In the series on attachment styles, we have covered much ground. We’ve learned about the four basic attachment styles, secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganized and how they affect adult lives.
We have also covered a few of the mental health issues that can result from poor parenting.
This article is the capstone of the series, a recap of what we have learned plus some information about how we can change from an unhealthy style to a secure one.
A Review of Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to interpret the undercurrents of interpersonal relationships of adults. The model tries to give a general understanding of how we respond internally to a relationship when we are hurt, separated from loved ones, or feeling threatened in that relationship.
John Bowlby is the person responsible for the basic theory of attachment. Working in the 1950s, he used observations of young children to find out if there is a vital connection between how a child attaches to their primary caregiver (we will call this mother from here out) and how they will behave in relationships as adults.
Bowlby was the first to propose that attachment behavior was a fundamental evolutionary survival strategy to protect young mammals like humans from predators. He even went one step further and stated that this evolutionary conditioning had been carried down through time to modern people.
Dr. Bowlby through his research concluded that “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” He also believed that not doing so would mean significant and irreversible mental health consequences.
Attunement and Forming an Attachment Style
Attunement is vital when a child is forming their attachment style. Attunement in attachment research involves whether the mother is in harmony, aware and responsive to their infant. When a mother is available and attuned to their infant’s needs, then the child feels secure and happy.
Fundamentally, attunement creates bonds whereby the child can explore their world.
When a mother is unattuned to their infant, that child cannot develop a secure attachment style. Instead, they will develop other ways of coping with their world.
For instance, if an infant’s need for comfort meets with a cold response from mother, they will shut down their awareness of their own needs.
Mary Ainsworth and the Stranger Situation Experiment
Dr. Bowlby’s research student Mary Ainsworth, who later joined his research team, took his ideas on attachment theory and further expounded upon them. In 1965, Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment called the Stranger Situation to assess the individual differences in attachment behavior.
The experiment included separating young children from their mothers several times for a short period and carefully observing their behavior when their mom returned to the room. Her research showed that children reacted very differently depending upon their mother’s parenting style.
If the mother were found to be warm and loving to their child, he or she would respond to their mom’s return by immediately running to her wanting her to comfort them. This attachment style Mary Ainsworth named secure.
There were some mothers in the stranger situation experiment who were emotionally unavailable and disregarded or ignored their children’s needs. Some even rejected their infants when they became ill or were hurt. These mothers would discourage their child from crying and give premature independence to them.
The child’s response to this type of parenting was to learn early to suppress their natural desire to seek out mother when they needed comfort or when they became frightened or in pain. When mother re-entered the room, these children resisted being touched and held by their mothers.
The children became disconnected from their own needs and relied heavily upon self-soothing behaviors to keep intact their growing understanding that they could take care of themselves and needed no one. Unfortunately, they would carry these beliefs into their adult lives and be fearful of relying on anyone in any relationship. These children Ainsworth gave the designation of having an avoidant attachment style.
Some of the mothers during the experiment seemed only partially attuned to the needs of their child. They sometimes responded effectively to their child’s calls of distress and other times were emotionally unavailable.
In response, their infants would be confused, not understanding which type of treatment their cries of distress would bring them. As a result, these infants felt distrustful or suspicious of their mother, yet acted clingy and desperate. To these children, Ainsworth gave the attachment style ambivalent/anxious.
Mary Main and Disorganized Attachment Style
In 1990, Mary Ainsworth was joined by her colleague Mary Main who after experimenting with infants recognized a pattern of behavior that had been observed before but not explained.
Some children had parents who were unable to function as a protector or to recognize/respond to their child’s basic emotional needs. Since communication between mother and child became severely disrupted, this disconnect meant mom is unable to acknowledge or mirror their child’s distress and instead transmitted mixed signals.
When the infant faced with a perceived threat turned to their caregiver for protection or comfort, they received none. However, when their mother did react to their child’s upset by being frightening the child’s distress grew worse.
The lack of an appropriate response, mixed with unpredictable behaviors from the mother left these children confused and fearful. In response, infants would observe their mother’s return and begin to run to her but on the way either freeze or fall to the floor in a heap. These unfortunate children Mary Main gave the new designation of having a disorganized attachment style.
How Your Attachment Style Shapes Your Adulthood
Our attachment style has a massive part of who we are and largely determines how we see and behave in our adult relationships.
Let’s examine each attachment style and how we are affected as adults.
Secure Attachment Style.
Adults who have a secure attachment style have warm and rewarding relationships. They aren’t unaffected by life’s ups and down, but respond to them in healthy ways. They recognize that their emotions are valid and have learned to turn to others for support and love and yet aren’t dependent on them.
Secure adults have healthy self-esteem and are empathetic and concerned about other people. They tend to be independent, easy-going self-reliant, and curious adults.
Avoidant Attachment Style.
