During my undergraduate degree, I worked in a research lab. One of the most interesting studies I worked on involved primary caregivers coming into the lab with their babies. During this experiment, the primary caregiver would play with their baby for a period of time, and then exit the room. My job- to code how the baby responded during that time they were separated. What surprised me was how differently these tiny people responded to the absence of their primary caregiver. Some babies would become distressed instantly. Others showed very little response at all. Even more interesting was watching how the babies would soothe (or not soothe) themselves in their parent’s absence and their responsiveness to the parent upon their return. This research experience early in my career got me thinking about how our relationships with our parents have such a profound impact on us- long before we can even understand it.
The term “attachment style” arises from psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied the very phenomenon I described. In a nutshell, they wanted to understand why some children cope differently than others when placed in a situation that requires them to be away from this person. To understand this, they began to examine the concept of attachment- the early emotional bond and sense of connectedness that a child shares with their caregivers. What they found: children respond differently to separation based on this attachment bond. It influences how they perceive separation, how they cope, and often has implications for the relationships they will form throughout their lives.
Beyond parenting implications, understanding attachment styles can help us to better understand how we respond and behave in our romantic relationships. Our attachment style with our primary caregivers can set the tone for: 1) how we perceive emotional or physical separation from our partners, 2) how we respond to conflict, and 3) how we receive emotional and physical intimacy.
There are four main attachment styles we recognize today:
1. Secure attachment- People with this attachment style as children tend to feel more comfortable exploring and separating from their parents, but also feel comfortable seeking them out for comfort when afraid. They also tend to respond warmly when the caregiver returns after a period of separation and is globally indicative of trust, consistency, and dependability. As adults, people with this attachment style tend to feel safe in their relationships, feel comfortable expressing warmth and emotions with their partners, and trust that conflict and separation will resolve without long-term abandonment.
2. Anxious attachment- People with this attachment style as children tend to feel very anxious when separated from their primary caregivers and tend to feel nervous exploring or doing things independently. They also tend to be difficult to soothe or comfort upon a parent’s return. As adults, people with this attachment style can struggle with natural emotional or physical distance in relationships, become hypervigilant to perceived abandonment, and have trouble recovering from a conflict. This type of attachment style can result from having one’s needs met inconsistently and thus, anticipating abandonment.
3. Avoidant attachment- People with this attachment style as children tend to present as indifferent to the presence or absence of their caregiver. As adults, people with this attachment style can seem emotionally distant, independent, and struggle to demonstrate and communicate their emotions. This can result from having one’s physical needs largely met, but a lack of attention to emotions.
4. Disorganized attachment- People with this attachment style as children tend to have unpredictable responses to their caregiver’s absence or presence. At times, they may become very distressed, and others seem to be indifferent. This trend carries on into adulthood, resulting in a desire for emotional closeness but being inconsistent in their response when it is present and often rejecting it.
As you can imagine, these attachment styles can complicate romantic relationships. When both partners show up to a relationship with different attachment styles, it can become difficult to express and receive emotional closeness, resolve a conflict, and cope with separation. Understanding our attachment styles can help us better respond to our partner’s needs and communicate with them more effectively. Healthy relationships can serve to be attachment healing, and we can learn to move toward security and safety.
If different attachment styles are causing conflict in your relationships, consider reaching out for couples counseling. Additionally, if you demonstrate an attachment style that makes relationships difficult for you and you want to learn more about how to manage this, a therapist can be very beneficial.
If you are interested in booking an appointment with me, please contact me.
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Ali Devine, MS, LPC
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