Did you ever wonder why you seem to respond to significant others in your life a certain way? Why do you get jealous, avoid conflict at all cost or have a general sense that the world is not to be trusted? Some may say that personality is at play, while others are able to pinpoint an experience they had in life that told them if they respond to circumstances a certain way, they will be more protected from risk of emotional hurt. These are all fine theories. However, they're underdeveloped. When you get anxious and frustrated because your significant other is not responding to your texts after just a few minutes have passed, or you cannot bear to label emotions to your close friends or family, there is something much deeper at play within yourself.
I have news for you. Your attachment style is showing and if we know what to look for, we can all see it. John Bowlby was a British psychologist who worked in the 1950 on making sense about the way we connect with caregivers early in our lives. He theorized that this method of attachment will be repeated as we age as a learned behavior rather than a born trait.
Within the first couple of years of life, Bowlby said that we develop preferences for caregivers we see the most. This could include siblings, babysitters, or parents. Better yet, he identified that all children seem to be a blank slate for attachment when given the opportunity. This means that all children seek connection because it is a part of their mammalian makeup. We are social creatures, and as such, our brains are primed to look for connection, or attachment. Bowlby found that so long as a caregiver responded consistently and predictably, a child would have an opportunity to make a secure attachment. This means balance. No caregiver is perfect and making a secure attachment does not require a perfect caregiver (this is fantastic news for us parents, since we all know that there are no manuals for this thing. We checked!). Secure attachments are great because we generally learn to trust ourselves and believe that the world around us is good for the most part. We don't need to be fearful or on guard all the time, because we've been taught we can trust our instincts because our caregivers taught us to trust them and ourselves while we're away from them.
Now comes the really important part. What if we are generally insecure in our attachments? What if we don't feel we can trust ourselves or others? What if we don't know who we are without a significant relationship, like living with mom or dad, or a partner? These give us a sign that we have an insecure attachment.
I do not claim to be an expert on attachment theory, but I do subscribe strongly to the merits of understanding it as a clinician and fellow human being. Giving credit where credit is due, I have turned to an expert to source some of the more specific information in this blog. A little about my source who I credit portions of the following research informaition...
Diane Poole Heller Ph.D. is an internationally recognized speaker, author, and expert in the field of child and adult attachment theory as well as trauma resolution. Her expertise in trauma healing has benefitted survivors and families of 9/11 and the Columbine shootings, making her a highly sought-after consultant, speaker, and presenter for organizations worldwide.
In 2019, Diane joined Rosie Perez on stage at the Rubin Museum of Art to discuss childhood trauma, its impact on adult relationships, and managing PTSD.
ASERVIC (Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling) awarded Diane with a Lifetime Humanitarian Award in 2019.
Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment Style
This attachment style is best described as those who haven't had a connection with
significant caregivers consistently.
Emotional or physical unavailability does not mean that one night of the baby monitor being turned off and the child crying without response from a caregiver will warrant an anxious/ambivalent attachment forever. Instead, this describes is a caregiver who was "on again/ off again." In this circumstance, baby/child cries, and child has learned that the caregiver is not sure to respond at some point while the child is still in distress to offer comfort.
Ambivalent attachment as an adult may look like not sticking with significant relationships long, being a loner, preferring to go without friends and not being disturbed by a lack of emotional ties.
Anxious attachment, considered another optional linked response to the inconsistent responses of caregivers, may be that there is additional concern over whether emotional needs will be met whenever life challenges or hurts are identified. As an adult, this may look like feeling very jealous easily, being clingy within significant relationships, or having intense, yet turbulent feelings for others.
Now, for those of you who have ambivalent attachment styles, or children with ambivalent attachment styles, this does not mean that caregivers "failed" when this style is present. It only means that the learned behavior in response to being unsure of whether a particular caregiver's availability is predictable. In homes where caregivers have depressive, anxious, mood, or identity disorders, or are out of the home often for work, they may be doing the best they can but are just simply not available consistently. Keep in mind that attachment styles are not for fault-finding, but rather understanding early childhood patterns of significant caregiver interactions.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Children who experience caregivers that are insensitive, emotionally unavailable, or even hurtful when the child expresses a need often result in a learned response to be avoidant. This looks like the child learning that their needs will likely be unmet, and even more likely, they will come to believe that being themselves is part of the problem. The child is not welcome to be who they are. The child learns to meet their own needs because they are the only ones who will not let them down, in theory.
Much self-loathing may result in the adult expression of avoidant attachment style because wants and needs are not important and go unacknowledged. Withholding self-care, compassion, and acceptance is the norm because this is familiar, though an uncomfortable method of living. Often times, in adult significant relationships, avoidant attachments look like "shutting down" when others meet them with requests or strong emotions. At times, resentment builds because the avoidant attachment because the world is not to be trusted.
Secure Attachment Style
In childhood, secure attachments are learned as a result of clear, consistent, warm caregivers who David Winnicot described as "good enough." These caregivers do not do everything with perfect timing and attentiveness, but rather, do a good enough job for the child to learn that the world is generally safe and trustworthy and they are acceptable being themselves. Caregivers respond with validation in a predictable and consistent pattern that children come to learn as safe and natural. Children are viewed as children, not "little adults." Expectations and support is provided respectively.
Self-confidence and healthy boundaries develop as a result and adults learn to identify wants, needs, and a strong sense of identity. Adults are able to create boundaries and stick to them, accepting that others who do not respect them are not a compatible match.
Disorganized Attachment Style
Caregivers of children with this style often (unintentionally or intentionally) create impossible situations for children to build self-confidence and trust. Children may be pitted against other caregivers or children in the home, having to make choices where both are wrong and neither is right resulting in possible punishment or discipline leading to the belief that no matter what the child does, they are not acceptable. Caregivers to create this environment send mixed messages that are nearly impossible for children to understand or navigate. Seldom is compassion offered and most often, criticism is doled out instead. For example, a child may be told to wipe down the bathroom surfaces, but the parent criticizes how the child cleaned and is told that the child disobeyed because they didn't wipe the surfaces the "right way." This intense confusion often leads to children complying with whims of the caregiver as an unpredictable rising and lowering of expectations arise. Similarly, as adults, those with disorganized attachment are described as being "held hostage" to the whims of those with whom they are in significant relationships. Often, they have learned that although the desire for safety and connection is present, the desire to run from the hurt that comes with the relationship remains in tact as well. Confusion abounds and identity is lost within relationships.
So, what do we make of all this? One might argue that if there are issues in your significant relationships, someone likely has an insecure attachment. If you'd like to learn what yours is, you can visit Diane Poole Heller Ph.D's website and take the quiz for any number of significant attachments you might wonder about. If you and your partner are struggling to connect, attachment is likely at the root. If you cannot seem to connect with your children or parents, attachment is likely at work there too. If you can understand how you view yourself, others, and the world as a whole, you are more likely to believe that you can influence your perspective. Again, attachment styles are considered learned behaviors. You might have learned an unhealthy way of relating to others, even yourself. This can be unlearned with the right support. Likely, this support is not going to come from a significant relationship because paradoxically, that is largely where the issue lies. Consider doing some work observing yourself. Your thinking patterns. Your inner dialogue and your emotions. Test them against reality and see what you find. Most importantly, do it with compassion. As much as you can muster. As a clinician I firmly believe that the biggest roadblock to growth is judgment or a lack of compassion.
Whatever you find about yourself going forward, I hope that you know you are worth the exploration. The light in me sees and honors the light within you.