Adults who have formed avoidant attachment styles are likely to push people and intimacy away fearing close romantic relationships. They struggle to create bonds with other people, including co-workers and friends. They often come off as cold, distant or uncaring.
Adults with avoidant attachment styles crave human contact, yet have developed defenses to hide their needs and fear being vulnerable. These folks, called dismissive by some, will discount the importance of their feelings and try to tune out their need for human interactions. They will often distance themselves to avoid rejection.
Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment Style.
Adults with this type of attachment style fear rejection and worry they are not valuable. They feel filled with self-doubt and self-criticism. They are dependent on others to make them feel reassured and approved of, and this can lead to an unhealthy dependence on partners. They also struggle to make decisions on their own, turning instead to their partners to make decisions for them.
These folks can be possessive of their intimate relationship partners, becoming jealous when they want to be with their friends. Often partners of these people described as clingy.
Disorganized Attachment Style.
Adults who have formed a disorganized attachment style see the world as a horrible and dangerous place. They often find it hard if not impossible to be close to others yet they, like all other humans, crave companionship. They also find it incredibly hard to trust others and will run away if someone gets too close to them or shows affection for them.
Their attachment style has been called the “come here go away” response as they try to become romantically or otherwise involved with others but immediately begin to push them away.
As anyone can see, your attachment style can either limit or help you to relate to other people, especially those with which you wish to have a romantic relationship.
Our Brains are Plastic
Psychologists once believed that once an adult learned a particular behavior or lifestyle, it became set in stone. They could alter some of the circumstances, but the adult who learned behaviors in childhood could never change it.
Bowlby thought we are stuck with our attachment styles for life, but thankfully he was proven wrong.
Newer investigations into how the brains works have brought a new realization.
Our brains are plastic (pliable like soft plastic) and can learn and change. Yes, our attachment style learned when we were children will always be our fallback position. However, we can establish new links within ourselves of how we deal with the outside world.
The New Language of a Changed Attachment Style
Those of us who were raised to have an unhealthy and ineffectual attachment style, when we read about secure attachment we are baffled. It is like an English-speaking person suddenly shoved into a room with those speaking French and trying to understand what was said.
Like learning any new language, changing our behaviors to reestablish a secure attachment style takes much time, effort, and the arduous work of self-discovery.
Often people who are looking to change themselves for the better seek out the help of a therapist. These counselors are trained to help their clients explore who they are by making them think first about whom they would like to be. In other words, they ask poignant questions to help their clients to understand themselves better so that they can make the changes necessary to form a secure attachment style.
Many people who choose to see a therapist soon realize they have been guessing what normal is all their lives. They have been asking themselves why they seem why others have happy and lasting relationships, but they do not.
Some people will choose to blame their partners for their feelings of inadequacy, never fully understanding that they only feel that way because their behavior pushes people away.
Learning to speak the language of secure attachment sometimes takes years for some who have also formed severe mental illness because of their early childhood experiences. However, if a person is determined enough, they can and will learn to trust and give of themselves in healthy and well-adjusted ways.
The Stages of Changing Your Attachment Style
Like any modern article, I’m going to write down some stages that can lead to a better understanding of yourself and eventually a healthier attachment style. However, these stages may or may not happen in the exact order I am going to relate them.
What I’m saying is, don’t count on these stages to be the absolute answer you have been looking for as I have done on my own journey to improve my attachment style.
By the way, I am working hard on these issues myself and still do not trust others, nor do I have a stable, long-lasting relationship with anyone.
I just thought I’d warn you.
The first stage in changing your attachment style is awareness.
Once you become aware of how your childhood shapes your present relationships, you are poised to discover new ways to behave. The revelation that the way you have responded to all the relationships throughout your life was predetermined by how your caregivers treated you has two reactions.
One is to embrace this new information and feel relieved. The other is not to believe it and continue the same path we have been going down.
Choosing to change is the next step.
Many of us became aware through education or watching television that what we are experiencing in life and our relationships is caused by our parents. However, rising out of the denial that swallows up that knowledge is harder than it sounds.
Beginning the journey of self-discovery comes as a two-edged sword. On the one side, we are happy to know that we can explain our inability to make and hold onto healthy relationships. However, on the other side, we are left facing a very ugly truth about where we’ve been and who we are as people.
The final and longest stage, finding a therapist doing working hard.
Some may think this sounds like the most comfortable stage, but it is not. The pain experienced when discovering what your parents should have done for you and what they did not hurts, it hurts badly. However, that pain passes, and eventually, the sun begins to shine again as self-awareness of just how valuable you are to the world.
Like horse told the velveteen rabbit in the children’s story because you find self-love, you become real. Oh, your ears are worn off, and your fur is unkempt, but you are real and can now relate to other people in a real and genuine fashion. You are free to find the beauty in others because you can now see the beauty in yourself.