Relationships and attachment styles

Research has shown that our way of relating to significant others in adulthood is likely to be influenced by the early bonds, otherwise known as attachment patterns, that we form in infancy with our primary caregivers. Psychologist John Bowlby (1907-1990), the first attachment theorist, described attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." Early bonds serve to improve the infant’s chance of survival by keeping them close to the mother and have a long lasting impact on future relationships. Attachment patterns can help explain recurring tendencies in relationships and answer some of the following questions:

Are long lasting relationships challenging for you?

Are you happy only when in a relationship?

Do you prefer to be ‘in charge’ of the relationship or, on the contrary, would you rather rely upon your partner to make all the important decisions?

Would you describe yourself as needy or fiercely independent?

In 1970, psychologist Mary Ainsworth designed a test to better understand the various ways in which children were attached to their caregivers, in most cases their mothers. Her experiment, known as the ‘Strange Situation’, was conducted in the United States with infants aged between 12 and 18 months. 

The experiment took place in a one-way glass room, which allowed observers to watch the behaviour of infants in seven successive situations lasting approximately three minutes each. 

  • Parent and infant are alone in the room;
  • A stranger enters and joins in;
  • Parent leaves. Infant and stranger are alone in the room;
  • Parent returns and stranger leaves. Parent and infant are alone in the room;
  • Parent leaves. Infant is alone;
  • Stranger returns. Stranger and infant are alone;
  • Parent returns and stranger leaves.

As each situation unfolded, Ainsworth and her team observed and measured four specific types of behaviours: separation anxiety following the departure of the parent; willingness to explore the environment in different situations, stranger anxiety following the arrival of an unknown person; and reunion behaviour following the parent’s return.

As a result of her observations, Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles:

Secure attachment

Securely attached children explore their environment using the parent as a ‘safe base’ they can return to if feeling upset. They engage with the stranger as long as the parent is present, but show signs of distress when left alone with the stranger. They are visibly happy when the parent returns.

Insecure ambivalent attachment

Insecure ambivalent infants show intense distress when the parent leaves and are fearful of the stranger. They avoid the stranger and show less interest in exploring than securely attached children.  Upon return of the parent, they may approach her but resist contact or push her away. They are not easily comforted.

Insecure avoidant attachment

Insecure avoidant infants show very little emotion when the parent departs or when the stranger enters and continue to explore their environment. They show little interest when the parent returns.

Attachment styles, according to Ainsworth, reflect early interaction between infants and their parents and determine the infants’ relationship behaviours: infants who have their needs met appropriately and consistently develop a secure attachment. Infants who receive an inconsistent level of response from their caregivers will be both clingy and rejecting, exhibiting an insecure ambivalent attachment. Finally, infants who have their needs ignored withdraw when distressed, thus developing an insecure avoidant attachment.

A fourth style, disoriented/disorganised attachment, quite different from the organised adaptations of both the ambivalent and avoidant attachment styles, was added later on. A disorganised attachment is formed when the parent is a source of fright and alarm for the infant.

Now what happens when you grow up? How does your early interaction with your primary care giver impact on your way of relating to others later on in life?

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that securely attached adults tend to have high self-esteem and forge healthy relationships, while insecurely attached adults might have difficulty trusting others or self-disclosing. Mindfulness expert and psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, describes contingent communication as a sensitive and consistent way of relating that encourages children to develop secure attachment and thus promotes their well-being and resilience to stress.

Inconsistent and insensitive communication may lead the child to develop an ambivalent attachment, predictive of future uncertainty and anxiety in social situations; whereas an emotionally impoverished relationship may lead the child to form an avoidant attachment, predictive of later difficulties in creating a strong sense of self and in relating to peers. Children with disorganised attachment have shown to become disassociated or fragmented and might develop post-traumatic stress disorder if exposed to overwhelming events.

However, it is reassuring to know that adulthood attachment styles are not necessarily the same as those displayed in infancy. While we cannot change the past, gaining awareness and understanding of how and why we relate to others in a certain way can help us take responsibility for our own perceived shortcomings instead of blaming others. If you experience recurrent problems in your relationships, recognising your own attachment style – or your tendencies towards one particular style – can help you gain clarity on the dynamics of your bonding patterns and therefore empower you to learn how to develop and maintain healthier ones. 

On an optimistic note, Siegel proposes that if parents have come to understand the impact of the parenting they received on their own lives and have developed a compassionate understanding of themselves, they will be able to provide their children with the emotionally contingent communication they need in order to thrive. We are therefore not doomed to repeat patterns we have ourselves been subjected to.  

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Evelyne Riddle MA, Registered MBACP (Snr.Accred)

Evelyne is a BACP Accredited Psychotherapist working with couples and individuals in Wimbledon and Putney. She holds an MA in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy and has a post qualification certificate in couple counselling. Having lived in different countries, she has been exposed to different cultures and is fluent in English and French.… Read more

Written by Evelyne Riddle MA, Registered MBACP (Snr.Accred)

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