Understanding Attachment Theory
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Natasha Sephton, HCPC Registered, BADTh
24th September, 2012
Attachment theory is the understanding of how we seek ‘proximity’, or closeness and intimacy, with people in our lives. This covers all relationships from family members, to friends and partners. Our style of attachment even effects the way we interact with our work colleagues.
John Bowlby developed Attachment Theory from the late 1950’s and it has been developed and researched by others since then. It is recognised that depending on the way we are treated and responded to in our early life we can either become ‘Securely attached’ or ‘Insecurely attached’.
Securely attached means we have developed into a person who has a general feeling of safety and feels confident to seek fulfilment in their lives and tend to be able to manage stress reasonably well. These people tend to be drawn to others who are also able to experience nurturing, loving and intimate relationships. Securely attached people do experience life’s knocks and difficulties in relationships, work etc but they are able to ‘bounce back’ and return to a state of balance reasonably quickly. People who have this attachment pattern have had parents/close people in their early life who have been consistently responsive and sensitive to their needs giving the child a sense that parents will help them fulfil any need as and when they arise. This child will grow to be an adult that is self reliant and is comfortable to reach out to others.
Insecurely attached means we have developed into a person who has a general feeling of insecurity and tend to not expect our needs to get met, whether from family members, partners, friends or work. Insecure attachment has been divided into two types: ‘Avoidant’ and ‘Ambivalent’.
People who develop the Avoidant style of attachment tend to be emotionally distant or disengaged, and have a tendency to believe that their needs are probably not going to be met by people close to them. They can have a sense about them that they are slightly withdrawn and not comfortable with intimacy in relation to others. They also tend to prefer to stay in their comfort zone rather than ‘get out there’ in the world to explore and take risks. People with this pattern have had parents that have been mostly disengaged, often leaving their babies to cry usually with the intention to encourage independence. The child then learns that their needs are unlikely to be met and therefore stops reaching out and learns to withdraw.
People who develop the Ambivalent style of attachment tend to be quite anxious and/or angry personalities. They are rather inconsistent in their behaviour in relationships, sometimes sensitive and sometimes neglectful. They believe they cannot rely on their needs being met by close friends, family, partners or in the work environment. They prefer the safety of their known world and routines and can worry needlessly about perceived problems in the future that may or may not happen. People with this pattern have had parents that have been inconsistent with them. Mum’s responsiveness towards her child is sometimes sensitive switching to neglectful or even anger. Parenting on their terms, or, as and when they feel like it.
It was realised during research that there was another category of people who had insecure attachment style but didn't fit either Avoidant or Ambivalent styles. This pattern was named the Disorganised attachment style. Where the other 3 styles had clear coping strategies in their attempts to survive in relation to others and themselves, people with this pattern have no consistent strategy and therefore have a very disturbed coping and survival strategies. If the Avoidant could be heard to say ‘why bother reaching out, it’s no use!’ and the Ambivalent, ‘if I make enough noise, showing how worried/irritated I am, perhaps I’ll get the attention I need’, the Disorganised would be blank, or frozen or showing disturbing behaviour such as rocking or sudden and sporadic bouts of aggression. Parents of disorganised children are on the extreme scale of parenting ability where their behaviour is erratic, frightening, passive or intrusive. Being parented in this way makes it very troublesome for children to know what to expect or to gain a solid sense of themselves growing up. This is maltreatment and abusive and is seen as high risk by health and care professionals.
You may recognise yourself in one or more of the categories as well as people you know. It may also feel hard to read about the attachment styles, bringing up painful memories or associations. It should be acknowledged that in most cases our mothers, fathers and other important figures in our childhood have done their best in bringing us up. Parents of Avoidant children have themselves been children of Avoidant parents. The well known phrase ‘the good enough mother’ certainly applies here in withholding judgement and blame on parents of insecurely attachment people. After all, we learn how to parent from being parented. But it doesn't have to be a never ending cycle through the generations!
It is hoped that with new knowledge we foster greater awareness of ourselves and those around us. This helps us to understand ourselves better and the way we interact with our partners, parents, our own children and friends. It can help us to fit the missing jigsaw pieces together to see how what we have grown up to believe about ourselves in the world has, in effect, contributed to how we actually are in the world, and how the world is with us! With this new self awareness, good professional support, and a commitment to oneself, we are able to make huge changes in our lives.
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