Human beings are hardwired for connection. It’s true. Even in utero, nestled inside our mother’s womb, we are anchored to her and connected through our umbilical cord. From the moment we are born, we are dependent on others. We rely on others for food, warmth, and care. While these necessities may seem basic, how they are delivered and how we are nurtured as a baby shape our awareness of our needs, relational expectations, and assumptions of how relationships function.
The psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth believed so profoundly in the importance of child development as well as the long-term impact of caregivers that they devoted their careers to studying the matter. Bowlby studied the emotional bonds between caregivers and children and how their interactions influenced the child’s engagement with the world. Bowlby believed that the caregiver’s responsiveness formulated their child’s sense of security. These beliefs led to the development of Attachment Theory. Through her continued observations and research of mother and child interaction, Ainsworth identified characteristics of three main attachment styles. Below are the three attachment styles and the behaviors that often continue into our adult relationships with friends and romantic partners.
Three Attachment Styles
Children with secure attachments to their parents or caregivers feel safe to explore the world and take reasonable risks. Their parent or caregiver provides safety by being responsive to their needs and promotes their child’s confidence by encouraging them to be more independent.
Adults with a secure attachment may be supportive and responsive to the needs of others. They may also feel comfortable displaying their vulnerability and trust that others can be reliable and safe for them.
Children with an anxious attachment may not have received consistent care from their parent or caregiver. They may feel unsure about their needs being met and do not feel confident in expecting their caregiver to provide for them.
As adults, individuals with an anxious attachment may be hoping that others can “complete” them. They may appear clingy and need significant reassurance from others. These individuals may come across as overly dependent or sensitive in relationships.
While anxious attachment describes those who received inconsistent attention, avoidant attachment is when a child’s needs were routinely unacknowledged. These children may not have been encouraged to express their emotions and did not have their feelings validated.
Avoidant attachment behaviors in adulthood may include being emotionally disconnected, struggling to maintain intimacy, or suppressing sensitivity. They may see themselves as too independent and reject committed relationships. Vulnerability may be a challenge as trusting others to love and accept them is a risk they have little faith in experiencing.
Long after Ainsworth concluded her research, researchers discovered a fourth attachment style. This style is called disorganized attachment and is an extreme combination of both anxious and avoidant attachment. Disorganized attachment can occur when a child’s bond with their caregiver was, quite literally, disorganized. The child may have both loved and feared their caregiver with little predictability or consistency in how their caregiver would respond to them. It’s believed that disorganized attachment may be a product of childhood trauma and abuse. As you can imagine, this may manifest in adults in the form of unstable and unpredictable relational dynamics. This attachment style may present as a tug-of-war of intense connections (some may characterize as clingy) and sudden rejections.
To acknowledge these attachment styles is to recognize the significant influence that early childhood has on one’s long-term development. It is not to say that because of someone’s relationship with their caregiver, they are destined to have a particular relationship style in their future. Rather, it allows caregivers the opportunity to understand the impact they have on their children. Even more so, it gives adults the chance to reflect on their early experiences and treat themselves with patience and grace as they continue to navigate intimate connections. Practicing awareness allows an individual to recognize what may be motivating their behaviors and empowers them to make changes as they see fit. For example, a parent who identifies as having an anxious attachment style may discover that their hesitation in boundary-setting originates from their own childhood experiences of rejection. Once this is brought to the surface and accepted, this parent can practice a more balanced approach with their child, including appropriate boundaries and intentional bonding. In doing so, the parent gives their child the gift of security and heals their own inner wounds. This level of mindfulness and intentionality does wonders on both an individual and family level.
Speaking with a licensed counselor trained in attachment theory can improve your self-understanding and provide insight into your relational patterns. If you’d like to discuss what this would look like, please click here to schedule a complimentary 15-minute session with therapist Kathy Simmons M.Ed., PLPC, NCC.