What is an attachment and why do they matter?
Humans are relational beings who require interaction, stimulation and contact with others. The term attachment relates to how we seek closeness or intimacy with others, This covers relationships we form and maintain with family members, friends and partners. The role of attachment is crucial in human functioning, and impacts the way we interact and work with others. An attachment is not simply a connection between two people, but a deep and meaningful bond that involves the desire for regular contact with that other person, and a sense of distress during a separation.
How attachments form
The formation of attachments begins in the first few years of an infant’s life when they rely on their parents or caregivers to provide them with love and care and to protect them from harm in the world. Infants rely on their parents or caregivers to provide them with both their emotional and physical needs. When the infant has a need, they may express this through crying. In an ideal situation the parent or caregiver recognises these needs and satisfies the need through attending to the infant.
It is within these interactions throughout the infant’s development that the infant is able form an attachment with their parent or caregiver. In this attachment they learn that the world is a safe place, and ideally form a secure base from which to explore the world. This attachment process is reciprocal and the bond formed between caregiver and infant is one of deep nurturing.
Attachment styles in adults
Through attachments, infants learn to love, care and trust others as they grow up and become adults. The experience of early attachments informs their abilities to regulate their emotions and to become aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings. The formation of secure attachments is crucial, but when the needs of an infant are not appropriately met and they are not given the chance to develop the trusting, meaningful bond with parent or caregiver that is so vital, an insecure attachment can be developed and sustained into adult life. Below I have listed both secure and insecure adult attachment styles.
Individuals with a secure attachment style were fortunate enough to have had parents or caregivers who were consistently responsive to their needs and enabled them to have a sense that they can be self reliant and also reach out to others when necessary. They can confidently seek fulfilment in their lives and are more likely to be able to manage stress and difficulty in their lives. These individuals tend to have positive relationships with others and are more able to manage care, love and experience nurturing relationships. They will be more able to feel comfortable with both intimacy and independence.
Individuals with anxious-preoccupied attachments will tend to desire emotionally intimate contact with others, but find that others may often be reluctant to be as intimate as they would like. They may be uncomfortable without close relationships, but also worry they value others much more than others value them. They will often seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from others. They will tend to value intimacy so much that they become overly dependant in their partners. Anxious-preoccupied individuals tend to have much less positive views about themselves and feel a sense of anxiety which may only lessen when in contact with their partner. Often they will doubt their worth as a partner and may blame themselves when their partner or friend is not responsive to their needs.
Individuals who have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style are more likely to be emotionally removed, distant or disengaged. They can have a tendency to believe that their needs are probably not going to be met by the people in their lives. These individuals can sense that they are slightly withdrawn from others and are not comfortable within relationships. These individuals are also more likely to remain in situations that they find comfortable, and safe, not situations which are new or potentially difficult. In their younger years, these individuals had parents who were mainly disengaged from them. They may have been left to cry for extended periods of time as a baby, which may have been done with the intention of fostering independence. The child then learns that their needs are unlikely to be met, and therefore for self-protection they withdraw and stop reaching out.
Individuals who develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style may in their past have experienced losses or trauma, such as sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence. They will have mixed feelings about intimate relationships, on the one hand, they desire to be close to an other person but on the other, they find emotional closeness difficult and uncomfortable They will find it difficult to trust others, or completely depend upon them and may at times worry that they will be hurt, if they allow themselves to become close to another person.
Often fearful-avoidant individuals will have a set of negative emotions and feelings about themselves and tend to view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness from their partners. Due to this, they will find it difficult to seek intimacy from others, not trust the true intentions of their partner and will be less able to express their affection.
How can therapy help?
Often, adult attachment styles may not be directly visible on the surface, and it may be that you are questioning why relationships are breaking down, or why you are finding it difficult to form trust with others. Therapy can provide you with a safe and non-judgmental space to explore your attachments in adult life, think about your past relationships and develop a greater sense of any relational patterns which may be occurring in your adult life. It will also enable you to develop ways of becoming more secure in your relationships and allow you to feel more able to develop relationships in the future.