Bonding and attachment: a short introduction to attachment styles

It is not unusual to hear about attachment styles in social media and be encouraged to “test” ourselves and our partners to find out if we are a good match for each other. However, thinking about “matching styles” is less useful than understanding what attachment styles as concepts are meant to explain and how we can understand our own behaviour with their help. When we have an understanding of what this means for us, then we can figure out how it influences our relationships and what we might wish to change.

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Attachment theory was proposed by British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and later expanded upon by his colleague and fellow researcher Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby theorized that creating a bond between a child and its caregiver is a drive in human nature: it is essential for our survival as being able to stay close and being cared for grants us the best chance in life.

While teaching at John Hopkins University, Ainsworth created experiments to study children’s behaviour around their caregivers and based on her findings she proposed the categories of three main attachment styles:

  • secure
  • insecure avoidant
  • insecure ambivalent/resistant

After further experiments, a fourth category was created for cases that did not fit in any of these and this last category is called disorganised attachment style. Attachment theory is still widely used and reviewed in developmental psychology and influences many forms of contemporary talking therapies.

It is also important to note that how we are able to stay close in a relationship is not set in stone: if your attachment was insecure to your parents this can be overwritten by experience in later life and you can be securely attached to a friend or romantic partner. Similarly, significant trauma or loss can change how we are able to relate to someone else and we might lose our footing and find it challenging to trust someone new.

So, how do you tell whether you are securely attached to someone? In short, it is all about trust: you trust that person enough to be vulnerable with them. Showing vulnerability means that we can share our shortcomings with that trusted person, we dare to be upset, angry or distressed without fearing sudden abandonment, we have faith in being loved and cared for by the other. In contrast, insecure attachment lacks this kind of trust: we believe we have to somehow manage our feelings to be accepted or listened to by the other, we mask some trait to make sure they are not disappointed as we doubt they could actually put up with us if they see our vulnerability.  

The “types” or different “styles” refer to how the person tries to maintain the attachment. If you are avoidant what you actually avoid is showing your emotions in their true intensity. Basically, your belief is that your feelings are too much for someone else to handle, so you dampen them down: you don’t want to appear too sad, too angry, too emotional, too sensitive, or too dramatic. If this sounds familiar, you are probably avoidantly attached in your relationship.

Ambivalent attachment has the opposite belief: they feel they have to put on a show for the other: display emotions in high intensity to be seen. The underlying fear is that the other is not interested or invested enough. So they fight for attention: intense emotions, dramatic scenes- all to make sure the other would notice and would not abandon them.

However, it is important to note that while both ambivalent and avoidant attachment style have their own pitfalls, they are still successful in creating and maintaining an intimate relationship. And that is a big difference compared to the disorganised attachment. The best description I have ever heard is disorganised attachment is a constant struggle: either too close or too far from the other. It’s hot and cold; some day you feel you have to cling to the other, share all your feelings, spend all your time and then suddenly something little happens (a minor conflict, disappointment, hint of doubt) and you don’t want to see the other at all, stop answering calls, cutting off the other person from your life.

Hence, disorganised attachment often remains unsuccessful in actually keeping the relationship going. The roots of this lies in the past: parents who themselves were unpredictable or abused their children in any way. Abuse puts a child in an impossible situation: they cannot distance themselves from their parents as they are essential for their protection and survival (yes, even in the 21st century)  but if they remain close they have to suffer through the abuse. This is an impossible contradiction for a child to resolve. Their response is to be vigilant: stay close when they can and try to flee/hide/avoid the abuse. Therefore as adults without intervention or self-awareness, they continue a similar pattern: they enter into a relationship but never feel safe enough to stay in it.

It is probably easy to see how we attach ourselves to the other will impact the dynamics of any intimate relationship. An avoidant person might create an invisible wall based on their belief they have to conceal their emotions. An ambivalent person might exhaust their partners with their demands of attention and recognition as they are so unsure whether they are actually loved. And disorganised attachment can make it very hard to even be in a close relationship.

As mentioned before, our attachment style is not set in stone, it can change and evolve as we gain experiences in different relationships. For example, even just one significant relationship that is secure with a friend, a teacher, or a family member can make a huge difference. Therefore instead of trying to find a matching partner to align our attachment style, we can understand our own, we can cherish the secure bonds we already have and mitigate any flaws in our behaviour so they don’t stop us from having meaningful and intimate relationships.

Personal therapy can support you in two ways: it enhances your insight into your own patterns and the roots of that while it can also give you the experience of secure attachment: your relationship with your therapist can become the vehicle of change where you can see your own reactions and also experience the others in an insightful and safe way.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24
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Written by Szabina Tomicsne Wagner, MBACP counsellor, areas of expertise: anxiety, loss, trauma
Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24

Szabina is a psychodynamic counsellor who offers in person and online counselling in the Basingstoke area. Her main areas of expertise are anxiety, loss and emotional neglect.

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