Psychotherapy for adults is trending towards an old, but valuable theoretical model....Attachment Theory. Clinicians and researchers are learning once again that the type of attachment we formed with our primary caregiver in infancy and early childhood has long-term implications for the way we manage our adult relationships and even in the way we parent our own children.
Attachment Theory was first developed in the late 60's by John Bowlby, a psychologist who studied child development and temperament in various social groups. Bowlby concluded that in order to feel safe, to take risks, to manage fear, to regulate emotions and to believe that the world is manageable, the bond between baby and caregiver must be a secure one. This means that baby's wants and needs were met before feelings of helplessness and hopelessness set in. This first intimate relationship, as we now know, forms the foundation for all others. It shapes the type of partners we ultimately fall for and the way we conduct ourselves in that vulnerable role. Decades of exploring this attachment bond revealed that, what we come to expect from our adult partners can be directly related to the way our primary caregiver met our needs in THE FIRST YEAR of life. What a daunting task for all parents! And what a burden on us as adults, if our own parents didn't get it right- and truthfully, few actually do!! Even the most sensitive and aware caregivers get it right only about 50% of the time. That's a lot of crying for baby! In the most secure relationships, the remainder of the time is spent repairing any damage caused by missed cues and neglected needs. In secure attachments, this cycle of attunement (understanding and meeting needs), rupture (missing communication cues, being tired or distracted) and repair (making amends, learning from mistakes, reconnecting) is a consistent, predictable one. The infant comes to learn that he/she is safe, loved and cared for. He trusts that he will survive!
The role of the caregiver is believed to be dramatically important as the baby ages, as well. Toddlers and children whose needs are met and accounted for quickly and responsively tend to spend more time exploring and learning. They don't have to worry about need fulfillment because they trust the world is safe and accommodating. This freedom bodes well for one's self esteem and subsequently, one's ability to relate to others in a secure way.
Bowlby and his successors identified four different attachment styles prevalent in early childhood. Secure attachment is when children know they can depend on their caregivers to attend to their needs of physical closeness, emotional receptivity and overall protection. Secure attachments are considered to be the optimal attachment style. Anxious-ambivalent attachments occur when the infant feels the discomfort of separation anxiety when away from the caregiver but does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns. This infant feels distress when the caregiver is gone and seems cautious and detached from the other adults close by. The anxious-ambivalent style seems to be a response to unpredictably caregiving, whereby there are demonstrations of either anger or helplessness when the caregiver returns. This is the baby's way of taking control of the situation in attempt to prevent the caregiver from leaving again. Anxious-avoidant attachment is characterized by the infant avoiding his/her caregiver. This infant appears to be unphased by the departure or return of the caregiver. However, heart rate studies reveal significant changes that correlate with high stress responses. The anxious-avoidant strategy seems to be adopted by infants whose needs were frequently not met. Repeat patterns of having unmet needs leads a baby to conclude that their communication attempts are not effective at influencing the attunement attempts of their caregiver. Disorganized attachment occurs where there is a lack of consistent attachment behaviors, such as simultaneous approach-avoidance or freezing. These infants experience a chronic overload of fear or anger, which leads to chaotic attempts to be comforted by the caregiver or avoid the caregiver. It is believed that more than half of children with the disorganized attachment style have a primary caregiver with a history of loss, trauma or depression that has impacted their ability to maintain consistent attunement.
Developmental psychologists began noticing correlations between adult relationships and each partner's infant attachment style sometime in the 1980's. Could our early life experiences with relationships and human connection really impact our role as husbands, wives or even Mom or Dad? According to the research, the answer is yes! Though these patterns can change and evolve over time, they no doubt form a foundation from which all other styles adapt. Psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver identified four styles of attachment in adults: secure (corresponds to secure infants), anxious-preoccupied (the insecure ambivalent infant), dismissive-avoidant (the insecure avoidant infant) and fearful-avoidant (the disorganized infant).
The characteristics of the adult attachment styles are roughly similar to their earlier prototypes. As expected, securely attached adults tend to have positive feelings about themselves, their partners and their relationships. They readily balance their needs for intimacy and independence and can comfortably shift between the two. Anxious-preoccupied adults often long for approval, responsiveness and high levels of intimacy from their partners. This attachment style tend to become overly dependent on their partner. An anxious-preoccupied adult (insecure-ambivalent infant) may be less trusting, may be prone to worry or impulsivity and is often very emotionally expressive. Dismissive-avoidant adults (insecure-avoidant infant) desire a high level of independence and time away from the relationship. These adults seem to avoid attachment and intimacy. They are self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and do not seem to need close relationships. Dismissive-Avoidant adults are known for suppressing their feelings. They manage perceived rejections by moving away from the relationship and quite often form negative opinions about their partner. Fearful-avoidant adults have a combination of feelings about intimacy. They have a love-hate relationship with emotional connections. Fearful-Avoidant adults often avoid intimate relationships. They tend to wallow in mistrust. They experience low self worth and generally suppress their feelings.
For generations, families have been doing things because that's always the way they have been done. Sometimes, we find out that those 'tried' ways we are so familiar with are no longer 'true' for us. They don't work for who we are or who we want to be. And sometimes they don't work for our children! As relationship theories unfold, we are learning more and more that it is up to us as partners and parents to grow and stretch in ways that meet the other's needs, instead of expecting them to conform to a style that may be outdated or unproductive. Remember though, there is no such thing as perfect. The goal is to attune as often as you can and repair when you can't. This takes vulnerability, humility and courage. Healthy relationships are hard work. Take this quiz ,reprinted with permission from the authors, to learn more about your own attachment style. Or better yet, ask a LifeWorks counselor to administer you the gold standard assessment, the Adult Attachment Interview. Together, we can learn how to make your Life Work!