in close relationships.
• The anxious infant becomes the Preoccupied adult. This person is always in search of attention, approval, and love. They want human connection and feel incomplete or lost without a partner.
• The avoidant and ambivalent infant becomes the Dismissive adult. This person conveys the image that relationships are unimportant. They adopt an attitude of over-intellectualising relationships and downplay the importance of emotions. They claim they don’t want closeness or intimacy. This person is scared to show their needs to the world, and minimises their uncomfortable emotional feelings.
• The disorganised infant becomes the Fearful adult. This person feels that nothing is right in his world. There is a constant fear of the unknown or a dread that those unfortunate things from his past might repeat themselves in the present. This eventually leads to a disorganized life where the perception is that something is wrong with them and everyone else.
• The secure infant becomes the Secure adult. The secure person can rely on others and can ask for help in times of distress. They are curious about life and love and navigate the dynamics of love, loss, rejection and being alone without fear. These individuals embrace closeness and are comfortable being vulnerable. They feel secure in who they are, are open to life’s journey, can accept their mistakes and are open to growth. Every relationship they encounter helps build on their secure base, which in turn prepares them for their next encounter.
Infant and Adult Attachment varies from individual to individual as it exists on a continuum so there are huge variations of the above themes, but an awareness of your own attachment style or that of your partner can be a step towards cultivating a more healthy relationship. Learning about your own attitude to emotional safety, and how your attachment style plays into your relationship will help to build secure bonds. Healing from attachment wounds is challenging but infinitely possible. When you make the commitment to explore your inner world, either individually or as a couple, you shift from conflict and despair to clarity and wellness.
If you’re struggling with your relationships or feel stuck then talking to a counsellor from the Melbourne Counselling Centre can help promote positive change. Click here to book a session.